Strong Towns offers important insights on congestion

The Strong Towns website has posted a series of important articles on congestion. Taken together, they frame how public agencies in California and the U.S. have been doggedly heading in the wrong direction in transportation and land use planning. Here’s a sampling:

The Causes of Traffic and Congestion, addresses the question of whether new development causes more traffic. Here is its excellent summary:

  1. Development can add traffic. However, development that brings amenities and people closer together and reduces the need to travel so far can actually reduce traffic. With a mixture of uses, you can achieve a high population density with very little motor traffic.
  2. A highly-connected street network (either a street grid or organic) with many redundancies better distributes the load of traffic and is more resilient to disruptions.
  3. Designated thoroughfares and bypasses create an illusion of traffic because they funnel the traffic through a single point (and with this comes the fragility of a single point of failure that can bring down the system).
  4. Attempting to address congestion with solutions that make it easier to drive can make the problem worse by continuing to make the car the preferred way to get around.
  5. We should not worry too much about congestion, because it creates demand for other modes of transportation and for amenities to be closer.

For a Bay Area obsessed with congestion, this quote puts it all in context: “At the end of the day, we should not worry too much about congestion or traffic. Congestion is part of the solution, not the problem. Congestion is feedback that we have built a place people want to be.”

The Neighborhood Traffic Trade-Off takes down the standard NIMBY argument against development:

“People like to blame traffic on one simple, but logical, cause: there are “too many cars” on the road. Opponents of new development, in particular, cite traffic more often than any other issue as a reason for their opposition. …”

“a hierarchical street network, in which most vehicle trips are funneled onto a small number of major routes, is a perfect recipe for congestion. A well-connected grid, on the other hand, is as good an antidote to congestion as will ever exist.”

TRANSDEF finds this article very helpful when looking at the local scale of development, but finds it inapplicable to the regional scale. In a region like the Bay Area, where bodies of water and community separators essentially force travel between cities onto major routes, there is no grid to spread the traffic out over. For travel around a region, we think the NIMBY argument that “there are too many cars” is entirely valid (for a given level of infrastructure–and the serious environmental and financial constraints that eliminate the possibility of major future roadway widenings), with the clarification that the precise problem is “too many solo drivers.” This tells us that our society has reached the limits of the suburban lifestyle. If future growth is to occur, the new arrivals will need to live with far less use of automobiles. See our Regional Measure 3 opinion piece, which goes into greater detail on real solutions vs. faux solutions.

The Catch-22 of Retrofitting the Suburbs describes the difficulty of transitioning from an auto-dependent society to one that relies on alternative modes and mixed-use land use to greatly reduce car travel. While the observations in the article are powerful and sobering, TRANSDEF has strong doubts about the incrementalist strategy that is at the root of the Strong Towns’ philosophy. Our organization’s focus is on climate change, because we see the window of opportunity to avert catastrophic global climate change closing fast. Human nature seems to inherently incremental. This poses a seemingly insurmountable problem for climate activists, who recognize the dire need for radical change but can’t find a way to make it happen. We fear the needed political will can only develop after far more climate-caused devastation. By then, though, it will be too late to act, as positive feedback loops melt the polar regions and create runaway global warming. Strong Towns appears to us to have blinders on about the existential threat posed by incrementalism.

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