‘You get the kind of mobility you invest in’

Sandpoint must get more creative with traffic, parking plans

By Molly O’Reilly
Reader Contributor

The Idaho Transportation Department must be delighted that they finally have a Sandpoint administration, appointed and elected, willing to sacrifice community and residents for high-speed through traffic. Few communities have had the knowledge and determination to keep from becoming a throughway in the face of “traffic projections.” Sandpoint used to be one of those and we have a lovely town today as a result. Look at Coeur d’Alene to see what happens when you go the other way; highways that divide and conquer. We too have north/south and east/west highways inside our borders and thus a potentially similar high-speed, multi-lane future.

Since the 1950s, it was assumed in the U.S. that we could outbuild congestion and everyone could drive wherever they wanted to go. We’ve sacrificed streets and neighborhoods to that goal, fouled our air and endangered those walking, cycling and riding motorcycles. From a few blocks away, people can’t safely walk to restaurants, drug stores or other shopping and services. Driving is the only way to get there, and that means more lanes and more parking. And asphalt — asphalt that doesn’t pay property taxes. Asphalt that weakens the fabric of a small city.

Recent expert thinking at the national level, based on research, is encouraging states and cities to think in less auto-centric ways. Unfortunately, that thinking is scarce in Idaho. When Sandpoint refused the Idaho Transportation Department’s demand for “the curve,” now “the couplet,” we got the Fifth Avenue compromise between Boyer Avenue and Cedar Street. Our city leaders were appalled at the speed and danger on five-lane Fifth Avenue and refused to add significant capacity.

We are told that changes to Highway 2 in the Spokane area will increase our through traffic. They don’t tell you that it’s only true if capacity is there for that traffic, so vehicle GPS’s say it’s the fastest way to get to destinations. If traffic is significantly slowed in Sandpoint and other Highway 2 towns, it will go elsewhere or move slowly enough to look for future alternatives.

So let’s talk about traffic projections. They are generally higher than the actual traffic and are most accurate for higher volume roads, though still generally low. Those are the roads that have choked out other ways of getting around and forced everyone into their cars. 

How E Bikes will affect future traffic is still unknown. They are cheaper to use than cars, easy in our flat town and are selling briskly. Will we build a highway couplet that turns out to be overbuilt? Today, at most hours of the day, most of the year, our five-lane Fifth Avenue is overbuilt and it has been this wide for at least 15 years. 

Research shows that adding capacity induces more traffic and thus results in congestion with more lanes. Coeur d’Alene is an excellent example of this. Research also shows that reducing capacity causes some traffic to vanish from that area. (I’m not citing research sources because they are at your fingertips with Google. When I say “research,” I know you can verify my statements.) 

Research shows that you get the kind of mobility you invest in. Cities that invest in transit, walking and cycling have much higher proportions of trips taken those ways. Not everyone can travel those ways, but not everyone has to for the system to work smoothly. 

In the past few years, traffic deaths of those walking have skyrocketed in the U.S. and continued falling in Europe. Huh? We’ve built wide, fast roads for “safety” and with traffic reduced due to COVID, the remaining drivers speeded up. Research shows that speed kills in the traffic world. European cities have invested in transit, walking and cycling with narrow roads that slow motorists even when not congested. Fatalities there have fallen. 

Without “the couplet,” downtown will not need additional parking. I’m not a parking expert, but investment in a structure would seem to require paying for parking in it, if only to keep the lights on and trash swept. Unless on-street parking was also charged for, few would choose to pay if they had any hope of free parking. Thus, it’s likely all parking downtown would cost money.  That wasn’t popular before. Are we ready for it now? Especially when “the couplet,” which will reduce parking, will serve outsiders much more than in-town residents?

Despite the City Council vote [News, “A talk in the park(ing lot): City of Sandpoint moving toward big changes to downtown parking infrastructure,” Nov. 22, 2022], we could step back and examine alternatives before taking real action. 

When Sandpoint debated “the curve,” they consulted Gary Toth, engineer and planner now with Alta Planning. He used to work for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Another resource is Chuck Marohn, of Strong Towns. One of their campaigns is to end highway expansion: “We seek to curtail the primary mechanism of local wealth destruction and municipal insolvency: the continued expansion of America’s highways and related auto-based transportation systems.”

The scope of change resulting from “the couplet” and expansive, expensive, paid parking downtown merits spending the time and resources it takes to understand the outcomes and carefully explore alternatives. As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Molly O’Reilly is a member of the Project 7B Steering Committee, board member of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, past board member of America Walks and a former member of the city of Sandpoint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.

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