Smarter options for tackling traffic congestion

Khyaati Acharya
Insights Newsletter
28 February, 2014

As we discussed in a previous issue of Insights, New Zealand is rated as one of the most congested countries in the world, according to the figures in the latest Tom Tom Traffic Index.

The Amsterdam-based navigation company’s data shows that despite very small urban areas and a low population base, travelling in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch takes 31.3 per cent longer than it should, based on the optimal carrying capacity of the roading infrastructure.

So, how exactly do we tackle this congestion dilemma?

Various solutions have been put on the table, but for the most part they can be summed-up as sitting in either of two camps: build more roads or increase public transit options.

However, research by the Reason Foundation, which looked at 26 years’ worth of data from 74 of the largest urbanised areas in the US, suggests that an either-or approach is far too simplistic.

Their regression analysis revealed that there was no significant correlation between passenger-miles travelled via public transit and road congestion. That is to say, putting in more public transport modes (or capacity) will not reduce gridlock in major cities.

But equally, neither will putting in more roads. According to the analysis, adding highway capacity actually increased congestion across these metros. The same was true for non-highway roads, although the correlation was weaker than for freeways.

While investing in additional roading initially results in a reduction in travel times due to the creation of alternative routes from A to B, the increased capacity is eventually consumed by new traffic. Although the extent of this effect is difficult to measure, it begs the question of whether additional roading infrastructure is economically justified.

So, it seems building more roads is little more than a temporary band-aid rather than a long-term solution.

The study adds to the growing realisation that there is no silver bullet with which to tackle traffic congestion.

What is needed is a combination of transit alternatives; more roading infrastructure, greater penetration of public transport, and some form of road pricing (regardless of how unpopular it may be). After all, economics is built on pricing scarcity, in this case, urban access.

Striking a balance between mobility and liveability is fundamental in any urban area. Cities exist and thrive because they facilitate ease of access between people and places, and we need to put every solution up for discussion if we want to achieve this.

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