Atlantic Cities

The Case for Congestion

The Case for Congestion
Flickr/Kenn Chaplin

Yogi Berra once said, "nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded."

It’s certainly true that people complain about congestion. Yet it’s just as true that popular destinations tend to be crowded. Fifth Avenue in New York, Market Street in San Francisco, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are all congested, but people keep coming back to shop or hang out. 

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.

Fighting traffic congestion by merely adding more road capacity is what Lewis Mumford called a "monochromatic" approach. In his critique of the Texas Transportation Institute’s "2010 Urban Mobility Report," University of Connecticut engineering professor Norman Garrick wrote that "TTI lost sight of the fact that a transportation system affects almost all aspects of daily life and that its value should not be judged purely on the basis of how well it affords the speedy movement of vehicles." In doing such, we fail to recognize the way traditional streets shape successful, self-reliant and stimulating places.

Garrick's research points out that just 21 percent of average household income is spent on transportation in the state of New York, while 41 percent of average household income goes towards transport costs, almost all related to driving motor vehicles, in Mississippi. And in a political paradox, knowing how each state tends to vote, Garrick notes that New York is far less dependent on the federal government for its transportation budget, with only 15 percent of its funds coming from Washington. In contrast, Mississippi relies on federal largesse for 41 percent of its total transportation budget.

Early in my time as mayor of Milwaukee, my Public Works director and his staff of traffic engineers came to me with a $58 million proposal for adding right turn lanes to "congested" intersections. The plan involved significant property demolition. I asked if they planned on drawing their pensions after retirement. They looked at me strangely, and then answered yes. I replied, "Then why do you want to destroy the tax base that supports your pension?"

From that day forward, they understood the necessity of balancing their need for faster speed with the fact that people need street corridors not only to travel, but also to shop and socialize. Attempts to accommodate through-traffic by widening streets can destroy the surrounding value of a neighborhood. When the amount of property value or retail sales is part of the cost benefit calculation, road-widening starts to look like a dubious investment.

Dundas Street in Toronto—congested with shops, restaurants and customers—is a good example of a street that "suffers" from vehicle congestion. Dundas has one moving lane in each direction and another lane available for parking, even at peak travel times, and happily, Toronto does nothing about it. The tax base is too valuable to knock down buildings and widen the street. The daily traffic slowdown on Highway 30A near Seaside, Florida's Central Square, caused by narrow lane widths and shallow setbacks, works to make Seaside more valuable as a retail and social destination. New York's Greenwich Village reaps the financial rewards of its perpetual vehicle congestion. In a recent analysis, Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University reported that each 10 percent increase in per capita traffic delay was associated with a 7 percent increase in a region’s gross domestic product.

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.

With governments at all levels short on cash, maybe its time to broaden the goals for streets, going beyond just moving vehicles. It’s time to retire the expressway in an urban context. It should be replaced with a system that examines the performance of street networks, including transit where relevant, and considers economic and social value along with vehicle distribution. It should be a system that measures the value and effectiveness of a city’s street network, a street vitality index. If Departments of Transportation and local governments take a closer look, they may find value in congestion. After all, real estate prices seem to confirm that preference. And shouldn’t our infrastructure reflect that and add value to the place where it is built?

Image courtesy of Kenn Chaplin via Flickr

John Norquist is the CEO & president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, served as mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, and is the author of The Wealth of Cities. All posts »

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