advocacy public policy sustainability governance governance public transport traffic congestion value for money

Traffic congestion – Is it a problem?

The current political mindset has been described by Prof Graham Currie “as a negative spiral which focuses on congestion ‘solutions’ in which politicians claim we will solve congestion with big investment.”

Congestion is frequently raised as a huge cost in our cities and it is often promoted in fearful terms like the following : Cities afraid of death by congestion.

The first paragraph reads: “A plan to widen part of Interstate 10 in metropolitan Phoenix from 14 lanes to 24 lanes is the USA’s latest giant superhighway proposal designed to ease the kind of gridlock that some planners say could stunt economic growth.”

Similar messages are being conveyed to government by companies that have a vested interest in promoting similar outcomes in Melbourne. These include Transurban, engineering construction companies, the road lobby and others who have the government’s ear and are defining the transport ‘problem’ in their terms ie in terms of congestion and potential gridlock, and solutions being to build more, larger, and vastly expensive road projects, user pays solutions and public private partnerships promoted with very slick marketing. It also includes finance companies, superannuation funds and others looking for “rent seeking” opportunities.

The current political mindset has been described by Prof Graham Currie “as a negative spiral which focuses on congestion ‘solutions’ in which politicians claim we will solve congestion with big investment. Expectations are raised (despite the fact that congestions can never be solved), congestion gets worse leading to credibility loss , followed by a positive approach which admits congestion can never be solved but will address worst impacts with more big investment thereby lowering expectations and credibility gain because congestion outcomes are as expected”.

But is congestion such a bad problem anyway. Transport analysts such as David Metz in the UK have shown that congestion can have a positive function, that there is no such thing as free flow of traffic (at average 80kph) in a city the size of Melbourne, and that congestion points filter traffic on to narrow city streets preventing terminal gridlock.

This view is supported by Wesley Marshall and Eric Dumbaugh Wesley E. Marshall & Eric Dumbaugh, 2020. “Revisiting the relationship between traffic congestion and the economy: a longitudinal examination of U.S. metropolitan areas“, and their findings that ” current concerns about traffic congestion negatively impacting the economy may not be particularly well founded. “Our findings suggest that a region’s economy is not significantly impacted by traffic congestion.

In fact, the results even suggest a positive association between traffic congestion and economic productivity as well as jobs,”. “Without traffic congestion, there would be less incentive for infill development, living in an location-efficient place, walking, biking, and transit use, ridesharing, innovations in urban freight, etc,” “And if your city doesn’t have any traffic congestion, there is something really wrong.”

If we are to get better transport outcomes in Melbourne we need to change the current political mindset. Instead of thinking about congestion as a cost, we need to persuade government that traffic congestion is an indication that we are not using the transport system efficiently and encourage it to develop policies and strategies to make this happen.

This strategy also avoids the risk of stranded assets as the economy and transport environment change in a post covid world, when social and economic conditions remain depressed and there is greater environmental pressure for change.

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