Wealth and car use are no longer related variables. Traffic congestion is not coming for our cities

While there may be bad congestion in parts of Australia’s cities now, data suggest that car use has peaked. Image: Scott Davies/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

There is a new fear on the block in Australia. As well as ISIS, home invasions, wind turbines and the budget deficit, we're told that now we must fear... traffic congestion.

The Infrastructure Australia report on the future needs of our cities emphasises the growing problem of urban traffic congestion all over the country. It is echoed by the State of Australian Cities report.

Congestion, it warns, will overwhelm our futures, making them unlivable, uneconomic and ungovernable as we fight for every piece of road space.

But do we have to accept that congestion trends will overwhelm us? Is it really right to fear congestion?

According to the IA report travel times are going to increase by at least 20 per cent. The total cost of such congestion will increase from A$13.7bn a year to A$53.3bn by 2031, an increase of nearly three times. The loss of time will apparently cripple us.

The public policy reaction to fear is to jettison economic analysis and throw money at it. No benefit-cost ratio is needed as we need to act now or it will overwhelm us. Kneejerk reactions like this are usually regretted in hindsight – but at the time we have no choice, it must be done.

In this climate of congestion-fear, big roads are not being assessed, just announced. The congestion peril is coming. We must honour the Abbott government’s election commitments to around A$40bn of high-capacity roads such as the East-West Link in Melbourne (now discredited and dropped by the Victorian Government), the Connex West system in Sydney (causing similar pain with communities subject to its impact) and, most recently, the Perth Freight Link (which looms as the biggest election issue facing the Western Australian government that never actually wanted it). All of these roads have benefit cost ratios that make them very questionable.

Long-term plans are being drawn out of old cupboards for road projects dreamed up in the 1960s – like a plan to build a 10-km tunnel under Perth’s Swan River, to link the city’s leafy western suburbs with the similarly well-heeled area around Applecross. Good luck with that one.

Peak car

The congestion trends being used to scare us are not based on actual data, but on projections. They come from a model that is now discredited.

In reality Australian cities peaked in car use per person in 2004, regardless of their level of car use. (All developed cities across the globe seem to have hit such a peak at some point in the last 25 years.)

 

Peak car use in Australian cities. ImageNewman & Kenworthy 2015.

Around the world there is a new dynamic in our cities. The young and wealthy are moving back into cities, where they do not need to use a car; and they are preferring fast trains and buses over traffic, wherever they can.

Rail patronage is booming way beyond predictions, as the speed of rail leaves traffic behind. The table below shows the relative speed of public transport (bus and rail) to traffic: it's gaining, but still loses to private cars. It also shows the relative speed of rail to traffic, which is now beating the traffic in all cities in our global sample.

Comparative Speeds of public transport (bus and rail) to traffic, and also rail to traffic, in global cities. Image: Newman & Kenworthy 2015.

Predicting the traffic

For decades the transport planning profession has used what is known as the Four Step model to predict traffic and hence provide road capacity. It does not suggest alternatives, such as public transport or land use changes, that reduce the need to travel: it simply suggests building more road capacity.

It has been put aside by most European cities, who quickly saw what it did to rip the heart out of American cities. But despite its obvious simplicity it remains one of the modernist tools that are used to explain the future of cities. Most of all it is a tool to create congestion-fear.

The Four Step model now has revealed one major failing: it assumes that, as wealth rises, then car ownership and car use will also rise. As the data above suggest, if we look to the future we can confidently predict that wealth will rise – but we cannot predict that this will automatically mean more car use. The two variables are now decoupling.

The young and the wealthy are buying locations where car dependence is minimised and where sustainable transport options are easily available. Freedom and connection is now based on smart phones and social media – and these are easier to use where you can walk, cycle or use a bus and train.

In the US, the cities that are decoupling GDP from car use the most are the cities which have invested in rail, such as Washington DC and Portland, as you can see in the chart below. In cities that are emphasising sustainable transport modes the economic benefits are increasingly being demonstrated (see also the book and this article by urban theorist Richard Florida). The knowledge economy requires dense centres and spatially efficient modes – walking, cycling and rail transit.

 

Decoupling wealth from car use in Washington DC and Portland, Oregon. Image: Newman & Kenworthy 2015.

This global trend is also not just a phenomenon of wealthy cities. Rail projects are dominating the transport agenda in China, where metros are under construction in 82 cities; and in India, where Prime Minister Modi has declared any city over a million needs quality transit and 51 cities are building metros.

Even if we were faced with a mountain of traffic congestion we should not be building high capacity roads, as they are no longer working to deliver the transport outcomes once expected. The Texas Transportation Institute has compared miles of freeway against delay in the top 20 American cities and found no correlation, as you can see in the chart below.

 

Freeways and delay in American cities. Image: Texas Transportation Institute, Urban Mobility Information.

The latest data on American cities shows that the top six most walkable cities have 38 per cent higher walkability. Australian cities have been showing this in their city centres as well (Gehl, 2011). This is now the real competitive edge attracting capital for the knowledge economy and to retain the young talent. This is how we should be facing the future – not quivering in fear about congestion.

It’s time to change our traffic prediction models.

It’s time to support global trends towards transit, walkability and urban regeneration.

It’s time to drop the big road fetish.

It’s time to stop fear of congestion as the core issue facing the future of our cities. The Conversation

Peter Newman is professor of sustainability at Curtin University

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

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.