The Case for Congestion

Yogi Berra 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. 5th 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 just hang out. 

If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that our Federal and State governments continue to wage war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, the war is not yet won and just might not be worth winning.  In fairness, some of the places where freeway building has been most intense have actually been successful in reducing congestion. Detroit, for example, has lots of expressways and widened streets and suffers from very little congestion. Yet, as most visitors observe, Detroit could use some congestion.

For congestion is a little like cholesterol- if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s good congestion and bad. Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through. Throughout human history, major streets in an urban context have served three purposes: 1) provide a right of way for travel, 2) provide a setting for commerce as Main Streets do, and 3) provide a place for social interaction, e.g., the town square. In the post World War II period, DOTs dumbed-down road policy to just one objective: to move vehicles.

By fighting the great scourge of traffic in what Lewis Mumford called a “monochromatic” approach,  as UConn engineering professor and CNU Board Member Norman Garrick states in his critique of last year’s Texas Transportation Institute’s “Urban Mobility Report,”“we 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 easy movement of vehicles.” In doing such, we’ve failed to recognize the way traditional streets shape successful, self-reliant, and stimulating places. 

Garrick's research backs up his above statement, showcasing that just 21% of average household income is spent on transportation in New York, while 41% of average household income is taken up by transit costs 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% of its funds coming from Washington. In contrast, Mississippi relies on federal largesse for 41% of its total transportation budget.

With governments at all levels short on cash, maybe its time - particularly for the Michigan DOT - to take a more nuanced position and broaden their goals for streets beyond just moving vehicles.  If DOTs and governments took a closer look, they may find that perhaps people secretly like congestion. After all, real estate prices seem to confirm that preference. And shouldn’t our infrastructure be reflective of that, and add value to the settings where it is built?

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Traffic is a sign of

Traffic is a sign of dynamism. Moving vehicular traffic in an efficient fashion is obviously a necessary function, but by making it a primary goal, cities lose out on the economic potential created by mixed-use places. Further, streets should act as places where people and ideas can brush up against one another, engaging themselves and the space around them. It brings life to cities. Especially in light of theories such as Braess' paradox, carving out swaths of land that are solely dedicated to moving cars through is akin to writing a death sentence.

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