Road Rage

A Look at Sarasota's Growing Traffic Problem

Brookings Institution fellow and Sarasota native Adie Tomer on what's driving our current traffic crisis.

By Adie Tomer May 1, 2015 Published in the May 2015 issue of Sarasota Magazine

I grew up in Sarasota in the ’80s and ’90s, and traffic was never much of an issue. Sure, you noticed the tourists and snowbirds during the winter, and holidays at the beach often meant longer lines at the drawbridges. Still, our friends from the North assured us that when it came to traffic, we in Sarasota had nothing to complain about. 

But this season, all the way up here in Washington, D.C., I kept hearing outcries about a whole new level of congestion. Bumper-to-bumper cars crawling along U.S. 41 all the way from downtown to Osprey; the new Ringling Causeway already over capacity, with a trip from the mainland to St. Armands sometimes taking 45 minutes; and standstill traffic often surrounding the new Mall at University Town Center. And more traffic seems to be on the way, with big new condominiums rising downtown, more retiring baby boomers arriving, and one record-setting tourist season after another.

People come to Sarasota for the relaxed lifestyle and slower pace, as well as the beauty and beaches. They don’t expect to find miles of gridlock, with all the tension and inconvenience that brings. Some people are already asking whether our traffic woes will drive visitors and new residents away. There’s talk of building more roundabouts, synchronizing stoplights and even convening a summit to solve our traffic problem.

Good luck with that. The traffic we are seeing today is the inevitable result of long-ago decisions Sarasota made about how it would develop. We decided to build around the car, so traffic is what we got. Since the 1950s, when Sarasota began to experience rapid population growth, we preferred to build out instead of building up. We also made driving the easy choice, providing ample parking and building fast-moving streets. This is the same choice every town in the Sunbelt made, and many of them are now experiencing the same problems we are. Permanent congestion is becoming the new normal. 

Of course, our region didn’t always look like this.

My favorite part of Sarasota has always been those sleepy little streets south of downtown: the lush tree canopy, reasonably sized lots, classic Florida architecture. These neighborhoods were the planning standard of their day. The tight, geometric grid meant distances between housing, jobs, and shopping were reachable by foot or bike. That design continued to work when the automobile became most people’s preferred mode. Simply put, trips were shorter, and trips were easier.

Yet those neighborhoods could never fit all the people converging on the region. The county’s population exploded between World War II and today, growing by over 1,200 percent and far outpacing the national average. From 1950 to 1980 alone, the population ballooned from 29,000 to 202,000 people. That kind of rapid growth put tremendous pressure on county planners, real estate developers, and other leaders to design a place that could house all those people while maintaining access to the key attractions—the livability—that would make them stay. 

When it came to designing for all that growth, Sarasota made the same choice almost all other fast-growing U.S. communities did: It decided to grow outward. Instead of continuing the well-connected designs with smaller lots and tighter street grids near downtown, we got subdivisions like Gulf Gate and Southgate. But those were only an early taste of suburbia. Newer developments within Palmer Ranch and along University Parkway meant gated communities, curved streets, grand golf courses and oversized lots. 

Mixing commercial and residential development was effectively outlawed, leading to miles of strip malls and huge parking lots walled-off from their residential neighbors.

Moving all those people required new kinds of roads, ones that could move vehicles over longer distances at faster speeds. Two-lane state roads that once led straight out of town—Fruitville, Clark—became major thoroughfares of three lanes in each direction. New roads cut through former orange groves and open land, promising high speeds outside new developments but slow speeds within them. Even the city got in on the game, relocating City Hall from a picturesque bayfront location to make way for a widened U.S. 41. And all those road widenings, whether of Bahia Vista or Cattlemen, incentivized people to move farther and farther out, keeping our low-density cycle in full motion.

That takes us to the Sarasota we know today. It’s still a great place to live and visit, with beautiful beaches, amazing culture and schools that lead the state. But in the pursuit of building the American Dream, what we really did is create a lack of choice.

