By Ryan McGreal
Published June 11, 2012
The Atlantic has been running a truly splendid series of essays on cities, urbanism and urban issues in its special report The Atlantic Cities. An essay posted on June 1 challenges the widely held assumption that congestion is a bad thing.
If it is true that congestion is detrimental to a region's economy, then one would expect that people living in areas with low levels of traffic congestion would be more economically productive, on a per capita basis, than those in areas with high levels of congestion.
The author, Urban and Regional Planning professor Eric Dumbaugh, plotted per capita traffic delay against per capita gross domestic product (GDP) for American cities, and discovered a statistically significant positive correlation between GDP per capita and traffic congestion.
In other words, the cities with the worst congestion also had the most productive economies.
Of course, this is not to suggest that congestion causes productivity. If anything, the reverse is probably true: the most productive cities attract more people and generate more trips.
More important, cities tend to produce the solutions to traffic congestion:
And so on.
However, it is absolutely clear from the data that fast, efficient, high-volume road networks do nothing to create highly productive economies, and nor is the convenience of a city's road network a useful measure of its economic output.
A transport truck passes City Hall on Main Street (RTH file photo)
One issue the author addresses that has special significance for Hamilton is the matter of goods movement, which is often held up here as a reason we can't make sensible changes to our network of fast, high-volume urban arterials.
A common argument is that if a region's roadways are congested, goods will be unable to get to market and its economy will falter. Yet even the most casual glance at our most congested regions - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to name three - quickly dispels this idea. These are not places where consumer choices are limited, nor are they areas with stagnant economies. Quite the contrary. They are precisely the areas where one finds not only the most vibrant economies, but also the greatest variety of goods and services.
Pay careful attention to the author's answer:
A common argument is that if a region’s roadways are congested, goods will be unable to get to market and its economy will falter. Yet even the most casual glance at our most congested regions - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to name three - quickly dispels this idea. These are not places where consumer choices are limited, nor are they areas with stagnant economies. Quite the contrary. They are precisely the areas where one finds not only the most vibrant economies, but also the greatest variety of goods and services.
Instead of transport trucks blasting through downtown Hamilton, we should be reserving that space for urban activities and moving goods on Hamilton's continuous ring highway network.
As for local deliveries:
This is currently addressed through a variety of strategies, including the scheduling of deliveries to off-peak periods and the use of bicycle couriers in highly-congested areas. It has also led to the development of more technologically-sophisticated solutions, such as the use of GPS-based fleet management systems that permit dynamic trip scheduling and routing, allowing drivers to bypass localized pockets of traffic congestion. This is a growth industry that is projected to generate more than $9 billion in annual revenues by 2015.
There's no reason for Hamilton's streets to remain in thrall to our goods movement industry. By continuing to allow fast, high-volume traffic flows through our downtown - the part of our city with the best prospects of generating economic growth and raising our per capita GDP - we are actually hurting our economy, not helping it.