Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Matt was originally published in July 2014.

It almost goes without saying that congestion is a terrible thing, so bad that it justifies the spending of massive amounts of public money as well as the impact on our cities from widening and building new transport infrastructure to rid ourselves – or at least reduce the level of – this terrible thing that is congestion. So you would expect cities with lots of congestion to be horrible places that are struggling to attract population and have a poor quality of life – while you might expect cities with less congestion to be great places that are attracting heaps of people and have a great quality of life. Right?

Well the reality appears to be quite different, as touched upon in this recent Planetizen article – which compares cities in the USA with some of the highest levels of congestion with those that have some of the lowest. Let’s start with the more congested cities.

Wendell Cox just wrote an essay trying to correlate density and congestion, asserting that density means congestion and congestion is really, really bad (or in his words, “less traffic congestion benefits a metropolitan area’s competitiveness.”)

So logically, the high-congestion cities should be declining, and the low-congestion places should be attracting Americans at a rapid rate. Right? Wrong.

In fact, the lowest-congestion cities tend to be a very mixed bag, while the high-congestion cities are doing relatively well. Cox lists ten high-congestion regions: Los Angeles, Houston, Austin, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, San Jose, Washington, Boston, and Portland. In all ten, the central city of the relevant region gained population between 2000 and 2010. These cities tend to be larger, relatively wealthy, high-cost cities, cities where keeping housing affordable is a bigger problem than demolition of worthless vacant lots.

And in all but two of these ten regions (all excepting Boston and Washington) the central city is more populous than in 1970. In these regions, there’s enough growth for city and suburb alike. Although some of these regions experienced regional population growth of 0-10 percent, not one of them shrunk, and two (Houston and Austin) grew by over 20 percent.

Reeling off cities like Houston, New York, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco and others hardly appears to be a list of US cities which are doing particularly badly at the moment. Even though they are apparently the most congested cities. Now let’s look at the least congested cities:

By contrast, Cox lists ten low-congestion regions: Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Richmond, Kansas City, Memphis, Buffalo, Rochester, and Cleveland. A few of these (most notably Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City) are doing reasonably well. But five of the central cities in Cox’s “hero metros” lost population in the 2000s (Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Memphis) and two more gained population in the 2000s but are still less populous than in 1970 (Richmond and Kansas City). In fact, Buffalo and Cleveland even managed to lose population regionwide, and not one of Cox’s high performers grew by more than 16.7% (metro Salt Lake City’s growth rate).

In addition, these low-congestion cities tend to be far more dangerous than high-congestion cities. Their average murder rate in 2012 was 19.5 per 100,000 residents, while the high-congestion cities’ murder rate was only 7 per 100,000—not surprising given the decline discussed above. Only one of the low congestion cities (Salt Lake City) had a murder rate as low as the average for the ten high-congestion cities.

Residents of Cox’s ten low-congestion cities have more reason to worry about dangerous drivers as well as dangerous criminals. I was able to find data for auto-related fatalities for sixteen of the twenty cities in Cox’s two “top ten” lists; the high-congestion cities averaged 4.7 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents in 2011, while the low-congestion cities averaged 9.8. To put the matter another way, the most dangerous of the high-congestion cities (Houston) had 9.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, while five of nine low-congestion cities had more traffic deaths per capita than Houston. The second most dangerous high-congestion city (Austin, clocking in at 6.4 deaths per 100,000) had a lower fatality rate than all but one of the low-congestion cities. The least dangerous of the low-congestion cities, Rochester, New York had a higher traffic death rate than five of the seven high-congestion cities.

St Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland etc. at first glance appear to be some of the US cities that have most struggled over the past few decades – losing a heap of population as US manufacturing moved off-shore. The very low congestion levels enjoyed by these places doesn’t seem to have any effect on their relative attractiveness – and seems to be linked with higher murder rates and much greater risk of traffic related deaths.

Michael Lewyn, the article’s author, suggests a possible reason for the connection between low congestion cities and these fairly poor statistics:

Or it could be that policies designed to limit congestion (like widening roads to support high speeds, chopping up downtowns with highways and turning them into giant parking craters) have actually had some positive effect for congestion, but at a heavy cost.

