Can public transport investment really fix traffic congestion?

Well, this is fine: traffic in the north west Chinese city of Xi'an on a smoggy day. Image: Getty.

Now and then, someone mentions that a particular transit project did not reduce traffic congestion, as though that were evidence of failure.

In fact, the relationship between transit and congestion is an indirect one. In most cases, it’s unwise to claim congestion reduction as a likely result of your proposed transit project. (In this post “congestion” means that volume/capacity ratio for motor vehicles on a roadway is high enough to substantially reduce average speeds.)

Road widening, however, is also not a very good way to relieve congestion, except in the short term. In his 1992 book Stuck in Traffic Anthony Downs described the effect of widening an expressway in terms of a “triple convergence”:

In response, three types of convergence occur on the improved expressway:

(1) many drivers who formerly used alternative routes during peak hours switch to the improved expressway (spatial convergence);

(2) many drivers who formerly travelled just before or after the peak hours start travelling during those hours (time convergence); and

(3) some commuters who used to take public transportation during peak hours now switch to driving, since it has become faster (modal convergence).

Downs is describing only the immediate effect of the road expansion. Further increases in traffic will come from any new development that is attracted to the road’s catchment as a direct consequence of its expansion.

Prof. David Levinson’s work in the Minneapolis / St. Paul region suggests that, while added capacity generates new vehicle trips, the effect is often not great enough to restore the previous level of congestion. However, your results will obviously vary based on the amount of development that occurs as a result of the new or expanded road. If this development adds enough new vehicle trips to fill the new capacity, traffic congestion can return to near previous levels.

So the only way to make the congestion benefit of new road capacity permanent is to severely restrict development in the catchment area of the road – an impossible bar in most cases. In fact, parties who will profit from further development in a corridor may be part of the political consensus in support of a road expansion, even as the same expansion is marketed to existing residents as a congestion reducing project.

Otherwise, there appear to be two broadly applicable ways to relieve congestion in a substantial and permanent way.

Economic collapse. Traffic congestion drops during economic slowdowns, because fewer people have jobs to commute to, or money to spend on discretionary travel. A complete economic collapse, which causes people to move away from a city in droves, is always a lasting fix for congestion problems.

Correct pricing of road space. Fundamentally, congestion is the result of underpricing. If you give away 500 free concert tickets to the first 500 people in line, you’ll get 500 people standing in line, some of them overnight. These people are paying time to save money.

Current, prevailing road pricing policy requires all motorists to act like these frugal concertgoers. Motorists are required to pay for road use in time, rather than in money, even though some would rather do the opposite – and our cities would be safer and more efficient if they could. Current road pricing policy requires motorists to save money, a renewable resource, by expending time, the least renewable resource of all.

So if transit isn’t a cause of reduced congestion, what is its role? Do transit advocates offer nothing in response to congestion problems that have many voters upset?

In fact, transit’s role is essential, but its effect is indirect.


1) Transit raises the level of economic activity and prosperity at a fixed level of congestion.

Congestion appears to reach equilibrium at a level that is maddeningly high but that can’t be called “total gridlock.” At that level, people just stop trying to travel. If your city is car-dependent, that limit becomes the cap on the economic activity – and thus the prosperity – of your city. To the extent that your city is dependent on transit, supported by walking and cycling, economic activity and prosperity can continue to grow while congestion remains constant.

To quite a comment left on my website, on an earlier version of this post: “Toronto achieved significant downtown employment growth without increasing road capacity after the 1960s, thanks first to increased subway ridership and later due to increased commuter rail ridership. Congestion is still bad on the roads and expressways into downtown, even with transit expansion, but the expansion of transit has permitted the downtown to grow beyond what the road network would have supported.” A similar pattern can be observed in many similar cities.

2) Transit enables people who can’t drive to participate in economic life.

Groups who don’t have the option to drive include many seniors and disabled persons, some youth, and a segment of the poor. Providing mobility to these groups is not merely a social service; it also expands participation in the economy.

For example, during the US welfare reform debate in 1994-96, government began raising pressure on welfare recipients to seek and accept any employment opportunity. For the very poor living in car-dependent cities, the lack of commuting options became a profound barrier to these job placements.

This is really an element of the previous point, since all employment, even of the poor, contributes to prosperity. But this has independent force for government because unemployed people consume more government services than employed people do. This benefit of transit should routinely be described in terms of economic efficiency, as I’ve done here, rather than appealing to pity or to alleged “economic rights,” as social-service language often implicitly does. The appeal of the social service argument is just too narrow, especially in the US.

Hey, at least the train is moving: just another rush hour in Manila. Image: Getty.

3) Transit-dependent cities are generally more sustainable than car-dependent cities.

They cover less land and tend to have fewer emissions both per capita and per distance travelled. The walking that they require is also better for public health, which produces further indirect economic benefits in reduced healthcare costs.

4) Intense transit service is essential for congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing appears to be the only effective and durable tool for ensuring free-flowing roads while maintaining or growing prosperity. Congestion pricing always causes mode shift toward public transit, so quality public transit, with surplus capacity, must be there for a pricing plan to be credible.


5) Surface exclusive transit lanes (for buses, rail, and arguably two-wheelers and taxis) improve the performance of emergency services.

This argument should be much more prominent, because even the most ardent car-lover will understand it. Few things are more distressing than to see an emergency vehicle stuck in traffic, sirens blaring. When confronted with this, all motorists do their best to help. But if the entire width of a street or highway is reserved for cars (moving or parked), and is therefore capable of being congested, it can be impossible to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle even if every motorist present has the best of intentions.

Emergency response should be one of the strongest and most obvious cases for surface transit lanes. Motorists understand the need to drop to a low speed in school zones, to protect the life of every single child. Why do we not accept come degree of delay to save a child who may be dying somewhere else, because the ambulance is stuck in traffic?

In the end, of course, “congestion” is not a good measure of the outcomes of transit. In fact, the very notion of congestion presumes a motorist’s view of the world. I agree with another commenter, Rodrigo Quijada, when he writes:

What we’d like to do in a city is to reduce TRAVEL TIMES. Reducing congestion is a way to do that, but in no way the only one. Over the decades, in places where car transportation has become dominant, people have got used to see travel times and congestion as the same thing, thus orienting their thinking and their solutions to reduce congestion. But this is essentially a confusion.

Still, in real-world transit politics, selling transit projects to current motorists is a necessity, and the current motorist is likely to see her problem as one of congestion. So it’s important to be clear on what transit can readily do for her.

  1. It can provide an alternative to driving which may be faster, more cost effective, and less stressful. This argument can be put quite selfishly: Good transit won’t eliminate congestion in your city, but it can eliminate it from your daily life.
     
  2. Transit helps reduce government spending on social services by enabling transit disadvantaged groups to participate in the economy. This obviously has a range of health and wellness benefit apart from its economic role.
     
  3. It can increase the level of prosperity at a fixed level of congestion.
  1. Its exclusive lanes protect emergency vehicles from congestion-related delays, potentially saving lives.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives".

This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.