It almost goes without saying that congestion is a terrible thing, so bad that it justifies the spending of massive amounts of public money as well as the impact on our cities from widening and building new transport infrastructure to rid ourselves – or at least reduce the level of – this terrible thing that is congestion. So you would expect cities with lots of congestion to be horrible places that are struggling to attract population and have a poor quality of life – while you might expect cities with less congestion to be great places that are attracting heaps of people and have a great quality of life. Right?
Well the reality appears to be quite different, as touched upon in this recent Planetizen article – which compares cities in the USA with some of the highest levels of congestion with those that have some of the lowest. Let’s start with the more congested cities.
Wendell Cox just wrote an essay trying to correlate density and congestion, asserting that density means congestion and congestion is really, really bad (or in his words, “less traffic congestion benefits a metropolitan area’s competitiveness.”)
So logically, the high-congestion cities should be declining, and the low-congestion places should be attracting Americans at a rapid rate. Right? Wrong.
In fact, the lowest-congestion cities tend to be a very mixed bag, while the high-congestion cities are doing relatively well. Cox lists ten high-congestion regions: Los Angeles, Houston, Austin, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, San Jose, Washington, Boston, and Portland. In all ten, the central city of the relevant region gained population between 2000 and 2010. These cities tend to be larger, relatively wealthy, high-cost cities, cities where keeping housing affordable is a bigger problem than demolition of worthless vacant lots.
And in all but two of these ten regions (all excepting Boston and Washington) the central city is more populous than in 1970. In these regions, there’s enough growth for city and suburb alike. Although some of these regions experienced regional population growth of 0-10 percent, not one of them shrunk, and two (Houston and Austin) grew by over 20 percent.
Reeling off cities like Houston, New York, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco and others hardly appears to be a list of US cities which are doing particularly badly at the moment. Even though they are apparently the most congested cities. Now let’s look at the least congested cities:
By contrast, Cox lists ten low-congestion regions: Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Richmond, Kansas City, Memphis, Buffalo, Rochester, and Cleveland. A few of these (most notably Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City) are doing reasonably well. But five of the central cities in Cox’s “hero metros” lost population in the 2000s (Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Memphis) and two more gained population in the 2000s but are still less populous than in 1970 (Richmond and Kansas City). In fact, Buffalo and Cleveland even managed to lose population regionwide, and not one of Cox’s high performers grew by more than 16.7% (metro Salt Lake City’s growth rate).
In addition, these low-congestion cities tend to be far more dangerous than high-congestion cities. Their average murder rate in 2012 was 19.5 per 100,000 residents, while the high-congestion cities’ murder rate was only 7 per 100,000—not surprising given the decline discussed above. Only one of the low congestion cities (Salt Lake City) had a murder rate as low as the average for the ten high-congestion cities.
Residents of Cox’s ten low-congestion cities have more reason to worry about dangerous drivers as well as dangerous criminals. I was able to find data for auto-related fatalities for sixteen of the twenty cities in Cox’s two “top ten” lists; the high-congestion cities averaged 4.7 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents in 2011, while the low-congestion cities averaged 9.8. To put the matter another way, the most dangerous of the high-congestion cities (Houston) had 9.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, while five of nine low-congestion cities had more traffic deaths per capita than Houston. The second most dangerous high-congestion city (Austin, clocking in at 6.4 deaths per 100,000) had a lower fatality rate than all but one of the low-congestion cities. The least dangerous of the low-congestion cities, Rochester, New York had a higher traffic death rate than five of the seven high-congestion cities.
St Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland etc. at first glance appear to be some of the US cities that have most struggled over the past few decades – losing a heap of population as US manufacturing moved off-shore. The very low congestion levels enjoyed by these places doesn’t seem to have any effect on their relative attractiveness – and seems to be linked with higher murder rates and much greater risk of traffic related deaths.
Michael Lewyn, the article’s author, suggests a possible reason for the connection between low congestion cities and these fairly poor statistics:
Or it could be that policies designed to limit congestion (like widening roads to support high speeds, chopping up downtowns with highways and turning them into giant parking craters) have actually had some positive effect for congestion, but at a heavy cost.
Given that generally we know congested cities are more economically productive, is it time we stopped stressing about this issue so much and focused on things that really matter like levels of accessibility and the extent to which people are able to get around unaffected by the particular road conditions of the moment. Of course that’s a key driver behind the the Congestion Free Network.