Some things I learned from asking people where they were going on Lamar

by Marshall Escamilla

So, a while ago I was sitting in really bad traffic on South Lamar, and I started to get curious. “All these people,” I wondered, “where are they going? And where are they coming from?” So I made a survey that asked exactly that.

To be specific, here are the questions I asked:

  • Did you drive on Lamar from 3 – 7 pm today?
  • Where were you going?
  • Where were you coming from?
  • How long did it take?
  • Did it suck?

Before I talk about my results, I need to make a note: this is totally unscientific. Like, really, really unscientific. The conclusions I might come to from this data are more provocative than conclusive–so you should add the words “but this is probably bullshit” to every sentence you read below. Be forewarned.

All that being said, here are a few things I’ve learned:

1. People are generally going pretty far.

When I made this survey, part of me was hoping to find that there are lots of people driving on Lamar who are only going a few miles, and could easily replace their trip by biking, walking, or some simple combination of the two. Maybe if there were better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, we could really reduce congestion!

Turns out, nope. The mean and median trips were both at around 7 miles–which is way out of walking distance and outside of bike range for most casual cyclists. If you set walking distance at 1 mile and biking distance 4 miles, there was only one respondent who could have walked, and only 10 who could have biked. Out of a total of 35. And that’s even if you don’t consider physical fitness, disabilities, hills, etc.

To extrapolate that number out, this survey implies that better pedestrian infrastructure would only remove about 1,000 cars from Lamar out of the total 35,000 that travel on it every day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing–but at least according to this survey, walking isn’t really an alternative to driving on Lamar.

Having said that, remember, this could all be bullshit.

2. The further you go, the more it seems to suck.

One mistake I made in phrasing the survey had to do with the answer choices to the “Does it suck?” question. I should have done a Likert scale or something, so I could get an objective sense of how much people hated having to drive on Lamar to get to where they were going. Instead, I went for the humor factor and just gave the options “Yes,” “No,” and “Yes, there was traffic.” Oops.

Since that’s what I did, I don’t really have a way to gauge whether people who said “There was traffic” thought Lamar sucked more or less than those who just said “Yes.”

However, there was this one thing.

People who said their trip on Lamar didn’t suck were going the shortest average distance, at 4.78 miles. People who said there was traffic went the second shortest, at 6.85 miles. People who simply said “Yes, Lamar sucks” went the furthest at 7.08 miles. As long as I’m drawing specious conclusions from an unscientific survey, I may as well just say that this means that people in that third group hated Lamar the most. People in the second group had a good reason for why things sucked–there was traffic–so I’ll take that to mean that they’re feeling a little less hopeless.

Urbanists in Austin and elsewhere have been making the case for years that letting people live closer to where they work and vice versa makes for a better society. This survey would seem to lend some credence to that idea. Of course, this is probably meaningless bullshit.

3. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to connectivity. Oh, and also transit.

In order to have a few other numbers to play with, I created two other metrics for each respondent that weren’t included in the survey. The first I called connectivity score, which was based wholly on my subjective measure of how well the street grid connected around either the respondent’s destination or point of origin. This score really didn’t have anything to say about whether the two points were well connected to each other–because that would have been far too much work for me to figure out. Instead I just eyeballed the map and gave each location a score ranging from 1 (few connections) to 4 (lots of connections). Since most of Austin’s connectivity is so poor, I generally erred on the side of generosity with this score–naming Barton Springs at Lamar as “2” even though in many other cities it would be considered a “1”. I then took a mean of each respondent’s two scores.

The second metric I called the “transit multiplier.” I calculated this by looking up the time it would have taken each respondent to take the bus (according to Google), and dividing that time by the midpoint of Google’s traffic estimate for driving during rush hour (those numbers are reported as a range). The result is the ratio of the amount of time it would take to bus from one point to the other vs. drive.

What I learned from these is two things I already knew. First, Austin’s streets don’t connect to one another very well. Generally speaking, people are going from places with decent connectivity (i.e., downtown) to places with poor connectivity (basically anywhere else). This leaves them few options when it comes to choosing routes home. There is at least a chance that connecting more streets in neighborhoods could improve traffic on Lamar.

The second thing I learned that I already knew is that taking the bus is a lot slower than driving. The average transit multiplier was 1.91, meaning that it generally takes people about twice as long to ride the bus as it would to drive. That’s a big difference, especially when you consider that this accounts for driving in peak traffic, and that some people are already spending a decent amount of time in their cars.

The only respondents who seemed at all well served by the bus happened to be traveling along the 1 route. Pretty much everyone else was screwed–and they got more screwed the further they traveled. These conclusions, being based on observations of destinations on Google Maps, are probably somewhat less specious than everything else. But, still, it’s probably bullshit.

4. People generally don’t have any idea how long they spent in the car. One of the questions I asked people was how long their trip took. Their estimates were wildly inaccurate, with most people estimating way too low. One respondent said it only took them 5 minutes to get from the Whole Foods downtown to the Target on Cameron Road. Uh. No. It took a lot longer than that.

I suppose that’s good news, though. It may take 20 minutes, but it only feels like 5! That’s at least something positive. What this meant is that I basically ignored people’s responses to this question.

5. What to do about it
While I didn’t necessarily learn anything shocking from this exercise, I can say that I was a little surprised at how important the distances between destinations seemed to be. If we want to do something about the traffic on Lamar, it seems, the best possible thing would be to try to allow central Austin to become denser.

Most of the traffic seems to be coming from people who are traveling long distances, between places that were poorly served by transit and not well-connected to the rest of the street grid. All of these are contributing factors to the enormous volume of cars clogging up that one road. Putting people’s houses closer to the places they want to get to–whether it’s work, or a strip club, or whatever–seems to be the only real way to combat traffic congestion.

The advantage to this approach is it’s basically free. Allowing increased density in close-in neighborhoods would be cheap when compared to the infrastructure-based traffic fixes people in Austin discuss on a daily basis. In terms of traffic solutions, simply building houses closer to downtown would probably be the simplest and most effective approach.

But then again, like everything else, this conclusion is probably bullshit.