Seeing traffic and congestion as a sign of success

While some might generally consider traffic and congestion to be negative (see examples here and here), here is an alternative argument: traffic and congestion are one sign of urban success.

Congestion, in the urban context, is often a symptom of success.

If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, they’ve not yet won; thank God. After all, when the congestion warriors have won, the results aren’t often pretty. Detroit, for example, has lots of expressways and widened streets and suffers from very little congestion. Yet no one would hold up Detroit as a model.

After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.” Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume…

This doesn’t mean that cities should strive for congestion, but they should recognize that traffic is often a sign of dynamism. Moving vehicular traffic is obviously a necessary function, but by making it the only goal, cities lose out on the economic potential created by the crowds of people that bring life to a city.

Let me translate this argument into the suburban context in which I have studied. Most suburban communities would love to have thriving businesses within municipal limits. This brings in tax dollars, jobs, and a better image (a good place to do business, a vibrant place, etc.). But, for this to happen, this is going to require more people driving through and into the community. A typical NIMBY response to new development, particularly commercial property, is that it will increase traffic which threatens safety. There may be some truth to this but it is also about an image and whether the location is a residential space or something else. Additionally, many suburbanites assume traffic and congestion are city problems, not suburban problems, and therefore are unhappy when their mobility is more limited. A classic local example is Naperville: I’m not sure too many people in Naperville really desire having large parking garages in the downtown. At the same time, it is good that so many people want to come downtown and spend money. Ultimately, there are ways to limit this auto dependence and congestion in downtowns but you still need to plan for and accommodate the large number of cars.

All this suggests that there may be some contingencies regarding congestion:

1. There is a somewhere between not enough traffic and too much. These standards could be very different in different places. In quieter and smaller communities, I suspect the threshold is much lower. The character of a neighborhood or community is going to impact this decision. Perhaps there are even formulas that can predict this.

2. This is location dependent. Looking at congestion in a downtown area is very different than looking at traffic on collector roads or nearby interstates. Problems arise when transportation needs cross these location boundaries, say, when roads in a downtown are used to get to the other side of the community rather than to visit the vibrant downtown. The solutions for each location may be very different, and one size fits all policies may not be very effective.

Overall, it is unlikely that single suburbs or even small groups of suburbs can eliminate congestion and traffic on their own. It is not about getting rid of cars but rather successfully adapting spaces so that the cars are not overwhelming. We can think about ways to reduce congestion or ameliorate its occurrence in particular contexts, even recognizing that it may be a good sign.

One thought on “Seeing traffic and congestion as a sign of success

  1. Pingback: Naperville gaining a reputation for racist incidents? | Legally Sociable

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