Given that generally we know congested cities are more economically productive, is it time we stopped stressing about this issue so much and focused on things that really matter like levels of accessibility and the extent to which people are able to get around unaffected by the particular road conditions of the moment. Of course that’s a key driver behind the the Congestion Free Network.

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22 comments

  1. Yes we have to be careful about what we’re trying to fix. To date, solutions to ‘fix congestion’ have reduced the liveability of our cities, inducing traffic and making places less safe, less pleasant, horrible to move around except by car.

  2. Totally agree. The scariest things about New Zealand cities, and particularly towns, at night is that they’re so damn empty. It’s a feeling you never get in Paris or London – that sense of being watched walking down an empty street. Let’s get people out on foot – but not mingled with idling stinky diesel buses, thanks. Or cheap Japanese delivery trucks without particulate filters or catalytic converters – totally third world those. Not so much the diesel – just their specs and state of tune. Although Sydney with gas-powered buses does better.

    1. OK I left London 25 years ago but back then it became empty at night. Maybe not in the wealthy west where the Aussies cluster but I’ve walked from the Piccadilly to the East End and barely seen another pedestrian and very few vehicles. Same one Sat night when about midnight I walked the length of Hackney from North to South – it was scarily empty.

  3. Heidi has got it right with her description. This is a fundamental issue that Auckland City must sort out before they get carried away with their next ‘solution’.

  4. Sitting in my uncongested bus the other hot day enjoying the air conditioned cool I was wondering how much power would be used to achieve it. I am thinking probably 5 kiliowatts. Has anyone got a handle on it. Its got to put a considerable load on the battery of a battery electric buses. Still if we got all the fossil fueled vehicles off the road we could just open the windows.

  5. Many cities recognize that traffic congestion is a good thing, because it causes people to look at other at other modes other than the private car. It does not seem that AT have such a focus and instead have a general focus on an effective transport system (Monthly Indicator Reports). Because of that general focus a significant amount of money is spent on more roads, i.e. capital expenditure and renewal expenditure, and this appears to be at the detriment of public transport. I say that because PT fares consistently remain expensive by world standards (Matt says the third most expensive in the world).

    There is a clear alternative. Supposedly (and finally) with the implementation of all the new networks Auckland’s public transportation system should be ready to step up and carry much greater loads. Perhaps now is the time to divert some of the road spending to reduce PT fares? It’s an easy step. It doesn’t need endless consultation; or engineering reports; or huge lead in times. Every extra PT passenger is one less person in a car congesting the roads and causing carbon emissions.

    A new year – time for a new approach!

  6. The last paragraph of the post really summs it up. For me and i suspect many living NW this congestion free network proposal from GA has been a major blocker in trying to achieve an alternate to horrific road congestion for those who have no choice but to use sh16.
    Despite the fact that a perfectly well maintained railway line exists complete with signalling and platforms, this CFN and its LR to Kumeu is consistently rolled out as the only viable future rail based PT for the NW. Despite the fact that such a vision is at least 10 to 15 years or even further away this does not prevent the GA naysayers from using it to deny NW residents of a feasible 1 to 2 year away rail solution.
    Same old negativity rolled out with regularity, BCR too low although when has this ever stopped any roading scheme and haven’t we already seen how bcrs are dreamed up as required to fit a need (eg AT and the biking), waitakere tunnel needs oshed – so take some time, a few months to do this, it isnt rocket science. For those who cry out too expensive then its peanuts compared to installing LR to Kumeu.
    To add insult to AT’s lack of interest in Kumeu/Huapai rail there is parked up in Henderson two of the ADL dmus. Cleaned up, refurbed and serviced these two would be all that is needed for a bloody useful hourly shuttle service from Henderson or Swanson to Huapai.
    So most likely 2019 will just slide past and NW commuters will see nothing new.
    So much for that CFN2 from AT, its been an absolute disaster for PT to NW as its been used to deny the NW of any short term rail based PT solution.
    Or will GA realise in 2019 that a sooner rather than later NW rail is needed now and get behind using the existing rail system.

