The Truth About Traffic

Whenever there’s a new development proposal pending before a local governing board, the center of the conversation always seems to gravitate toward traffic. Given this tendency, I think it’s important we understand historic traffic changes in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation maintains historic traffic counts for urban areas around the state, including Chapel Hill. These traffic counts date back to 1997, with the most recent data being from 2013. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the average annual daily traffic in some major areas around town:






Change, 2013 vs. 1997

W Franklin St (just west of Columbia St)





E Franklin St (just east of Boundary St)





MLK Blvd (at Town Hall)





Downtown Carrboro (E Main St)





Estes Dr (just before MLK intersection)





15-501, near the Sheraton





As you can see from my random sampling, the roads near our downtown core have actually seen a decrease in average annual daily traffic since 1997, and increases at Estes Dr and 15-501 haven’t been nearly as large as the decreases in the downtown areas.
I specifically wanted to highlight this decrease around downtown because of another piece of data that the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization has included in its draft Mobility Report Card. Specifically, the following table:

As you can see from this table, on Columbia St between Franklin St and Smith Level Rd, 29% of people are traveling by bus, and in downtown Carrboro, 19% are on foot and 7% are bicycling while another 6% are traveling by bus. These figures show that part of why traffic has decreased is that people are choosing other modes of travel - and that has actually made downtown Chapel Hill/Carrboro a more attractive, popular place.

Undeniably, Chapel Hill Transit going fare-free has had an effect on increasing the use of other modes of transit. Making travel easier without using a car has clearly enabled people to make different choices, which they’ve done. Looking forward, we should prioritize improving our transit system and enhancing bike and pedestrian infrastructure rather than focus so narrowly on traffic mitigation.

Giving people more options, as these data show, has led to people to choose those options over automobile travel. The lesson here is clear: Let’s give people more car-less travel options and worry less about what new development will mean for traffic.

Note: At the suggestion of a reader, this post has been updated to include 2004 numbers to reflect changes immediately following when Chapel Hill Transit went fare-free in 2002. Interestingly, of this random sampling, traffic was, on the whole, worse in 2004 than in either 1997 or 2013.



One of the biggest problems with all of this available data is the correlations labled as "truth" people throw out there to support particular political views.  I dispute the stated notion that we "understand" the traffic data..There are any number of possible reasons.for this trend,including the 2008 "great recssion",


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