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Are congested roads ever a good thing?
If you are a regular reader of Citified, you know that I watch a lot of local council meetings. Whenever a new development is presented at one of those council meetings, more often than not, the issue of traffic arises. Common questions and comments include:
Where will people park?
Streets are already too busy, we can’t add more vehicles.
Has a traffic study been completed?
Therefore, at a recent council meeting where a proposal for Sportsworld Drive was discussed, I was not surprised to hear that “concerned area residents say the project will increase traffic headaches in an already-saturated area.” Even though, according to city staff, “the plan presents the chance to increase housing supply, diversity and density within a major transit station area, while preserving commercial space”, much of the discussion revolved around traffic impacts.
Staff stated that a traffic study was completed in 2021 which presented no issues, yet residents are still worried. That area is represented by newly elected Councillor Jason Deneault and he also expressed concerns about the traffic study, saying, “I just have a hard time … having a traffic study that says there’s no need for an improvement in that area when I know very well how congested that area is during peak times.”
Now, nobody likes to be stuck in traffic, dealing with congested roads. However, I believe that main arterial roads, such as the ones discussed at the above council meeting, should be congested at peak times. When I shared that position on Twitter recently, Councillor Deneault asked why I thought congestion might actually be a good thing. While I offered a few reasons, I wanted to share a bit more on the issue here.
First, I don't think it makes sense to build our road system to never be congested. There are peak times when roads should be busier. We overbuild roads when we aim for zero congestion. That's not only expensive, but unsafe. As recognized in this article, “until we can admit that perhaps everyone is not going to be able to go fast all the time, we’ll continue building unnecessarily large and expensive roads where speed is the number one priority and most other priorities fall by the wayside.”
While the goal of many road widening projects is to lessen time that people are stuck in traffic, most road expansions save drivers only seconds on any given trip. Plus, wider roads are less safe and less pleasant for everyone who is not inside of a vehicle.
Locally, we have seen an increase in alternative transportation options, such as the DTK Cycling Grid and the ion. As well, our local municipalities are lowering speeds on residential streets. However, for the most part, “city streets are still designed to move motor vehicles during rush hour (which is only a small part of the day), to the detriment of people outside of cars — i.e. the people who live in the neighborhood.”
Bill Lindeke says that, “Like any science, a traffic study is making assumptions about what’s valued and what counts, and for generations we’ve acted under the assumption that rush hour is the most important time of day. And that leaves a lot of other factors out of the picture.”
Cities (and city transportation staff) must decide if we want streets that work best for those inside of cars or those outside of them. "The basic trade-off is that focusing myopically on the peak hours means that a few seconds of the day of traffic for a commuter are valued more than the all-day, every-day quality of life for the people living or walking in the neighborhood."
And, let’s not forget about ‘induced demand’ where, essentially, if you make it easier for everyone to drive, more people are going to drive. But, "if traffic sucks at rush hour, you try to avoid it."
We generally understand this idea in relation to other goods and services. Susan Handy, professor of environmental science & policy at University of California notes that, “It’s a pretty basic economic principle that if you reduce the price of a good then people will consume more of it. That’s essentially what we’re doing when we expand freeways.”
While adding lanes can ease congestion initially, it can also encourage people to drive more. A few years after a “highway is widened, research shows, traffic — and the greenhouse gas emissions that come along with it — often returns.” That article notes that in a metropolitan area, when road capacity increases by 1%, within a few years, the number of cars on the road also increases by 1%.
Roads are extremely expensive, but we seem eager to throw money at road expansion projects in the hopes that this time it will fix congestion. Consider the proposed Highway 413 as just one example. Meanwhile, many alternative transportation approaches (like public transit and separated bike lanes) are left fighting for limited funding.
Speaking to the issue of road widenings being our primary (and often only) plan to address moving people around their community, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says, “Connecting people more efficiently and affordably to where they need to go is a lot more complicated than just always having more concrete and asphalt out there.” More paved roads doesn’t solve congestion and it leaves many neighbourhoods worse off than before an expansion.
I understand the appeal to expand roads to solve congestion. However, I hope the research and articles shared here (which are just a small snapshot of what’s available), encourage us to not fall into the trap of widening roads to hopefully end congestion. More often than not, it simply doesn’t work, and may even make things worse. I’ll leave the last word to Matt Turner, an economics professor at Brown University and co-author of a 2009 study on congestion, who says, “If you keep adding lanes because you want to reduce traffic congestion, you have to be really determined not to learn from history.”