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In a newly released study, researchers reportedly confirmed what commuters have known for years: by making driving more convenient, transportation planners are basically ensuring that their communities are choked by gridlock and everyone out on the road has a slower route to their destinations.
In the new study, a coalition of academics from around the world modeled what would happen if all residents of a car-centric city made their transportation choices solely on the basis of how much time they would save by taking the fastest mode available to them, which, for most of them, would be a personal car. Ironically, yet unsurprisingly, the model showed that when everyone tries to speed up their commute by hopping in their cars, they end up creating traffic jams, which they slow down average travel times by about 25% compared to how fast they’d be if there were no other traffic on the road at all.
And given the law of induced demand — increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion — there’s simply no way to cut that congestion by building more lanes along the most popular routes. This, in a way, affirms that the only way to get rid of excessive traffic is to incentivize drivers to start using other modes of transportation by making them as fast, safe, and affordable as possible.
The lead researcher behind the study, mathematician Raphael Prieto Curiel, reportedly shared that the paper was inspired by a long queue at a transit kiosk rather than a long wait in a traffic jam. He said that transportation planners often under-estimate the tools at their disposal to speed up transit service — like adding a contactless payment option at that over-crowded kiosk, or adding a bus rapid transit lane — while overestimating their tools to speed up driving commutes, which quickly becomes mathematically impossible in a contained city environment.
Making transit speedier and active modes safer doesn’t necessarily mean cities have to ban cars from their streets altogether. But some suggest that cities should stop over-focusing on the occasions when driving really is necessary and start thinking about how to get people where they need to go as quickly as possible on mass modes.
“Once I started talking about this article, people immediately said, ‘But how is my grandma going to go to the hospital when she has a broken leg?’ Obviously, there are journeys that can’t be done by walking or on the Metro. But it’s not the outlier, special sort of journey that you need to think about — it’s the average one. It’s millions of people going to work and coming back, going to school and back, going to the grocery store and back,” Prieto Curiel explained.
Prieto Curiel acknowledges that the biggest shortcoming of his model is that it doesn’t adjust for how safety, comfort, cost, and other factors impact mode choice. Taken together, those obstacles can make getting people onto transit an all-too-literal uphill climb. But despite all the challenges and the work to be done, the paradox at the heart of the paper is still a critical one for planners to remember — especially if their number one goal is decreasing congestion.
“If there’s a lot of traffic, we can do so many things to fight that,” said Prieto Curiel. “We can reduce the number of lanes for cars and give more space to bikes, or pedestrians, or public transport. We can have fewer parking spaces, fewer shared lanes, and gradually increase the incremental costs of driving in all these ways. We just need to stop designing cities for cars.”