    1. You think the CFN, LR, and GA are preventing HR to Kumeu and keeping you in congestion? Take another look, Bogle.

      I’d move your aim to NZTA and their traffic modelling consultants who prevented continuous bus priority and adequate bus station provision along the SH16 when they added that extra capacity for the least efficient mode. The community argued for it, they argued against. If there’s insufficient travel demand to Kumeu, why is there road capacity expansion going on? Particularly road capacity expansion that the modellers don’t admit induces extra traffic, which is undermining all the progressive moves towards a safer, nicer city?

      And I’d blame successive governments for ripping the guts out of rail.

      We’ve got a carbon-emitting, air and water-polluting, people-killing, access-denying transport network and while GA is – in their volunteer time – advocating to improve it in the most cost-effective way, you choose to aim your criticism at them. That’s misplaced.

      If you pull apart the business case for rail to Kumeu, please put together a report and send GA your findings. I have a fresh pair of eyes because I’ve never looked at the business case. I’m pretty passionate about it too, and I’ll make sure it gets considered properly. I’d be sure the business case hasn’t taken a holistic view regarding environmental, social or even some network benefits (which I’ve written about before). I’d love to know if inclusion of these factors tips the business case sufficiently.

    2. Fill your boots Bogle. Put together a proposal and pitch it, get support, get the politicians onside and work with them to arrange funding and delivery.

      You can’t complain that GA has been successful promoting their plan if you don’t have one yourself. Sure GA hasn’t supported the hourly Kumeu shuttle idea, but they haven’t actively blocked it either. There is nothing the CFN2 plan that prevents a Kumeu shuttle, or requires it to not be there.

      So go right ahead, GA won’t stop you.

    3. Bogle, I have some sympathy with what you say that it is useful to build PT ahead of demand; but I strongly believe that if people choose to buy, or rent property where there are little transport options then you get what you deserve. I live in an area separated from the city by a stretch of water. I remember my forbears paid for a bridge by means of bridge tolls. I strongly believe that Shore residents should pay for Shore light rail by way of another bridge tax. Then it could (and should) be built ahead of projected demand for many reasons including reducing congestion and emissions and improving safety.
      If light rail is deemed necessary now to the NW then toll SH16 and build a pool of capital to start planning, engineering and the ability to finance it further down the track.

  7. I had a new years resolution that I was not going to get political on Greater Auckland this year but here goes my main gripe with GA is that nothing it backs especially but not exclusively with rail projects can be done quickly. All these mega projects are at least 5 or 10 or god know how many years away. Matt was even suggesting that the Waikato trains should be delayed recently because we were not ready for it. It just gets a bit frustrating for someone who has being following Aucklands rail progress from the mid 1990’s when the ADL and ADK first came over here from Perth. I would acknowledge a lot has being achieved but a more pragmatic approach might have trains running too more places even if frequencies were reduced.
    But anyway my NEW NEW year resolution for this year is ” No More Tolerance For People Who Moan About Congestion.” For this year nobody will get any sympathy from me if they dear to mention traffic congestion. So happy walking.

    1. Going by a Wikipedia article AT have 10 ADL/ADC dmu’s why can’t they use them as feeder services as they do on the Pukekohe run , and tell the people motorways are more dangerous than the Waitakere tunnel and they don’t have to spend any money on Station upgrades as they have already spent millions there , and instead of doing a 12mth trial go for 5years like they are doing on the Hamilton – Auckland service .And what they also need is a feeder service from Glenbrook – Waiuku to Papakura with the same sort of timeline
      In my way of thinking a Business takes upwards of 3 years to start creating a good customer base , so keep the bean counters and OSH out of the mix and just do it .

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADL/ADC_class_diesel_multiple_unit

    2. Why would you reduce frequencies where the majority of the population is just to run services to where a small and dispersed population lives.

