Can We Solve the Congestion Problem? 3

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015
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Nothing seems to infuriate the community at large more when it comes to urban growth than the consequence of rising traffic congestion.

Getting to and from work and even shopping or recreational trips around any major city on a weekend seem to take longer than ever before. We seem to spend more time stopped in queues of traffic waiting at traffic lights (often for two or three changes) before we move dutifully on to the next queue. Long-time residents recall fondly the days of easy mobility and, prodded by rising public annoyance, governments have rightly responded by approving new road initiatives to create more lane space.

But transport infrastructure investment wasn’t just limited to roadways for private transport. Billions have also been spent on busways and the bus fleet. Rail has been upgraded, and new lines are planned or under construction. Billions more have been proposed on public transport projects we really quite like the sound of but can’t afford.

Yet despite this long overdue recapitalisation of our transport systems, congestion just seems to be getting worse. And there are very good reasons why it will continue to get worse.

For starters, a city that grows is bound to experience more congestion. More people will equal more congestion, and when city plans are predicated on creating more urban density by increasing the number of people per square kilometre, congestion will get worse, faster. This is simple maths and it’s virtually impossible to deny. If there are ‘experts’ in urban planning trying to convince you otherwise, I’d suggest you think very carefully about the snake oil they’re trying to peddle.

The only way a city with rising urban density could avoid more congestion would be for every single extra person in that city to solely and exclusively rely on public transport, and to not own or need a car for anything.

Beyond that, we would have to expand our road networks and public transport systems at a rate many times the scale of what we’ve already been doing, which we simply can’t afford. Indeed, just finding the space for the extra road lanes or rail lines is a physical impossibility in an already urbanised area, without going underground, which is massively expensive given our relatively small urban populations.

The reality is that even at the highest rates of public transport use on a global scale, you are just not going to get more than half the population using public transport, or walking or cycling. The other half will need and will use private transport and so will add to congestion.

But even as targets go, 50 per cent is well beyond the realm of possibility: it’s plain fanciful. This 50 per cent goal is the level of public transit in New York, famed for its subway system, mega density, and very large population (over 8 million). There are few cities like New York on the planet, and even by US standards, it’s unique in public transit patronage.

So for Australia, the most optimistic hope is that maybe, at best, 30 per cent of the extra population in higher density areas won’t need or depend on a private vehicle. That in turn means that roughly 70 per cent will, so for every extra 10,000 people you add into existing urban areas, you will generate roughly 7,000 more people relying on something other than public transport to get around. Overwhelmingly, that is the private car.

Suburbanisation (‘sprawl’ to the ideologues) is also often blamed for rising congestion, the myth being that ‘all those people on the outskirts’ will want to commute into the CBD by car. But roughly eight out of 10 jobs are actually in the suburbs already, so it fails the evidence and logic test to suggest that this can happen. The majority of jobs aren’t in the CBD, they’re spread throughout the urban and suburban network. Getting to and from most of those jobs requires a car, because public transport is so ineffective in serving cross-city commuters (though it works well for the minority who are CBD workers).

Rising density and a growing population alone aren’t the only factors that will increase congestion. Social change has played a huge part too, and trying to change society to solve congestion is something only Stalin might attempt. Consider the change in work in the last 50 years. The number of us working in centralised office ‘paper factories’ on rigid nine-to-five shifts has declined. There are more dual income families, often with one part time job in the family. Employment has dispersed into various retail, industrial and service nodes throughout the urban fabric as the economy grew.

Shopping for necessities is no longer a fortnightly or weekly trip, with stores open only Thursday night and Saturday morning (as they once were). We now shop more frequently, often to or from work. We often have school pick up runs (something which I understand can add 20 per cent to road traffic volumes in school terms), despite the availability of cheap, subsidised public transport for kids (partly because they’re spoiled and partly because as parents we’re scared of letting them out of our sight.)

