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In urban transport be careful what you wish for

Freely flowing traffic is a good thing, right? And affordable motoring is good too, isn't it? Most motorists in most cities would surely agree. Maybe you would too?

But as citizens and voters I think we need to be careful what we wish for. When political leaders decide that the central goals of urban transport policy are 1) solving traffic congestion and 2) keeping driving affordable, they may make themselves popular with motorists, but they also risk gradually turning their city into a monster. 

I argued along these lines in a talk I gave on Wednesday to a couple of hundred junior college (high school) students (the presentation is at the end of this post). It was a non-technical talk on basic priorities in urban transport planning.

Below is part of my reasoning.

The Los Angeles region is not the world's most automobile-dependent city but it is the only mega-city to try so hard to keep driving fast and cheap.

When faced with traffic problems it is tempting to just expand roads in the hope of increasing traffic speeds. This can actually work, given enough investment in high-capacity roads (a huge amount in fact). It is also tempting to avoid congestion by planning for low densities, so traffic doesn't concentrate too much in any one place, and to require lots of parking (free of course). But if these are our key priorities, they lead to unfortunate long term results.

After a few decades of such efforts to ease traffic we will have built ourselves a much more car-dependent urban structure than before. All those roads end up buying more space, not the time savings they were expected to. On average, traffic will probably move pretty fast but a sprawling urban fabric means that most people will have no choice but to travel long distances every day. At every step in this scenario, motorists can see that the alternatives to driving are bad and getting worse while key destinations are scattering over a wide area. In such a context, price rises for vehicles, fuel, parking or road use are extremely unpopular.

Eventually, we will have created an 'automobile dependent' metropolitan area. This is what happened in most North American metro areas between the 1950s and today. Atlanta is a classic example. Suburban dwellers in such places don't perceive much alternative to driving and are desperate to keep driving cheap.

So what should we wish for, especially in Asian cities that are not yet car dependent?  How about calling for policies that focus on these three things?
  1. Focus more on REACHING things than on moving (especially not on moving vehicles). In other words, focus more on accessibility
  2. Make PLACES a higher priority (and their quality). Don’t let traffic blight key urban places. Treat streets as places and as access facilities and not just traffic facilities 
  3. Nurture alternatives to privately owned cars that are comprehensive, integrated and of high quality.

If we are successful at priorities like these would anyone worry so much about traffic speed or the cost of driving?

Here is the presentation that went with the talk.


  1. Hi Paul,
    Very interesting material put together by you in a very simple language. There is a great scope for taking this further to the (urban) designers. Sometimes, I find them not be very well-exposed to the transport philosophy while designing streets. Thanks anyways!


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