Does building more roads create more traffic?

Tunnel vision: the claim that more roads equals less congestion fails to acknowledge the wider picture. Image: Martin Fisch via Flickr.

Congestion is a major source of frustration for road users and has worsened over time in most cities. Different solutions have been proposed, such as introducing congestion charging (a favourite of transport economists) or investing in public transport. The solution put forward most often is to build more roads. But does this approach actually work?

A recent study in the United States identified Los Angeles, Honolulu and San Francisco as the top three most gridlocked cities in the United States. All of these cities use almost exclusively road-based solutions to transport citizens. Meanwhile, China has increased its expressway network from 16,300 km in the year 2000 to around 70,000 km in 2010. Yet the average commute time in Beijing increased by 25 minutes between 2012 and 2013 to 1 hour and 55 minutes.

So why do residents of these cities not live in a driving utopia, despite their huge amounts of road capacity? 

Induced demand

The first thing to get your head around is a concept called induced demand.

Think about the street where you live. If a new road makes driving to work quicker, you may benefit from that.

But this reduced travel time might be enough to encourage two other people in your street to start driving; and two more people in the next street; and two more people in the street after that; and so on. Very quickly, the drive to work takes just as long as it ever did.

In transportation, this well-established response is known in various contexts as the Downs-Thomson Paradox, The Pigou-Knight-Downs Paradox or the Lewis-Mogridge Position: a new road may provide motorists with some level of respite from congestion in the short term, but almost all of the benefit from the road will be lost due to increased demand in the longer term.

To add insult to injury, while more roads may solve congestion locally, more traffic on the road network may result in more congestion elsewhere. In Sydney, for example, the WestConnex may improve traffic conditions on Parramatta Road, but may worsen congestion in the city as a whole.

Weakest links

Congestion is determined by the weakest links in the road network. If road capacity expansion does not involve widening of these bottleneck links, congestion may simply move to another part of the network without solving the congestion problem. Moreover, it could potentially make congestion across the network even worse.

The Braess Paradox is a famous example in which building new roads in the wrong location can lead to longer travel times for everyone, even without induced demand, because new roads may lead more car drivers to the weakest links in the network. The reverse may also be true: removing roads may even improve traffic conditions.

This paradox occurs because each driver chooses the route that is quickest without considering the implications his or her choice has on other drivers. Car drivers only care about the number of vehicles in the queue in front of them and do not care about vehicles queueing behind them. This is a classic problem in game theory, very similar to the type for which John Nash was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Building, widening or duplicating toll roads and freeways may just induce more people to choose cars over public transport. Image: KRoock74 at Wikimedia Commons.

What does the data say?

One US study has shown a strong relationship between the amount of new road length and the total number of kilometres travelled in US cities, a finding the authors of that study termed “the fundamental law of road congestion”.

Similar findings are reported in Spain and in the United States, where even major road capacity increases can actually lead to little or no reduction in network traffic densities. It has also been found to exist in Europe, where neglecting induced demand has led to biases in appraising of environmental impacts as well as the economic viability of proposed road projects.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s successful re-election campaign promised motorists more roads and less traffic.

In Sydney, there is similar evidence from traffic volumes crossing the harbour. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was carrying a stable traffic volume of around 180,000 vehicles per day from 1986 to 1991. The Sydney Harbour Tunnel opened in 1992, and the total volume of traffic crossing the harbour increased in 1995 to almost 250,000 vehicles per day. This 38 per cent increase in traffic can be attributed to induced demand and not to population growth (which was around 4 per cent during this period).

Empirical observations have also confirmed the existence of the Braess Paradox. For example, in 1969 a new road was built in Stuttgart, Germany, which did not improve the traffic conditions. After closing the road again, congestion decreased.

Similar observations in which road closure led to improved traffic conditions have been observed in New York City, where upon closing 42nd street (a major crosstown street in Manhattan) it was observed that traffic was significantly less congested than average.

A recent experimental study confirmed that this paradox still exists by showing that expanding road capacity can result in worse traffic conditions for everybody.

The theory of induced demand is accepted by a large majority, but not by everyone – the authors of a 2001 paper argued that induced demand does not exist. However, UK researchers Goodwin and Noland have criticised this study.

In isolation, building more roads can certainly improve traffic conditions, but these effects may only be local and short run. Roads alone do not solve congestion in the long term; they are only one (problematic) tool in a transport management toolkit.

Matthew Beck is a Senior Lecturer in Infrastructure Management, and Michiel Bliemer Professor in Transport and Logistics Network Modelling. Both work at the University of Sydney. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.