congestion and the misallocation of space

An Example of Congestion in the National Capital Region

Let’s look at the 4-lane stretch of Rue Laurier running from Alexandra to Sacre-Coeur in Gatineau.  Running beside Parc Jacques-Cartier.  Running between people’s houses on the east and the park along the river on the west.

In the morning during rush hour it is jammed bumper-to-bumper southbound only.  In the evening during rush hour it is jammed bumper-to-bumper northbound only.

The rest of the time it is basically empty, with the few cars speeding as fast as they can.

So how have we allocated this space?  Basically we’ve spent millions of dollars on construction and maintenance of 4 lanes, of which two are jammed for an hour in the morning and two are jammed for an hour in the evening.  10 hours of (half) capacity use per week.  Millions of dollars, for two lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.  And be mindful that this is not thousands of people.  Cars are ridiculously big.  There is usually only one person in the car.  This means a giant line of bumper-to-bumper traffic has only dozens, maybe on the order of a hundred actual people being moved.  A kilometre of traffic jam has fewer people than in a first year undergrad seminar room.

(As a side note, people say “the road is jammed but the bike lane is empty” because the road fillled with single passenger cars is incredibly space inefficient.  The bike lane isn’t underused, it’s just massively more efficient than the car lanes.)

Allocating space to cars in this way would be great if it had huge benefits for all.

But actually you’ve spent millions of dollars for ten hours a week, and

  • the few hundred people who get to sit in the traffic jam are mostly non-local
  • you’ve put four lanes between people’s houses and a park, with zero crossings directly between people’s houses and the park
  • you’ve reduced the value of those houses because they front on four lanes of road
  • you’ve made a dangerous road with no separated bike lanes
  • during the non-rush hours, the cars speed as fast as they can
  • you’ve made an unpleasant pedestrian experience with cars, splashing, slush, snow and ice (as a bonus, the sidewalks are particularly poorly maintained in winter because hey, who would walk there)

So for ten hours a week for a few hundred non-residents (who are in a traffic jam), you’ve got four lanes of empty space that make things worse, in terms of experience and in terms of money for residents and the city, in terms of reduced cycling and walking, and in reducing the use of a park, for the other 8240 hours a year.  10 hours of mediocre travel for a few, resulting in 8240 hours of mediocre experience for everyone else.

It’s lose lose lose.

When you look at that rush hour congestion, you should see an opportunity to save money and make money.  For a triumph of capitalism.  Narrow the road to two lanes, put in wider sidewalks and two protected bike lanes, and put in a mid-way crossing.  Way more efficient use of road space.  Way lower maintenance costs.  Way lower risk of injuries.  Way higher values for the houses.  Increased use of the park.

But no.  We’d rather make ourselves poorer for 10 hours a week of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It’s insane.

My Conclusion About Congestion

UPDATE: I would distinguish between the kind of rush hour congestion I describe above, and congestion that represents a busy city with complete streets functioning normally.  Congestion that’s a result of popular spaces is very different from congestion resulting from bad system design.  ENDUPDATE

What congestion pricing is actually about is

  • spacing the cars out in time so that the road space can be more efficiently used
  • encouraging people to share a car so that the road space can be more efficiently used
  • shifting people to other modes so that the road space can be more efficiently used

Congestion solutions are about saving everyone money and time, while increasing the value of the urban landscape, benefiting both the city through taxes and the residents through housing value and quality of life.

Opposing addressing this kind of congestion is basically declaring yourself in favour of a mediocre experience for a tiny number of people for a tiny number of hours a year, rather than benefiting everyone all year.  But that’s what passes for “common sense” after decades of car-centric planning.  Roads must be free and wide and all must suffer because that’s the way it’s always been.

Ottawa Council’s Conclusion About Congestion

Council vote on a congestion study, April 13, 2016

congestion vote