A really thought-provoking article in the Atlantic Cities looks at whether we need to fundamentally change our approach to congestion:
With a few notable exceptions, transportation planning practice in the United States is focused on managing or eliminating traffic congestion. Regardless of whether planners are advocating for highway infrastructure to improve level-of-service, or transit projects intended to “get cars off the road,” the underlying assumption is that congestion relief is an unmitigated good.
Such arguments are often based on the idea that traffic congestion and vehicle delay are bad for the economy. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, vehicle delay costs Americans $115 billion in wasted fuel and time each year. The common interpretation of such statistics is that our cities and regions would be so much more economically productive if only we could eliminate the congestion that occurs on urban streets.
But this begs the question: is traffic congestion really a drag on the economy? Economies are measured not in terms of vehicle delay or the amount of travel that people do, but in terms of the dollar value of the goods and services that they produce. If it is true that congestion is detrimental to a region’s economy, then one would expect that people living in areas with low levels of traffic congestion would be more economically productive, on a per capita basis, than those in areas with high levels of congestion.
It certainly seems that when it comes to transport planning, congestion is the ultimate evil that we will do just about everything to rid ourselves from. Auckland’s history, building such city-destroying pieces of infrastructure like spaghetti junction, Mayoral Drive, Grafton Gully and Hobson/Nelson streets, were all done in the name of getting rid of congestion. We also spend billions and billions of dollars of public money each year on transport – once again mainly in the name of ridding ourselves of congestion.
It had better be worth it right? Congestion must really be terrible for our society, our economy and our environment if we are willing to go to such extreme lengths to rid ourselves of it.
The researchers who wrote the Atlantic Cities article tested whether higher levels of congestion had some relationship with the economic success of a place. Presumably, if congestion is so utterly terrible for the economy (as is so often claimed, especially by road building companies interestingly enough) then cities with higher levels of congestion should also have worse economies. Except it seems the opposite is true:
With the help of my research assistant Wenhao Li, I sought to determine whether vehicle delay had a negative effect on urban economies. I combined TTI’s data on traffic delay per capita with estimates of regional GDP per capita, acquired from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. I used 2010 data for both variables, converted them to their natural logs, and modeled them using regression analysis.
And what did I find? As per capita delay went up, so did GDP per capita. Every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. For those interested in statistics, the relationship was significant at the 0.000 level, and the model had an R2 of 0.375. In layman’s terms, this was statistically-meaningful relationship.Such a finding seems counterintuitive on its surface. How could being stuck in traffic lead people to be more productive? The relationship is almost certainly not causal. Instead, regional GDP and traffic congestion are tied to a common moderating variable – the presence of a vibrant, economically-productive city. And as city economies grow, so too does the demand for travel. People travel for work and meetings, for shopping and recreation. They produce and demand goods and services, which further increases travel demand. And when the streets become congested and driving inconvenient, people move to more accessible areas, rebuild at higher densities, travel shorter distances, and shift travel modes.
This is a really interesting finding. It suggests that congestion may not necessarily be something we need to worry about terribly as being an inhibitor of economic growth. In fact, some of the responses to congestion – moving to more accessible areas, building at higher densities, using public transport more – may actually boost economic growth through reducing the amount we need to spend on cars (money that generally flies out of the country to the Middle East) and also boosting things like agglomeration benefits: productivity gains when we cluster activity together.
Of course in some areas, congestion will have a dampening effect on economic growth. This is mainly in terms of adding time it takes to shift stuff around the city. But the answer to that issue may well not be in building more roads, or even undertaking any measures to actually reduce overall congestion. It’s to give freight a congestion-free alternative:
It is nevertheless true that goods movement is growing in the United States, making it a transportation issue that cannot be dismissed lightly. Should a region discover that it needs additional capacity for freight traffic, plenty of capacity can be found by converting a “free” highway lane into a truck-only toll lane, which not only allocates highway capacity for goods movement, but which also generates the revenues needed to pay for the highway’s maintenance. Given that highway infrastructure in the United States is aging and in growing need of repair, and that the ongoing decline of federal gas tax revenues has made it difficult for many state and local governments to fund basic highway maintenance, such solutions are likely to look increasingly attractive in the future.
From a freight perspective, who cares how congested the roads are if you’re able to avoid that congestion. The same is true for developing a top-class public transport system – congestion no longer become relevant if more and more people can simply avoid it by catching the train or catching a bus along a bus lane or busway.
I think it’s time we got over our obsession with reducing congestion. It seems pretty clear that higher levels of congestion don’t dampen economic growth. We’ve just always based our transport policy around reducing congestion because it’s annoying – but if we develop better alternatives: tolled freight lanes for trucks, better railways, busway and bus lanes for people, then congestion doesn’t really matter anymore. As a bonus there’s probably a good chance that would all be much cheaper, and certainly less destructive, than our obsession with getting rid of congestion. So we can spend our money on more important things like health, education or even return some of it to the people. And we can save our cities from further destruction.
It’s a whole new way of thinking though…. are we ready for it?