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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.