I’m being asked more and more lately about congestion: why don’t we just build more roads and erase these congestion problems? We’re addicted to our cars – the more the patient relies on the ‘quick fix’, the more the patient needs it. There is good evidence around the world that building more road infrastructure encourages more car use. So short term gain, but longer-term pain. Congestion is all about bottlenecks in the network and it is true that our peaks now last longer than one hour. Eliminating certain bottlenecks to increase capacity would only shorten peaks a little, not eliminate congestion, or provide sustainable solutions because latent private vehicle demand would quickly return conditions to where they were before the new road was built.
But should we concerned with moving cars, or people?
Putting aside the debate on quality mass transit (rail and bus operations) for a moment, the single-person-car commute is a luxury we can no longer afford. Why spend any more on infrastructure than is absolutely necessary (repairs, maintenance)? Congestion charging, toll fees, higher fuel levies etc. are simply taxes that are passed onto the consumer in one way or another. Taxes often breed contempt through an unwillingness-to-pay principle but do they change behavior?
The success of the private car stems from offering a flexibility of travel: a freedom to choose our time and space and thus control our day. Yes, its great to listen to the radio, be warm, dry and cosy and yes, catch up on those calls with our hands-free. But is this preferred choice actually diminishing our flexibility because we no longer can enjoy reliable travel times – would a consistent 60 minute trip every day not be better than a 45 minute trip one day and an hour and 45 minutes the next?
Would ‘appropriate’ congestion encourage more public transport use – it may indeed, if there was a safe and reliable public transport alternative. Then what of the promise of variable working hours, future technologies, autonomous vehicles etc. We all need a little more encouragement to believe….. that nagging question remains – do we build more infrastructure or manage what we have better? What can be done NOW, to improve congested conditions: improve mobility, accessibility, support the economy and encourage sustainable growth?
I believe the answer is out there, although making a difference will require real commitment from all of us. Much is made of the ‘inappropriate’ minibus taxi vehicle serving long-distance routes uneconomically (in relation to bus and rail). What if a similar form of transport were used to replace the private vehicle (single person) commute? Replace 12 private vehicles with one MaaS (Mobility as a Service) vehicle carrying 12 passengers? OK, maybe unrealistic! Let’s start with just 6 passengers in each MaaS! Then we remove 5 vehicles from the commute trip. If we can achieve this reduction, it could be like commuting in school holidays. Does this sound attractive?
I said in my first post, Mobility as a Service is coming to a City near you. There are Apps out there that will match your origin with your destination, pair your travel times to your business meetings and become flexible to get you home if a crisis strikes, or the dentist appointment looms. It is do-able. All we have to do is change our behaviour! It starts with us – Let’s not be sheep.
So should we build, or not? The evidence against is mounting. As planners, we need to be questioning why the only options being considered are in fact those designed to make congestion worse.
Road Infrastructure: to build, or not to build….. is that the question?