Transportation

In Defence of Congestion

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 11, 2012

The Atlantic has been running a truly splendid series of essays on cities, urbanism and urban issues in its special report The Atlantic Cities. An essay posted on June 1 challenges the widely held assumption that congestion is a bad thing.

If it is true that congestion is detrimental to a region's economy, then one would expect that people living in areas with low levels of traffic congestion would be more economically productive, on a per capita basis, than those in areas with high levels of congestion.

The author, Urban and Regional Planning professor Eric Dumbaugh, plotted per capita traffic delay against per capita gross domestic product (GDP) for American cities, and discovered a statistically significant positive correlation between GDP per capita and traffic congestion.

In other words, the cities with the worst congestion also had the most productive economies.

Of course, this is not to suggest that congestion causes productivity. If anything, the reverse is probably true: the most productive cities attract more people and generate more trips.

More important, cities tend to produce the solutions to traffic congestion:

And so on.

However, it is absolutely clear from the data that fast, efficient, high-volume road networks do nothing to create highly productive economies, and nor is the convenience of a city's road network a useful measure of its economic output.

A transport truck passes City Hall on Main Street (RTH file photo)
A transport truck passes City Hall on Main Street (RTH file photo)

One issue the author addresses that has special significance for Hamilton is the matter of goods movement, which is often held up here as a reason we can't make sensible changes to our network of fast, high-volume urban arterials.

A common argument is that if a region's roadways are congested, goods will be unable to get to market and its economy will falter. Yet even the most casual glance at our most congested regions - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to name three - quickly dispels this idea. These are not places where consumer choices are limited, nor are they areas with stagnant economies. Quite the contrary. They are precisely the areas where one finds not only the most vibrant economies, but also the greatest variety of goods and services.

Pay careful attention to the author's answer:

A common argument is that if a region’s roadways are congested, goods will be unable to get to market and its economy will falter. Yet even the most casual glance at our most congested regions - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to name three - quickly dispels this idea. These are not places where consumer choices are limited, nor are they areas with stagnant economies. Quite the contrary. They are precisely the areas where one finds not only the most vibrant economies, but also the greatest variety of goods and services.

Instead of transport trucks blasting through downtown Hamilton, we should be reserving that space for urban activities and moving goods on Hamilton's continuous ring highway network.

As for local deliveries:

This is currently addressed through a variety of strategies, including the scheduling of deliveries to off-peak periods and the use of bicycle couriers in highly-congested areas. It has also led to the development of more technologically-sophisticated solutions, such as the use of GPS-based fleet management systems that permit dynamic trip scheduling and routing, allowing drivers to bypass localized pockets of traffic congestion. This is a growth industry that is projected to generate more than $9 billion in annual revenues by 2015.

There's no reason for Hamilton's streets to remain in thrall to our goods movement industry. By continuing to allow fast, high-volume traffic flows through our downtown - the part of our city with the best prospects of generating economic growth and raising our per capita GDP - we are actually hurting our economy, not helping it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 07:11:08

I rarely see transport trucks using King and Main any more since the RHVP opened. Gridlock, at least in the Hamilton sense, is almost purely vehicles. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that more productive cities have more gridlock, as there are more people employed, thus more people in the cities.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 08:06:42 in reply to Comment 78293

You need to head back to Main and York and have another look. Transport trucks galore. 24-7. Also, King St west of Queen (they aren't allowed east of Queen).

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 22:11:08 in reply to Comment 78296

Where do Main and York intersect? Those are parallel streets. I drive along King and Main daily, and see the odd truck go by. Not like it used to be a couple of years ago where King and Main were truck routes across the city.

I don't go on York much but I can understand if they are getting on/off the highway along that stretch.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 12, 2012 at 06:38:52 in reply to Comment 78338

Where do Main and York intersect? Those are parallel streets. I drive along King and Main daily, and see the odd truck go by. Not like it used to be a couple of years ago where King and Main were truck routes across the city.

I didn't read "Man and York" to be an intersection and doubt it was meant that way. Anyhow ...

I bike along King a few times a week - one is very aware of transport trucks when on a bike. I encounter one or more trucks on King West between John and Dundurn as often as not.

Sometimes on King West in Westdale, too ... but that's a hobby horse to ride to death another day.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 09:21:17

However, it is absolutely clear from the data that fast, efficient, high-volume road networks do nothing to create highly productive economies, and nor is the convenience of a city's road network a useful measure of its economic output.

The same can be said for bike paths, sidewalks, hospitals, and the internet. Does that mean that they're not important? Obviously, no.

Perhaps high volume road networks do not create highly productive economies, but they are a crucial and vitally important part on one.

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By EarthEutherian (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 10:13:31 in reply to Comment 78301

Actually it looks like cities with high volume road networks are associated with less productive economies.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 21:30:12 in reply to Comment 78302

Which ones are you thinking of?

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By Graefe (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:30:12

Funny, I remember a brainstorming session for the city's Transporation Master Plan, where they asked what the goals of our transportation system should be. David Cohen was first to answer and said, "more congestion." The consultant (from IBI, if I recall correctly) refused to write it on the board until David insisted.
Is that the answer? I'm not sure. But I don't trust the answer from a decision-making process that cannot even understand/engage such an answer in a serious manner.

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By congestion is an effect (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 15:12:01

Congestion does nothing for an area. Congestion is an effect of high volumes of people not a cause. Creating congestion just for the sake of congestion is counterproductive. The argument only serves to show that the writers supporting this notion refuse to debate honestly

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 11, 2012 at 15:56:29 in reply to Comment 78313

The article explicitly states:

Of course, this is not to suggest that congestion causes productivity. If anything, the reverse is probably true: the most productive cities attract more people and generate more trips.

Please stop attacking a strawman.

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By no strawman (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2012 at 16:27:25

If you want to argue that congestion is good like the entire body of the article tries to its no strawman argument to point out that congestion does nothing for a community but it is rather a symptom of a healthy community. That minor disclaimer is an aside only whereas its actually the very most important point of the article. Creating congestion does not attract people or business as the article infers notwithstanding the qualification. To infer that you aren't trying to say that congestion should be created to create a healthy core is dishonest

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