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We Don't "Endure" Congestion; We Are Congestion
Erica Barnett, 25 Sep 07
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Every year since 1982, the Texas Transportation Institute has released the findings of its annual Urban Mobility Study. And every year these findings are plastered on the front pages of newspapers across the US, with a typical story line centering on how a city is doing relative to other cities; whether its ranking on the congestion scale has gotten worse or improved; and whether anything can be done to help "us" get out of "congestion." Another common frame is to ask whether "traffic relief" (the TTI estimates that this year, American drivers will waste a total of 4.2 billion hours sitting in traffic) is "in sight."

What's unmentioned here is that there isn't a difference between us and congestion; when we're driving, we are congestion. So, the only way to "relieve traffic" is to get people out of their cars by providing realistic, accessible alternatives to driving. It's a pretty obvious conclusion, but one that rarely comes up in media coverage of the annual TTI report. Splashy headlines, presumably, are easier than digging into the data.

Congestion is fundamentally an externality. It's an inevitable result of our land-use decisions; subsidies that encourage the use of private automobiles (all those "free" highways aren't really free, and gas prices in the US aren't anywhere near their fair-market value); and the common American conviction that driving one's car, alone, is a human right.

Moreover, as the Sightline Institute points out, the big, scary numbers -- such as 38 hours wasted in traffic, on average, every year! -- don't look quite so big and scary once you break them down over the course of a year. Viewed through that lens, Los Angeles' hellish-sounding 72 hours of annual delay per person works out to less than 12 minutes a day -- not fun, but not the end of the world, either. Similarly, the 57 gallons of gas a Los Angeleno wastes every year work out to just over a gallon a week -- which doesn't sound like much for the most congested city in America.

So does this mean we can stop worrying about traffic? Of course not: "traffic," after all, is just code for our collective bad decision to get in our cars and drive to work, to school, and to the store day after day after day after day. What the coverage of the TTI's report suggests is that we need a different way of framing the problem.

Imagine if instead of writing about car dependence as "congestion," reporters framed the issue as one of supply and demand? Because it's the lack of easily accessible public transit; alternatives to rush-hour commuting such as flexible schedules and working from home; and land-use decisions that result in sprawl instead of smart, compact growth, that lead to more demand for roads and private cars. Look at Portland, Oregon, where the average number of hours people spend stopped in their cars increased at a slower rate than other cities, thanks to "smart growth" planning that constrains growth within a very rigid urban core.

The solution, when you look beyond the narrow lens of "traffic," becomes less about "solving congestion" and more about how to make more rational transit choices readily available, so that people don't become congestion in the first place.

Image: flickr/one2view

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Excellent points. There is a lot of good that could be done for society if we just made people face their negative externalities with driving. It's unfortunate it's not politically feasible right now.

Posted by: Ryan Johnson on 26 Sep 07



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