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Embracing Congestion

In a few posts recently I have hinted at the need for us to fundamentally re-evaluate the way we approach transport policy and planning. Just quickly I will briefly summarise a few posts I have made previously on the issue:

I still don’t think I’m quite there in fully developing my thinking in terms of how this all fits together, but I do think there are some fundamentally interesting issues here to look at, and also some fundamental challenges to our approach to transport policy that might be necessary.

To make something of a rather broad statement, I think that the easier and faster it is to go through a particular part of our city, the less attractive it will be ‘in’ that space. A motorway is the classic example of this, but it’s seen pretty much everywhere: the wider and faster a road is to travel along, then the less likely you’d want to be walking along it or sitting outside a shop having a coffee. Similarly, the more we slow vehicles down the more we humanise the space and make it a nice place to be. Vulcan Lane in Auckland’s CBD might be our opposite end of the spectrum to a motorway: where we have no vehicles at all passing through the space and therefore it’s an exceptionally nice place to be in.

Obviously we can’t turn the entire city in Vulcan Lane, so we have to find some sort of balance between making it easy enough to get around our city while at the same time ensuring that we don’t kill the city in that process. In my opinion Auckland has focused too much in the past on the “making it easier to get around” and too little on the “what effect does that have on the city”.

This is where public transport comes in, because it can be the “win-win” that we’re looking for. Public transport can shift a vast amount of people within a small physical area, in other words it can both shift people around and ensure the city itself remains a nice place to be. Train stations become hubs of activity, creating vibrant places, whereas motorway interchanges are the antithesis of this. Furthermore, public transport has the nice outcome where the more people who use it, the better the service gets (as higher frequencies become more viable).

However, public transport will not “fix congestion”, but neither should it. Congestion actually does a lot of good in my opinion: it is a very progressive pricing scheme to discourage people from driving at peak times on busy roads, in the shorter term it encourages people to try a different route or drive at a different time, in the medium-term it may convince them to take the bus, train, cycle or walk (if that alternative manages to avoid congestion through priority measures or a separate right-of-way) and the the longer term people shift closer to their jobs (or find jobs closer to their houses) in order to avoid congestion: both of which have good effects in terms of simply reducing travel – and therefore all the adverse effects of focusing too much on the “through” (and all the CO2 emissions etc.)

Road pricing may be effective at reducing congestion, but if its net effect is to simply make it easier once again to drive lots (for those who can afford it) then what have we really achieved? I think that we need to start viewing congestion differently, not as the “something to avoid at all costs” that we have done so for the past few decades, but rather as a very very effective tool in discouraging the excessive car dominated travel that I think is currently destroying Auckland. Of course people still need to get around the city, and that is why we need to provide better alternatives: better public transport (particularly public transport that operates in its own right-of-way or with priority) and better environments to walk and cycle in.

In short, I think we need to embrace car congestion as a good thing. Revolutionary thinking I know.

2 comments to Embracing Congestion

  • Vincent

    Hi Josh I think you’re right about congestion but that this is an argument with an order of sophistication that will muddy your advocacy for proper investment in PT. Belief in the evils of congestion is probably our best and only way through the orthodoxy of roads, roads, and more roads. Tactically, driver frustration is our best friend. Still, loving the posts, great to be getting the benefit of your reading list.

  • Vincent, yes I agree that this argument works counter to some of my other arguments, and public transport’s (possible) long-lasting congestion relief benefits seem to make up the bulk of the benefits accorded to new PT projects in NZTA’s economic evaluation manual (which is a good justification for roads funding rail). I guess the point is that there are no simple answers here, and that we probably need to have a really good think about questions like “what is our ultimate transport goal?” and “what are the real benefits of this particular project?”

    I guess I just quite like pushing somewhat controversial and counter-intuitive ideas like “congestion is good”. Hopefully it will prompt an interesting debate.

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