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Seductive but destructive goals: congestion-free and affordable driving

Urban transport decision-makers face huge pressures to keep driving uncongested and to keep it cheap.

But take a look at cities that have worked long and hard to get free-flowing traffic and affordable driving. I doubt you will like what you see.

This point was a central theme of my chapter "Achieving Sustainable Mobility" which appears in The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015 jointly published late last year by UN-ESCAP and UN-HABITAT.
The twin desires for congestion-free and affordable driving are understandable. They are politically seductive and play to motorists’ desires and the interests of car industries. But these desires are sending too many cities and their mobility systems down inequitable, costly and environmentally destructive development paths.

The results of preventing congestion and of keeping driving cheap


If private vehicle numbers rise quickly in a city with few cars, it is tempting to focus first on boosting road capacity. And, since such cities are not rich, it is also tempting to try to keep driving cheap.

The result, before long, is a "Traffic Saturated" city (increasingly filled with traffic but not yet well-adapted to cars). Such cities, such as Cairo, Delhi, Jakarta, Manila, and Tehran, have escalating problems:

  • street-based public transport mired in congestion; 
  • slow goods movement; 
  • increasing road crash casualties; 
  • health impacts of air pollution; 
  • blighted public places; 
  • shrinking space for walking or cycling; 
  • worsening exclusion of the poor, people with disabilities, the frail and the elderly; and
  • burdensome transport costs for municipal budgets.

Furthermore, if governments continue to work over decades to expand traffic capacity and to avoid cost burdens on motorists, they risk creating an increasingly "automobile dependent" city (thoroughly adapted to cars), such as Atlanta in the USA or Perth in Australia with:
  • Very high levels of car ownership and use.
  • Dispersed jobs and very low population densities, with long trip distances, making any rise in driving costs or any drop in speeds a serious problem, especially for low-income households living in car-dependent locations. 
  • People without a car are seriously disadvantaged because public transport has low service levels outside key corridors and outside peak times. 
  • High per capita negative impacts of traffic such as high-energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, air pollution is often quite dispersed in these low-density cities and less of a problem than in traffic saturated cities. 
  • High total costs per capita, requiring large investments by households (in vehicles and running them) and by governments (in roads and in loss-making public transport) and by developers (in required parking for example). 
  • It is difficult to shift away from such deeply entrenched car dependence, since high car use is profoundly embedded in technical systems, planning regulations, industries and institutions, parking space, life-styles and habits, as well as personal investments. 

So, focusing on easing traffic congestion and on keeping driving cheap will not help you get more sustainable urban transport.  What will?

The alternative? Strive to become more of a "New Transit City"!

Bogotá, Curitiba, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore and Taipei are examples of cities that have increasingly become New Transit Cities. Each was suffering as a Traffic Saturated city but took decisive steps to change direction, using efforts to:

  • Keep cars optional rather than a necessity. Politically, these cities often resist the cries of motorists that "I need my car". Instead they constantly improve the alternatives.
  • Face up to space and financial constraints as key reasons to avoid space-consuming car-dominated mobility priorities and to resist motorists' pleas to keep driving cheap. 
  • Make enhancing ease of access a central goal rather than enabling fast driving. Focus on space-efficient modes of transport and foster compact development so people can easily reach a wide range of destinations with few long journeys. 
  • Enable liveability gains and great urban places by avoiding car-dominated mobility. Preserving much-loved places or rescuing them from traffic impacts is a key benefit of transit-city policies. building much-needed public support. 


Which strategy do you think is best for newly motorizing cities or traffic saturated cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America?

If you are interested, this previous post has more on the "New Transit City" strategy.

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