The Thing About Congestion Is It Means People Are In Each Others’ Way

As you may have heard if you live here in Metro Vancouver, we are having a referendum this spring to approve a plan for fighting traffic congestion. We’ve heard for years that Vancouver has some of the worst traffic congestion in the Americas. So it’s time to properly fund some transportation investments as a first step to cut congestion.

I assumed that the first job would be to make the case for the specific transportation investments outlined in the Mayors Council’s plan. But a recent column in the Toronto Star suggested that congestion itself is actually a good thing. (Toronto is also considering tackling congestion.) So it may be that the case against congestion is not as obvious as I thought. Thus I’d like to address a few points in Shawn Micallef’s column, “The thing about congestion is it means people want to be here.”

Congestion Means People Want To Be Somewhere Else

Micallef makes an analogy between congestion and a lineup outside a nightclub trying to appear more popular. But most of those people don’t want to wait in line; they want to be inside, where the party is. Likewise, most people in traffic are trying to get to their jobs, their homes, to parks and stores and rec centres and stadiums, places where something is happening. Politicians shouldn’t imitate the insecure club owners, making people wait needlessly so that the club appears to be a desirable place to be. Instead they should build vibrant town centers, connected communities, and then provide options for people to get where they’re going.

Traffic is Dangerous For Pedestrians and Drivers Alike

Micallef writes that “jammed traffic can be good for pedestrians,” because they can “cross through the slow moving traffic on foot anywhere midblock.” On the contrary, increased traffic congestion leads to an increase in collisions, and jaywalking doesn’t help. To increase pedestrian safety, we need to design our cities around walkers, not drivers. One factor that can improve public safety is increased transit.

Cities Should Be Built For People, Not Just Their Cars

Here Micallef and I agree. He spends the last half of his column writing about the pleasures of big-city life, with enough people “to make a city interesting and exciting.” This is why many of us move to big cities, for the serendipity that comes from large numbers of people in constant contact with each other. Micallef writes about the “electricity” of walking down busy sidewalks, through transit hubs, around public art in shopping centres.

But car traffic is nothing like this. For most people, commuting for an hour can reduce their happiness by the same amount as a $10,000 annual pay cut. Most driving isn’t “interesting and exciting”, it isn’t a way to be connected to the crowds around you; it’s driving down a clogged highway or looking for a parking spot.

I feel like Micallef and I want the same thing: a lively community, a sense that we’re in the middle of things, and a connection to other people. But heavy traffic congestion is an obstacle to this sense of connectedness, not a necessary part of it. With many different transportation options, people can get where they’re going together, without getting in each others’ way. And part of that providing that solution is building more transit.

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