Coronavirus changed everything – how we live, work. do business, shop, play, and travel.
But, as we return to the office, face-to-face meetings, IRL (In Real Life) events/conferences and so-called ‘normal’, so we’re back to the “How do we manage the traffic?” conversations; and how to manage/reduce commuter traffic, school-run traffic, online-shopping traffic, fast-food delivery traffic, EV (electric vehicle) traffic and all the other sorts of traffic in our towns and cities.
Over the last four years the political, social, and economic environment has dramatically changed. There is now a very urgent need to reduce emissions, act on climate change and to achieve net zero within the next 7 years. Governments, their agencies, and Local Authorities are laser focussed on prioritising the delivery of sustainable transport, shared mobility, and digital/technology solutions.
But old habits die hard. The car remains the most popular mode of travel in the UK, Australia, the USA, and New Zealand, with 55-70%+ of all trips made by private car. Getting people out of their cars, changing travel behaviours, breaking long-established pre-COVID habits and entrenched social norms – like the social status associated with cars – is time-consuming. Dare I say tricky and hard!
Traffic and traffic congestion is a problem in almost all suburbs, towns, and cities. But we can’t build our way out of traffic congestion. Put simply. More road simply means more traffic.
As one hospital manager in New Zealand, who’d recently built a lot of car capacity said – with a tone of buyer’s remorse – “It’s like standing on the roof yelling PLEASE DRIVE YOUR CAR”.
Almost all new highway and road capacity projects are ‘sold’ to the public (and treasury) as a means of reducing, or ‘busting’, traffic congestion. In reality, new and/or wider roads just mean more traffic.
When new roads are built or traffic-clogged highways are expanded, new drivers quickly materialize to fill them. In most cases, the new or widened road gets quickly clogged up and fails to reduce or ‘bust’ traffic congestion. In transport planning we call this phenomenon ‘Induced Demand’.
Induced Demand refers to the idea that increasing road capacity (more roads or more road lanes) creates demand and encourages more people to drive their car. Put simply, when you provide more of something (e.g., more road space), or provide it for a cheaper price (e.g., cheaper fuel), people are more likely to use it. Others talk about ‘Latent Demand’. Latent Demand is often referred to as the demand that exists, but is suppressed, by the inability of the system or network to handle it.
If a major road is constantly congested in the morning and afternoon peak, you’re likely to consider travelling in the off-peak, taking an alternative mode of transport (e.g., train) or reducing the need to travel altogether (e.g., browsing the shops online). But, if that same major road is widened, you’ll likely to advantage of the new traffic lanes and additional road capacity. In the long term, new highway and road widening projects do change human behaviours – but not the way transport planners desire! For example, we can buy a bigger, newer, and fancier, but cheaper, house in a town or suburb far away. The outcome being that we end ‘being the traffic’ that clogs up the road.
Traffic and congestion cost us all money and wastes our precious time. Cutting traffic congestion requires a clear vision and bold leadership. Most cities lack a bold and brave, big-picture vision for radically transforming transport to make a major dent in their ‘change’ or ‘impact’ pie-chart, many have a lack of strong fearless leadership, and few have a supportive governance structure in place. Many decision-makers are unwilling to change the entrenched status quo and are more “reactive” than “proactive” with a focus on the “now” rather than a radically different future. Furthermore, many priorities are focused on politically orientated agendas or special interests rather than perhaps the “right” solution. We can easily reduce traffic congestion with a clear plan of short- and long-term actions, courageous leadership, and a willingness by decision-makers to modify their thinking and behaviours.
Change is the only constant. As we face economic and environmental uncertainty it’s time to look at, think about and do things differently – if nothing else, because more road simply means more traffic.
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