  8. Maybe we could do it without reducing frequency. Apparently there are spare ADL’s available and there are plenty of SD sets. But that’s not all other mistakes have being made for example Kingdom street should have being retained. The Southern Link into Manukau should have being built. The Onehunga line should have being relayed down to the port so it could be extended to Mangere. A station at the Strand instead of Parnell would be more useful. The other day I got off a near empty eastern line service onto the 380 bus to Manukau station and there were more people on the bus than there had being on the train.So do we need all that frequency on the eastern line.There is all sorts of things which could have extended the usable area of the rail network its just not all about Bogles train to Kumeu. I don’t care about congestion that a problem for people who drive in peak times. I don’t like to see rail assets lying idle when they could be being used to provide congestion free transport..And then we have GA,Goff and the smart alec Phil Twyford coming up with pie in the sky light rail projects which will probably never get built.It just sucks the oxygen out of every other project which needs to be done.

    1. The ADLs are, on average, 35 years old. They’ve had their day. They are not “rail assets lying idle” but old, worn out and obsolescent. They only continue in service because the extreme reluctance to spend money on passenger rail in NZ means there’s no alternative for Pukekohe services. Similarly there may be plenty of SD sets but what is going to push/pull them?

      1. Maybe the ADLs are like the floor brush my gran had for near 40 years, it just had about a dozen new heads and a few new shafts/handles. Was still the same brush tho.
        I doubt the ADLs are very original, I can imagine over the years everything from engines to suspension to brakes to wheel sets and much more gave been rebuilt, swapped out, replaced with new bits, upgraded and continually serviced. Their car bodies and interiors look great and some would say the seating and spacing is much superior to these new AM emus. I look forward to my excursions to Pukekohe and the ADLs.
        Bit more noisy, but not a lot, way comfier seats and over 90km/hr speed according to speed box.
        Certainly not worn out, I hope they find more shuttle use after Puke gets OLE. Like out SW to Waiuku or Henderson to Huapai/Helensville.

  9. Auckland needs a new class of hybrid locomotive for freight and passengers. So either an electro deisel which can run on the overhead or its own diesel motor or a battery hybrids which would run on the overhead or internal batteries. Its being advocated before I know . Lets use those SD sets which are sitting in Taumaranui.
    So Zippo when I talk about rail assets I am not just talking about ADL’s but also barely used track and missing links for example every time I go to Otahuhu I think why didn’t they lay some track into the third platform. I have mentioned other examples.

    1. “Royce” this Article from the CRL website say’s they are going to install the 3rd track at Otahuhu :-

      Otahuhu 3rd Platform & Loop

      The introduction of a new train timetable when the City Rail Link (CRL) is finished will divert many Western Line services away from Grafton to give a significantly better service for passengers going between the west and Britomart.

      A new service will be provided between west Auckland and Otahuhu that enables passengers going west to south or vice versa to avoid having to go to the City Centre.

      Creating that new service between Otahuhu and Henderson will require a new platform at Otahuhu to allow those trains to turn back. The platform will be located on a loop track off the main line. This will also enable any train needing repair to be accommodated if necessary without holding up other services.

      TIMING

      These works are expected to be carried out in 2019/2020. Timing and further details to be confirmed in due course.

      https://www.cityraillink.co.nz/crl-cityraillink-otahuhu-and-strand-wider-network-improvements-c8/

      1. Although there is quite some info on the CRLL website showing the new Otahuhu platform 3 with a booking hall type area, there is nothing about the redevelopment of Henderson station with its new 3rd terminal platform. I thought both of these were needed for the proposed Henderson-Otahuhu purple line service post CRL

  10. Ok but the ticket machine and the gates are in the wrong place. I was just looking at it a couple of days ago. I suppose they will have to install more gates for this platform. Also the supports for the overheads are right in the middle of where the track needs to run but that can be changed. I wonder if they are serious about the dates. I wonder if this service will start before the CRL completion in 2025 or is it 2035.
    Good to see that work is progressing on the new crossover at the strand.I had wondered what was happening there. Thanks for the link.

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