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Congestion is an ever-present challenge for cities around the world. In some ways, thriving urban areas are victims of their own success. They tend to offer greater access to jobs, housing, education and culture, attracting people seeking opportunities for a better life. In the United States, cities and the suburbs that surround them have been gaining population in recent years at the expense of rural regions, leading some to speak of an “urban renaissance.” But this revitalization has been accompanied by an unprecedented level of traffic. The average American spent 41 hours in congestion in 2017, up 8% from 2010. And in the largest cities, the situation is even worse: Los Angeles and New York residents wasted more than twice as much time in traffic. All told, the economic impact of congestion on US roads totaled more than $1,300 per driver in 2018, according to Inrix, significantly outpacing government infrastructure spending on a per capita basis.
But worsening congestion is not an unavoidable consequence of growth, nor is it caused simply by the failure to build new roads to accommodate increasing populations and density. In fact, research shows that widening roads can actually make things worse, with initial improvements in traffic flow disappearing as more people choose to drive. Some are hoping that disruptive technologies like autonomous vehicles (AVs) and ride-hailing services might offer a solution, but there are early indications that digital advancements can sometimes have unintended consequences that make matters worse.
The explosive growth of e-commerce is a good example of this dynamic. It was once thought that online shopping would take vehicles off the road — thereby reducing total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) — because consumers would be less likely to drive to the mall or other stores. But that decline in VMT never materialized. Fast and free shipping have increased single-package deliveries and reduced vehicle loads, and somewhere between 10% and 30% of first delivery attempts fail and must be retried. Plus, e-commerce purchases are much more likely than in-store purchases to be returned. Rather than reducing congestion, e-commerce has become a contributor to it.
Congestion today is in no small part the result of a confluence of factors — including new technologies, underinvestment in infrastructure and the mixed success of public policies intended to make it easier for people to move around. None of these problems can be solved in isolation; instead, it will be necessary to consider the entire mobility ecosystem to adequately combat congestion. That means taking into account everything from private car owners to taxis and ride-hailing drivers and from delivery vans to city buses. It means considering pedestrians and cyclists as well. And it means thinking about policies that harmonize all those moving pieces, while being flexible and ready for the future as well as today.
In our recent paper, “An Ecosystem Approach to Reducing Congestion,” produced in collaboration with the National Parking Association, we outline several key strategies cities should embrace to drive quality of life improvements and make it easier to get around. For example:
Each of these strategies, and the others outlined in the piece, should be viewed through the lens of a city’s fundamental characteristics — including layout and infrastructure, travel and commute patterns, maturity of public transit and the relative cost of driving. By sorting global cities into different archetypes based on these characteristics, it’s possible to discover the facts on the ground that make various congestion-fighting tactics successful.
An ecosystem approach is not static; it varies by city, and shifts with the changing needs of the population. It considers the interdependencies of the city, including infrastructure wear and tear and traffic flow, and taking an ecosystem approach evaluates tradeoffs such as short-term versus long-range investments, cost versus convenience, and consumer choice versus policy-driven solutions. And ecosystem approaches convene multiple players to work together, often to tackle solutions they haven’t considered in the past.
Parking provides a good example of this. Although its congestion-fighting potential hasn’t always been recognized, it has an important role to play. Short-term parking for ride-hailing services and other transportation network companies (TNCs) could help reduce circling in highly congested areas, and provides convenient pickup points where riders could find their cars. Parking can also serve as a hub for shared vehicle pick-up and return — a way for drivers to choose from multiple car models. Enabling these kinds of solutions may require cooperation across the ecosystem — by facility owners and managers, mobility companies and policy makers — but the potential advantages are hard to ignore.
The approach of autonomous vehicles will bring unique congestion challenges to cities. Many important questions about their impact are still unsettled. What’s the best way to balance the convenience of ride hailing and its potential impact on congestion? How will taxes, fees, and regulations affect the comparative cost and convenience of autonomous vehicles? What changes will be needed to transportation infrastructure to accommodate them? And what, if any, impact will they have on demand for other transportation modes, like public transit?
Bringing an ecosystem approach to these questions — as well as those already facing our cities — can help overcome the challenge of congestion.