The Right Question of Congestion

As you may have seen, A New Dallas non-profit and movement, has grown up.  It has now spun-off a political action committee.  A New Dallas has always been about more than just 345.  345 just happened to be the most ripe target to generate a dialogue about what’s best for the city of Dallas, increasing investment in the urban core in a sustainable, market-oriented fashion, and increasing the transportation options for residents.

Of course, transportation options require certain conditions.  Transit and walkability require a certain density threshold for convenience and ridership.  Density creates convenience of proximity and a natural solution to the ‘last mile problem,’ which creates ridership on transit, which brings increased revenue, which adds services such as lower headways or more alternatives, and thus even more convenience.  It’s a virtuous circle when you think about how land use and transportation infrastructure are inextricably linked.

Unfortunately, for too long we haven’t thought about this systemically.  Instead, it was more of a modernist, industrialized conveyer belt of problems and short-term solutions solved in a vacuum inconsiderate of repercussions, context, or consequences.  It saw/sees the city as something that creates congestion and thus the city is a problem, not dissimilar to how Le Corbusier or Robert Moses saw the city and the problem of congestion.

I believe we have to be smarter about the issue of congestion.  To solve it, we have to fully understand what, where, when, why, and how.  The way most people typically think of congestion is stand still traffic on a highway during rush hour.  They’re not wrong.  This sentiment however is used to ‘solve’ it by adding more highway capacity, more supply and much, much more cost to the taxpayer and the city long-term.

Instead, we should be thinking about demand-oriented solutions.  Why must we drive so far?  Why is driving the only legitimate choice and therefore compulsory?  Why does it only occur at certain hours.  These are all problems, not of enough corridor capacity, but network problems – the dendritic hierarchical system of arterials and limited access highways that funnels traffic together, land use problems – destinations are too spread out and inconvenient, and timing problems – the 9 to 5 work day, which very dense cities get around by offering incentives to businesses and commuters who stagger their work hours.

What is congestion and where does it come from?  And and (sic) is it always bad?

1.  People going about there day in pursuit of social and economic exchange (GOOD THING)

2.  All funneled to certain corridors (BAD: network problem – inherent to limited access highways in urban contexts)

3.  All moving at the same time, same direction (BAD: land use and work hours problem)

4.  All in one form of transportation (BAD: all in cars)

That people are moving about is a good thing.  The bad part is distance, time, direction, and mode within networks that funnel a variety of forms of traffic (local trips, regional trips, and interstate) onto one corridor to compete within limited space.  This is a fundamental failing of modernist transportation planners.

The key here is number 1, people making trips, going about their day, participating in the life of the city, enacting social and economic exchange is how the world goes round.  I suspect this is partially why economists and engineers (perhaps conveniently) confuse VMT with economic activity.  In one sense, it is.  It’s GDP.  We’re spending on cars and gas and roads to get to the 7-11.  That’s inherently the weakness of GDP.  It doesn’t measure waste.

To paraphrase Lewis Mumford, the purpose of infrastructure is to maximize the variety of goods in the most convenient locations to deliver to the market.  Said another way, to reduce the amount of cost and energy between producer-market-consumer.

A statistical anecdote to demonstrate:  Houston (a statistical proxy for DFW on the global scale), makes 95% of trips by car.  Copenhagen metro area makes 54% of trips by car.  The crucial difference is that Houston spends 14% of its GDP on transportation.  CPH spends 4% of GDP on transportation, making the same trips – to work, school, amenities, and daily needs.

That 10% gap is waste as the majority of those costs leave the local economy.  10%, if you can recoup it, is a significant amount to a large urban economy.  Dallas County’s annual GDP is a bit over $200 billion.

It’s worth keeping in mind that not all congestion is bad, just its form.  Much like gentrification.  The question is how to use it for good and design a city to maximize the good and minimize the bad.

The essence of a city is about creating congestion, about bringing people together in order to facilitate improved quality of life through social and economic exchange.  Cities make congestion – if the definition is bringing people together, a lively economy – friction as far as the traffic engineer is concerned.  Something to be done away with.  However, if cities were the problem we wouldn’t love them.  We’d bulldoze them all in the name of Robert Moses, who wrongly though highways yielded density.  It didn’t.  His modernist worldview, was top down and inorganic.  Thus, it failed.  Yet, we continue to follow it in Texas.