Almost all new highway and road widening projects are ‘sold’ to the public as a means of reducing, or ‘busting’, traffic congestion. In reality, new or wider roads 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.
As one transport planner says “It’s like standing on the roof of City Hall shouting PLEASE DRIVE YOUR CAR”.
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 or reducing the need to travel altogether. 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 change human behaviours. For example, we can buy a bigger and newer, but cheaper, house in a town or suburb far away.
Traffic congestion has two main causes. Firstly, too many cars, and secondly, traffic jams: when one car brakes or slows down, it forces the car behind to slow down as well. This effect spirals and multiplies, creating traffic jams.
Traffic congestion is a problem, needing combating, in almost all suburbs, towns and cities.
But we can’t build our way out of traffic congestion.
The key to easing, reducing or ‘busting’ congestion is providing convenient, reliable and attractive alternatives. From frequent, dependable, coordinated and affordable public transport through to car sharing, car-pooling, walking, cycling, working at home, technology, automation, robotisation, densification, decentralization, pricing, charging and behaviour change, to name but a few.
Cutting traffic congestion requires a clear vision and bold leadership. Most cities don’t have a big-picture vision for radically transforming transport, many have a lack of strong leadership, and few have a supportive governance structure in place. Many decision-makers are unwilling to change the status quo, are more “reactive” than “proactive” and are more focused on the “now” than the future. Furthermore, many priorities are focused on politically orientated agendas or special interests rather than the “right” solution. We can easily reduce and eliminate 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.
Coronavirus has changed how we live and work. We don’t know what the future holds.
In recent decades we have created, managed and built everything in our lives around the car – our cities, our planning, our policies, our housing, our schools, our shopping, and our lifestyles. We have mistakenly created a car-based culture and a population of car-dependent people. Congestion has cost us all money and has wasted our precious time.
Now, in a Recession and perhaps an economic Depression, we’ll likely need to do things differently.
We can’t “build our way out of traffic congestion’. But, that’s not what we’ve been ‘sold’.
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