The Case for Congestion

To often traffic engineers place a value on expedited automobile transport over everything else.  Is this wise, efficient, or fiscally responsible?  I don’t think so.  Here is a great article written by the former mayor of Milwaukee in Atlantic Cities.


After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.” Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume.


Garrick’s research points out that just 21 percent of average household income is spent on transportation in the state of New York, while 41 percent of average household income goes towards transport costs, almost all related to driving motor vehicles, 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 percent of its funds coming from Washington. In contrast, Mississippi relies on federal largesse for 41 percent of its total transportation budget.


With governments at all levels short on cash, maybe its time to broaden the goals for streets, going beyond just moving vehicles. It’s time to retire the expressway in an urban context. It should be replaced with a system that examines the performance of street networks, including transit where relevant, and considers economic and social value along with vehicle distribution. It should be a system that measures the value and effectiveness of a city’s street network, a street vitality index. If Departments of Transportation and local governments take a closer look, they may find value in congestion. After all, real estate prices seem to confirm that preference. And shouldn’t our infrastructure reflect that and add value to the place where it is built?

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