Road congestion is not that complicated

Road congestion is not that complicated


We face an indisputable fact in modern, urban society: road congestion is a reality, and this is only getting worse.

A huge part of this problem, and one that has a finger in nearly every other problem in general, is that there are simply too many people who want a piece of a limited resource, of a size of their choosing.

In this particular case, it’s space. People are flooding into urban spaces the world over, and in Melbourne this is at the rate of 2000 people a week, according to this article in the Herald, which reports that VicRoads chief, John Merritt, has suggested that the solution is for more people to ride their bike, walk, use public transport, or work closer to home.

It is no surprise that the last suggestion is getting most of the attention, for the two simple facts that a) you can’t just decide to work wherever you want in most cases, and b) you can’t just decide to live wherever you want, in many cases. Jobs are less plentiful than they used to be, or if not, they are becoming harder to get. House prices are cheaper the further away from city centres you get, so many people simply can’t afford to live wherever they choose.

With these two things conveniently put to the side, the problem is one of access regardless of where you have to travel from.

Part of deciding where to live and where to work is to consider how long it will take to travel between the two, whether you live 1km away or 50km. How long it takes is how long it takes. You can’t decide to live an hours journey from work but expect it to take 45 minutes. You can’t base your 10 minute drive on clear roads and no lights. Reality isn’t perfect, and you shouldn’t base your expectations with the idea that it is. A rational person operates on reality, not on fantasy.

Perhaps precedent is the problem.

Maybe the problem is that people believe that because they currently drive, have driven elsewhere, or simply because they own a car, that they should be able to continue driving indefinitely, wherever and whenever they want. Because it took them less time to get somewhere five years ago, it should take the same amount of time now.

It’s funny how we deal with change in completely different ways depending on what the outcome is. It’s not surprising, but it’s funny. We unthinkingly operate on the belief that progress is achievable in all things, all the time, and to whatever end we desire. We lose our minds when we have to wait more than a few seconds for a page to load on a website, when only a few years ago it took ages, and even that was pretty amazing when you think about it. We take convenience for granted, which is understandable, because that is more or less the same as saying that we take normal for granted.

The reality is different for roads. We would love to have urban travel times as they were “in the good old days” (even if that was before our time), unlike our internet speeds, but choose not to take into account the fact that a given space can only accommodate so many objects. Because reality dictates that it takes longer to move more people through a given space than fewer people, we should, in reality, expect travel times to increase.

That is, if we all continue to carry on as we have been.

In order to maximize the flow of people through a given space, efficiency is the key. We have permanent structures of all kinds in place that cannot simply be pushed aside to create new roads. When people complain about road congestion, what are their solutions? What are they thinking?

Are they thinking?

More roads? Really? Where? Have you looked around lately? Where would you propose we put more roads?

As John Merritt suggested, it’s how we use the existing roads that will determine how efficient they are, but we absolutely need to keep in mind that any solution will be temporary if we continue to try accommodate more people in a given amount of space. That’s why building more roads has never, ever, been a successful solution in the long run, and besides, do you want to live in a city made up entirely of roads?

When the same people who demand faster travel times for their large, single occupant vehicles fail to consider themselves as part of the problem, that’s the problem.

Road congestion is not complicated. You either add more roads, or use them more efficiently. We can’t keep adding more roads, so we have to use them more efficiently.

Efficiency is completing a task with as little waste as possible, so for a road network of a finite size, we need to fit as many people with as little stoppage time as possible on it. How you do fit more people on a road? By having them take up less space.

What takes up less space per person? A full tram or bus or a SUV? An SUV or a car? A car or a bike? A bike or a pedestrian?

We really need to wake up and make some tough decisions. As I’ve said before, we can’t wait for people who are entrenched in the past to voluntarily welcome the future. You can be part of the problem, or part of the solution, and if you drive yourself to work or play when you could take the bus, tram, train, cycle, or walk, then you are quite simply, part of the problem.

Some people genuinely do not find themselves in the position where they can take public transport and cannot use a bike, and that is what the system should allow for. It’s not like we need everyone to stop driving.

There is, however, a staggeringly large portion of the population that can choose to use any of the above options but choose not to, viewing the problem as simultaneously theirs to deal with, but not theirs to solve. That blows my mind.

The other, and equally important part of this equation is that the government needs to accommodate this reality rather than fight it at great expense. Some in government are also, unfortunately, stuck in the past, and they need to hear from you in order to realize that.

Any money spent on infrastructure should be for the purpose of making the existing roads more efficient. Take care of the roads we have and convert them into a place where more people can use them with greater efficiency (and safety), with the knock-on effect of creating healthier, happier people and communities. To help people along a little, we need to create better, more efficient, and safer cycling and walking infrastructure, and more efficient public transport, while limiting the number of vehicles allowed into more dense urban centres.

Road congestion is rather more straight forward than many people would like to think. Unless you have a plan to remove a significant portion of the population from the planet (and if you do, you might want to run that by the police first…) and then figure out how to stabilize the population, the only way forward is to unclog our streets so that they can move as many people, rather than as many cars around, as possible.


Header image: source