Modern life itself has made private transport much more the necessity. We aren’t, as some suggest, having ‘a love affair’ with our cars; we need them, and frequently more than one, just to operate at an employment and social level. Work, play, shop, live – all aspects of modern life are now more dependent on the private vehicle than they once were.

Based on analysis of the census by researcher Michael Matusik, “there are apparently about 7.8 million motor vehicles in Australia. One in ten households does not own a car; two out of five (37%) dwellings hold just one vehicle, whilst a further 54% of our households own two or more cars. When it comes to those living in apartments, these proportions shift considerably: 14% of apartment dwellers don’t own a car; 52% only have one car and just a third own two or more cars, with 29% having just two cars.”

My take on this is that if overall car ownership is 90 per cent of all households but even in apartments 86 per cent of households still own own cars (albeit less of them), it isn’t really that much different. The form of housing choice is not highly correlated to a lesser level of car dependency. So changing the overall form of housing in society is unlikely to make much difference to our patterns of private vehicle use (and hence congestion). Modern society has more to do with it.

So what can realistically be done about congestion? There is no silver bullet. We will continue to invest in new road transport networks as our cities continues to grow, as we should. Likewise, we will continue to invest in more public transport, as we should. But as our cities continues to grow and the economy develops, we will only at best be keeping pace. Our ability to invest at the speed required to decrease congestion is beyond our reach, and the potential of different forms of housing to alleviate congestion is limited, if it exists at all.

Increasing congestion will ultimately create opportunities for development in transit friendly locations which promise reduced congestion or travel times for residents and employees. This in itself won’t solve the broader issue, but simply allow some to respond to a market craving more convenience. To promise that town planning or public transport hold any genuine promise to substantially alleviate our great annoyance at other people using ‘our’ roads and slowing ‘us’ down, is to perpetuate a lie.

There is one way congestion can improve, but maybe it’s the cure we don’t want. If congestion is a sign of an economy that’s alive with people making all manner of trips for work or social reasons, then quiet uncongested roads would surely be a sign of not very much happening at all. Think tumbleweeds blowing down the streets of your town, empty shops and offices, abandoned factories, an empty CBD and a shrinking population. There are numerous US cities where this has happened to the city cores. There are also plenty of Australian towns and regional cities with a similar problem.

They no longer complain about congestion – they have more serious things to worry about.

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  1. Sally Hanson

    Are we really so attached to driving and the daily commute that we're unwilling to exchange our automobiles for public transit – if only on weekdays?

  2. Bill Holliday

    The maximum capacity of a lane of expressway is 2400 cars per hour. In peak hour these cars carry an average of 1.1 people each so this translates to 2600 people per hour. One of Sydney's heavy rail tracks can carry 25,000 people per hour. The implication for peak commuting is obvious. That is why London, Paris, Tokyo and other major cities of the world have train systems with dozens of interconnecting rail lines and stations in all directions. Nothing else has the carrying capacity and you don't need any parking stations in the cbd as the trains just keep travelling.
    The Government's insistance on a car-based transport system is just crazy.

  3. Adrian

    A well written and thoughtful article, thanks Ross. Like many I've given similar thought to congestion. I honestly don't think congestion could or should go away but I hope for an approach that sees the length of TIME spent in congestion shrink. Some obvious strategies include:
    * Better timing of contiguous sets of lights so that 'pulses' of vehicles can traverse multiple lights without the annoying stop-start between each set.
    * More underpasses and bypass lanes at heavily trafficked intersections.
    * The political will to do the simple fine tuning. So often I hear from the construction industry that when proposing simple things they are met with indifference and 'no money' from the powers that be.
    Let's take an honest look at what the IT industry call 'capacity management' and apply some of those principles to alleviate the time spent in congestion. Nature abhors thought, but rewards action. Let's not be afraid of making mistakes, that is how we learn to do things better next time. If we make mistakes, like the M2 west bound design, let's get onto fixing it immediately rather than waiting another few years. Our economy grows from the efficient movement of goods and people.