How To Attack Urban Traffic Congestion

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By Paolo von Schirach

August 23, 2007

WASHINGTON – Mayor Michael Bloomberg is probably going to succeed in creating a congestion charge for motor vehicles in New York City, following the reasonably successful example of London. This way, Manhattan’s chronic congestion will be somewhat eased. The overall plan includes some upgrades in mass transit, so that reasonably convenient and affordable alternatives to the private automobile will be available to those who do not wish to pay the congestion charge.

This is of course a good idea. What is astonishing is that it is taking so long for administrators and citizens in urban areas –not just in America, Europe or other developed countries, but all over the world– to realize that there is no way to ease traffic congestion with its attendant costs in terms of wasted time, lost productivity, pollution and enhanced stress for millions of people, unless the use of the private automobile is either banned or significantly restricted and alternatives based on mass transit solutions introduced.

This looks like a no-brainer. And yet, these timid first steps notwithstanding, the reality is that the whole world considers the private automobile as the affirmation of attained affluence and as the primary means that grants more and more people “freedom of movement”, the unhindered opportunity to go wherever they want, whenever they want.

But, at least as far as the joy of personal mobility is concerned, it is obvious that the opposite is true. The private car has become the primary obstacle to getting around freely; for the simple reason that too many of us want to exercise the right to get around at the same time; while the space available cannot grow in step with the increased demand for roads and parking. This is painfully obvious all over the world, from Bangalore to Paris, From Washington DC, to Maputo. In fact, increased affluence and consequent car affordability in many developing countries is making the problem worse every day. No need to recite hundreds of well known examples of gigantic traffic jams, increased levels of smog and longer and longer commutes.

To solve this mess we have to break away from the conception that most people all over the world have about cars as symbols of personal achievement and as the primary tools with which they can exercise their mobility needs in urban areas. This model is not working. More and more private cars on the road equal diminishing returns for all users.

Needless to say, people do need to get around with reasonable ease and comfort. The main reason why the car, notwithstanding all the growing disadvantages, still reigns is that the alternatives to the privately owned and operated vehicle appear unappealing or unaffordable. The construction of fast underground rail transportation systems looks good and neat, in principle. But, in practice, they are horribly expensive to build and quite expensive to operate and maintain.

Bus systems are generally inadequate. The supply is limited, while buses travel at the speed of the rest of the surface traffic. For these reasons, many people consider that, if they need to be stuck in traffic after waiting for a bus that comes late and usually does not take them to their final destination, they may as well drive their own car. Indeed, with few exceptions, the bus is an inadequate, somewhat inconvenient, system used mostly by the less affluent who cannot afford a car.

So, we seem to be stuck with the current predicament, unless the controversial approach taken by London, New York and others based on actively discouraging private driving through a tax becomes acceptable in most cities around the world. Of course, the promise of the congestion tax is that, with fewer private cars driving around, the speed and reliability of surface mass transit, mostly bus services, will increase. Better bus service should provide a further incentive for people to leave the car at home and use public transportation. We shall see how New Yorkers will respond overtime to this carrot and stick scheme.

And we could do more than this. There are examples of successful experimentation with new ways to conceive mobility in urban areas. But it is astonishing that the few good, proven, examples have not yet become mainstream. For example, only technical experts and urban planners know well the process that led the city of Curitiba, capital of the state of Parana, in southern Brazil, to develop what is probably one of the best examples of a reliable, bus based, rapid transit system. (With the emphasis on “rapid”). The municipality, overtime, (and after a great deal of trial and error), managed to create and refine a public surface transit system that has the advantages of a seamless underground rail network without the costs. This was achieved through the creation of dedicated bus lanes and a good system of feeder lines and practical interconnections.

In cities that are already built it is probably next to impossible to add new dedicated bus lanes and squeeze them in the existing heavily used roads. In order to make space for bus lanes, at least in many areas, the private car would have to be restricted or banned. And one can begin to hear the howling and the protests of those who feel that their basic human rights would be denied by such drastic prohibitions.

But imagine, if you can, a seamless system of buses that one can board from everywhere within a city and from the suburbs (parking the car at the bus station; in the same way as many park it at the underground metro station) that would be frequent, fast (no more traffic jams) and reliable. This is not inconceivable and not prohibitively expensive. The Curitiba example is there to be looked at and studied by all. (A few cities in Latin America have followed suit).

Unless we are masochistically attached to our suffering in traffic jams and to longer and longer commutes that cost more and more in human, environmental as well as economic terms, it is time to look at the good examples set by others and see how we can develop more sensible and more effective ways of getting around in urban areas. This is not just about practicality and efficiency. It is a major step that will help us in making cities places of enjoyable experience; not urban hells that people want to escape from as soon as they can.

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