Traffic congestion is an issue much bemoaned but little understood. And because traffic congestion is so misunderstood, the most common “solution” proposed for it—road expansion—ends up not being a solution at all.
1. Congestion isn’t a problem.
At least, not in the way you think.
Picture the most economically prosperous, thriving cities: New York, Chicago, London, Paris. These are also some of the most congested cities on earth. So congestion does not drain local economies. Quite the opposite. These places are congested because they are full of people, businesses, visitors, and economic activity.
Yes, congestion is a “problem” if you’re leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. in your personal vehicle hoping to make it to your home 10 miles away on the edge of town in 15 minutes or less. But congestion is not the cause of your delay, or your lost income and productivity.
Congestion is a phenomenon we’ve created as a result of our hierarchical road network. When you create a road system where small neighborhood streets feed into large arterial roads, which feed into major highways, you shouldn’t be surprised if the result is a large amount of cars all crowding those arterials and highways during peak hours. We've created this situation by the very design of our road networks, and only a fundamental rethinking of the way we build and move around our cities can change it.
2. Road expansion isn’t a solution.
So we’ve created the problem of congestion. But we can build our way out, right? Nope. As Lewis Mumford said, "Curing congestion by adding more lanes is like curing obesity by buying bigger pants.”
Because of a concept called “induced demand” most highway expansion projects are basically the equivalent of flushing public dollars down the toilet. When you expand a road, you simply encourage more people to drive, thus filling up the newly added lanes. This phenomenon has been studied and documented in towns and cities around the country.
The real solution to the manufactured “problem” of congestion is to build complete neighborhoods where the necessities of daily life are located close together and we don’t have to drive 10 miles to get to work and five miles to get to the grocery store and seven miles to pick up our kids at school. If that sounds tough or even impossible, fear not; our ancestors have been developing compact neighborhoods in this manner for centuries.
As Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn wrote in his essay, “Dealing with Congestion”:
Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.
So next time you start getting frustrated in a traffic jam at 8 a.m., remember: We've created this situation by the way we've designed our roads and our communities. Expanding highways won't solve the problem, but building complete communities and strong towns will.