Traffic Congestion Was Last Century’s Problem…but It Is This Century’s Solution

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Instead of a river network, examine a similar system of roadways during a typical commute. Here we have rain of a different sort: the automobiles that emanate forth from the developments we induce, subsidize and cheer for out on the periphery of our cities.

The cars travel local streets, empty into collectors, then into arterials and major arterials, and then into our highway networks.

It’s Hydrology 101, so why are we so shocked when this produces a flood?

WE. CREATE. THE. FLOOD.

If we were going to design a system to generate the maximum amount of congestion each day, this is exactly how it would be done. This is why all American cities, big, small, and in between, experience some level of congestion during commutes. We take whatever cars we have and funnel them into the same place at the same time. We manufacture a flood.

As per Hydrology 101, the only long-term way to address traffic flooding is to go to the source. Auto trips need to be retained near where they originate, or transformed into non-auto trips, to prevent them from accumulating and flowing further downstream. We need to create local alternatives to an auto trip.

That means building more corner stores and neighborhood businesses. It means creating more local jobs and housing options. It means emphasizing sidewalks and biking infrastructure so that people have more alternative ways to respond to congestion. These things are also good and necessary outcomes if our cities are to become financially strong and resilient.

Traffic congestion was last century’s problem, but it is this century’s solution. Traffic congestion accelerates demand for local alternatives, the stuff we need to be building. We can’t build our way out of congestion if the only building we do is more transportation infrastructure. If we instead expand our toolbox to include building more complete and prosperous neighborhoods, then traffic congestion becomes the catalyst for a renewed local prosperity.

For a nation of insolvent cities, the struggle against traffic congestion is over. The struggle to build stronger places is upon us, and in that, traffic congestion is now our ally.

If you are interested in learning more about traffic congestion and how we can respond to it, we have created some pre-order bonuses for people who purchase Confessions of a Recovering Engineer before September 8. This includes “30 Days of Confessions,” a video series we will be sharing starting next month exclusively to those who have pre-ordered the book. We are also offering a steep discount on Aligning Transportation with a Strong Towns Approach, a Strong Towns Academy course providing a deep dive into applying the principles in the book. Both of these, and more, are available at confessions.engineer.

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