Monthly Archives: February 2008

Congestion: The Elephant in the Bedroom



By Dom Nozzi


Too often, traffic engineers, planners, urbanists and architects get caught up in bean-counting minutiae when it comes to proposed development in a community. They are blinded by a single-minded focus on VMTs. MPGs. ADTs…


Such efforts tend to have us lose sight of our over-riding community objective: “What must be done to promote human happiness?


traffic-jam-on-huge-hwyAfter all, at the end of the day, even if we have done all the mathematical calculations, run the computer models, and solved the equations, what are we left with? A pleasant community we are proud of? Or a place that only a Ford could love?


As we know, cars consume an enormous amount of space. So much that only a tiny handful of people in cars will congest a street. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for a healthy, vibrant city to escape traffic congestion.


Indeed, any city worth its salt has a traffic congestion problem.


Because cars take up so much space, striving for “free-flowing traffic” or otherwise conveniencing cars is toxic to a walkable, compact, human-scaled, vibrant urbanity. By striving for “free-flowing cars,” we must minimize the number of people in the area (when they are in cars), and build enormous, unwalkable, unlovable car routes and storage areas.


The toxic “remedies” for inconvenienced cars—the most commonly accepted strategies for reducing congestion—are road widening, and minimizing densities or commercial intensities. And both of these are deadly to urbanity.


Given the above, urbanists fall into a tactical trap when they accept the societal consensus that congestion is evil and must be fought or reduced at all costs.


No, urbanists must confront the elephant in the bedroom, and begin to change how our society views congestion. Congestion must be acknowledged as the friend of urbanity. It is a sign of health. Not an evil that must be reduced to the point of financial bankruptcy and the ruinous sterilization of a community. A community that has become more conducive to being a lunar landscape car habitat rather than a walkable-stcharming, human-scaled people habitat.


This is not to say that urbanists should passively admit that society should resign itself to being stuck in traffic. On the contrary, what the urbanist should quickly point out is that quality urbanism delivers an effective means of escaping congestion if one is unwilling to tolerate it. Urbanism delivers vibrant, in-town urbanity. Urbanism delivers walkability, because destinations are so close by. Urbanism delivers bicycling and transit options.


Each of these options—properly deployed—can lead to life satisfaction and an ability to accept or otherwise tolerate congestion as a necessary aspect of a healthy, sustainable urbanity.


It is time for urbanists to escape the trap of both VMT bean-counting and the ruinous quest to “reduce traffic congestion.”




Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

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