move_louisville_logoOn April 14, Mayor Greg Fischer unveiled “Move Louisville,” which is Louisville Metro Government’s transportation plan for the next two decades. In its opening pages (alongside the photo of a smiling, bike-riding Fischer), the plan states its primary goal: reducing “vehicle miles traveled.” In other words, Louisville’s goal over the next 20 years is to get us to drive less.

This is a great goal. After all, Louisvillians drive a lot, and usually by themselves. Cars take up a lot of space (both while moving and while parked), are dangerous, are expensive, and are dirty. Honestly, one lonely person traveling everywhere in a car is pretty much the worst method of human transportation possible.

The significant downsides of the car can be mitigated somewhat by increasing their occupancy so that more people are riding in them and fewer cars are on the road. Unfortunately, Louisville drivers don’t seem particularly interested in sharing their rides with anyone, let alone use some other form of transportation to get where they need to go (cheap gas and relatively short commuting times are big causes of this).   

Move Louisville says it wants to fix that by increasing transportation funding and incentivizing alternative methods of getting around. Some of the alternatives it proposes are dedicated bus-only lanes as well as an expansion of the bike lane system that began taking shape during Fischer’s first term as mayor.

Buses have always been a good idea in theory — buses require far less space than cars to move a large number of people — but they’re still street-bound and thus beholden to the delays and obstacles that create traffic gridlock. One crashed car can totally disrupt a bus route for hours, stranding riders on board and at subsequent stops. Bus-only lanes aim to fix this problem, but they’re still part of the street and are thus still subject to blockages caused by drivers.

Seventh Street bike lanes

Bike lanes like the ones shown here on Seventh Street are important — but they aren’t enough.

Bike lanes are also a great idea in general, are cheap, and take relatively little space from cars, but their year-round potential for mass use is hampered by a major obstacle: the weather. Bike ridership plummets in our region’s gross, rainy winters, and commuting to work by bike seems less appealing when the summer humidity requires you to shower and change your clothes multiple times a day. Only dedicated enthusiasts ride in such conditions.

If you truly want to decrease car reliance through alternative means of transit, you have to give commuters an option that provides shelter from the elements but also moves them around on a predictable schedule independent from other traffic. That option is rail.

But Move Louisville includes no plan for any kind of rail-based transit, which Mayor Fischer dismissed as unrealistic because of our city’s overall low population density.

Granted, he’s right. Much of Jefferson County has very low density, mostly because our planning policies for the past 60 years have financially incentivized sprawl or outright required it as a matter of zoning law. But just because rail transit may not make sense for every square mile of Louisville Metro, it certainly makes sense along certain routes.

For example, Move Louisville includes a map showing population density downtown as high as 10,515 people per square mile, and as high as half that along major routes like Dixie Highway, Third Street, Bardstown Road and Shelbyville Road. A rail system following these existing transit spokes combined with a connecting route along the Watterson Expressway could prove quite viable.

But viability exists in the eye of the beholder. There are many ways to define “success” when it comes to mass transit. Some definitions, such as cost-effectiveness, essentially make success impossible, because only the rare transportation system reliably generates enough revenue to be totally self-sustaining.

Consider, for example, roads. Move Louisville proposes a local, street-based transportation budget of nearly $70 million per year. Under our current methods of financing, very little (if any) of that money will be generated from the roads themselves. Move Louisville only vaguely and briefly entertains the ideas of tolls or parking fees as transportation revenue streams.

By comparison, Charlotte’s LYNX light rail system costs just $10 million annually, with a significant amount of that offset by user fares. Bigger systems cost more, of course, and initial construction is not cheap, but all the streets in Louisville cost money to build, too, and rely for their maintenance almost entirely on funding generated from other sources.

rain trafficWe never expect roads to be financially self-sustaining but for some reason demand it of other forms of transit like light rail. And we also tend to view the viability of rail-based transit in a way that is divorced from the larger policies that can make it or break it. A train system competing against zoning laws and financial incentives designed to promote auto-based sprawl will understandably struggle.

As it turns out, density-oriented planning incentives and laws may reduce auto-dependence without the need for a light rail system at all. That’s because the rules that determine how cities grow largely determine how people subsequently move around.

When transit planning embraced cars over trains in the 1940s and 1950s, city planning rules embraced them as well. Zoning laws were re-written to require large parking lots and road setbacks. Mixed-use buildings were often banned outright. Restrictions on exurban sprawl were eliminated. Cities grew out rather than up.

Unfortunately, Move Louisville continues to embrace these outwardly expansive policies and thus reduces its chances for success. For example, the plan calls for an expansion of suburban roads, including Urton Lane between Middletown and Taylorsville Road, creating a new corridor for sprawl development at the expense of trees and air quality. This plan could effectively create another busy suburban artery like Westport Road or Highway 42 near the Gene Snyder; much of the East End now resembles the worst excesses of car-strangled cities like Atlanta.

Make no mistake, Move Louisville has definite strengths. It is good to see the city embrace “complete streets” that allow for more than just cars. Pedestrians, cyclists and buses all deserve space in our streetscape, and making room for them makes our city safer.

But when the ostensible goal is to get people out of cars, it’s a shame that this otherwise worthwhile plan includes a very narrow strategy for doing so. Other critics, such as the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation and Broken Sidewalk’s Branden Klayko, have made similar observations.

Our town is not one for big imaginations. I fear that in 2035, Louisville’s smog-choked, crowded, and unsafe streets will look much like they do today. Then will we finally decide it’s time to catch up to other cities that have already left us far behind?