A Wall Street Journal article, The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams, covered several studies that linked vehicle exhaust with a variety of health impacts. The WSJ spun this as a congestion problem, even though it mentioned only one study that investigated congestion (at a toll plaza on Interstate 95). The WSJ also called the redesign of Times Square a congestion reduction measure, but in reality the congestion impacts have been mixed and travel times have increased on some routes. The Times Square redesign primarily benefits livability and pedestrian safety and comfort.
Maybe this goes without saying, but I think new urbanism has to be careful about the kind of congestion relief it advocates. There are some street network improvements that help increase the walkability and livability of an area. There are other types of construction that mostly help cars speed faster and increase sprawl.
The former can include a fine-grain mesh of small blocks, eliminating curb cuts for driveways, and intelligent systems like predictive navigation. The latter can include roadway widening, flyovers, and new freeways. There are also some measures that can go either way, like tunnels, intersection improvements, and traffic signal coordination. Depending on the design and context, these can contribute to livability or make a thoroughfare more pedestrian-hostile.
Hybrid vehicles like the Prius turn the congestion equation upside down: at lower speeds they rely more on electric propulsion, which reduces gas consumption, emissions, and health impacts. Plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars do even better. From the point of view of street-level vehicle pollution, these cars are the best thing since unleaded gasoline.
Entry limits for entire urban districts are the most direct way to reduce congestion, but outside of historic European city centers there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for doing this. Congestion tolls/fees for urban districts can be effective, but they are regressive, and the political process gets hung up on the costs and discounts the benefits. Other transportation demand measures can help, and the framework and metrics used to identify congestion are critical. Todd Litman writes:
… increased development density tends to increase congestion measured as roadway level-of-service or delay per vehicle trip, since more trips tend to be generated per acre. From this perspective, Smart Growth tends to be harmful and sprawl tends to be helpful for reducing congestion problems. However, higher density tends to increase land use Accessibility and Transportation Options, resulting in shorter trip distances and shifts to alternative modes such as walking and public transit. Although streets in higher density urban areas may experience more level-of-service E or F, implying serious congestion problems, urban residents spend less time delayed by congestion because they have closer destinations and better travel options. As a result, per capita (as opposed to per-vehicle trip or per-driver) congestion delay tends to be greater in lower-density, automobile-dependent suburban areas such as Los Angeles and Houston than in higher-density urban areas such as New York and San Francisco, because low-density areas have more per-capita vehicle mileage.
—Congestion Reduction Strategies, Victoria Transport Policy Institute
New urbanists have to be informed and nuanced when navigating the congestion debate, because it easily can be turned to favor sprawl.
Below the fold: links about the level-of-service measure and its reform.
Jaffe, Eric, The Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform, The Atlantic Cities, December 5, 2011.
Malouff, Dan, For highways, getting a ‘D’ isn’t so bad, Greater Greater Washington, December 2, 2011.