“Good” and “Bad” Traffic Congestion

By Dom Nozzi

Recently, a colleague of mine pointed out that it is common for a town center to have traffic congestion, and that this was acceptable in part because congestion can make walking more safe, or improve the desirability of transit. This is, for him, an example of “good” congestion.”

I responded by indicating that I fully agreed. After all, low-cost, convenient car travel is incompatible with a quality, lovable walking ambience, largely due to the enormous space consumed by cars (that are convenienced by having an excessive amount of space devoted to cars), and the high speeds achieved by motor vehicles (when we design for the convenience of motorists).

I pointed out to him that I believe an essential task for those seeking a more sustainable and quality community is to find a way to build a community awareness that if we are to have a more pleasant community design for PEOPLE, cars must be inconvenienced and more costly to use. Higher residential densities (in town centers), higher gas costs, higher parking costs, and priced roadways are things that will effectively bring about that awareness, and are rather likely in our future due to emerging financial, environmental and energy issues. I believe those emerging trends are inevitable, but hope we can accelerate their emergence through political and rhetorical means.

The faster we take corrective measures, the less painful our future will be.

My colleague also pointed out that there is, on the other hand, “bad” car congestion. For him, that would be the type of congestion that provides no benefits (other than making transit more desirable), and is located in a place where people do not want to be (e.g., the middle of an Interstate highway).

It had not occurred to me, until he mentioned this, that the LOCATION of the congestion is one way to distinguish between “good” and “bad” congestion.

However, one reason I tend to find that congestion is ALWAYS good is that even in a suburban setting where there are no alternatives available to escape the congestion (for example, alternatives such as living closer to work/shop, using transit, riding a bike, walking, etc.), and there is no compensation for the travel delays one experiences in suburban congestion (such as a charming, vibrant, walkable ambience), I would say that even suburban congestion is, on balance, a good thing.

The increased aggravation and the uncompensated nature of suburban congestion, in my view, creates the political motivation that is otherwise lacking in suburban settings to take corrective measures (such as creating suburban town centers with compact, mixed-use development, pricing roads and parking, and creating infill development in places such as unused parking lots…). In other words, congestion accelerates the inevitable redesign of suburbia towards something more sustainable. The danger, of course, is that these progressive reactions can be short-circuited by road-widening as the all-too-common congestion fix. Fortunately, financial woes at all levels of government make counter-productive widening much less likely.

So yes, I told him, I agree that initially, suburban congestion is more unpleasant (“bad”) than town center congestion, but I view the congestion as a bitter medicine that must be swallowed for suburbia to speed up their healing process.

A growing number of communities engage in “planned congestion,” where they deliberately do nothing to address congestion – knowing that the inevitable, positive results of congestion I list above will eventually emerge.


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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

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