First, it’s incredibly difficult to get anywhere without a car. Census data verifies this obvious truth: Excluding people who work from home, over 96 percent of county residents drive to their jobs. Of course, there are exceptions—if you’re lucky enough to live and work near downtown you can easily walk or bike—but they’re just that: exceptions. Even worse, all that road building simply made people want to drive more. It means people are both stuck driving and stuck in traffic.

Second, it’s impossible for bus transit—or biking—to succeed. Sarasota’s sprawl forces SCAT to cover a huge service area, resulting in buses that run too infrequently to attract many passengers and long walks to and from many bus stops. If you ever wonder why more people take transit in big cities like Chicago or smaller ones like Madison, Wis., it’s because those places have the density to support it. And we can stripe our roads with more bike lanes, but that won’t make distances shorter or make bike riders feel safer traveling next to speeding cars.

In addition, all that low-density development costs the public money. Wider streets mean higher long-term maintenance bills, and sprawling development requires more utility infrastructure and higher policing and fire costs. And that’s just the short term. Research consistently finds that sprawl will limit our ability to address environmental sustainability, generating greater social costs in the long run.

Finally, those development patterns also limit economic opportunity. Lower-income individuals either take on the added cost of car ownership or lose time taking transit or biking. Exacerbating these commuting hardships is the region’s well-reported shortage of affordable housing, in large part a result of exclusionary zoning patterns, such as minimum lot size requirements, and a shortage of smaller rental properties. Sarasota has an above-average number of jobs in low-skill services, many of them to help accommodate tourists and snowbirds. It’s a shame we’ve built a region that barely supports such work.

This all leads to the obvious question: What can Sarasota do now? If you’re hoping for a cheap, obvious fix—well, it’s just not that simple. 

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First, recognize that traffic is here to stay. I love the old Sarasota of sweet-smelling orange groves and beach views directly from Ocean Boulevard, but that town isn’t coming back. Sarasota has simply grown too big, and all that traffic is really a symbol of a larger, healthier economy. Indeed, some experts consider congestion not only a sign of prosperity but the essential trade-off Americans have made to pursue their suburban lifestyle. In a recent article, The Atlantic quotes Anthony Downs, author of the book Stuck in Traffic: “Peak-hour congestion is the balancing mechanism that makes it possible for Americans to pursue goals they value, such as working while others do, living in low-density settlements, and having many choices of places to live and work.”

If we’re not willing to accept current congestion, we need to recognize that the same old solutions aren’t going to fix it. The city and county have already widened enough roads, and we all know that didn’t solve the problem. Indeed, as The Atlantic reports in that article about traffic, widening roads leads to increased demand—people who might have avoided the route before begin to travel on the improved road. Small-scale solutions like retiming stoplights and new turn lanes can help, but only on the margins. Shaving 20 seconds off the average 22-minute commute just isn’t that big a deal. 

The only real solution is drastic: full-scale redevelopment of what we’ve already built. We’d need to retrofit suburbia, adding density and affordable housing where there are currently single-family homes and reorienting streets to accommodate faster buses and protected bike lanes. It may sound overwhelming—and it is serious work—but it’s a commitment that some communities, like Tysons Corner outside of Washington, D.C., and Lakewood outside Denver, have made. Having built out all their land and facing endless traffic, they finally realized the only solution was to give people transportation options.

But rethinking the way we develop would require a communitywide consensus, with buy-in from officials, developers and citizens—something that it’s hard to imagine happening in contentious Sarasota.

Still, I hope Sarasota finds the courage to do something different. Because if there’s one thing I learned growing up in Sarasota, it wasn’t that I hated being stuck in traffic—it’s that I wanted a community where I didn’t always have to drive to get where I wanted to go. So far our beautiful city hasn’t changed its tune, but maybe our new traffic jam is the wake-up call we need.

Adie Tomer is an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is a graduate of Pine View School and the University of Florida.

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