Myth: cutting space for cars will increase congestion and pollution

“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” Lewis Mumford, 1955.

TrafficJamFirst things first, let’s state the obvious that is too often forgotten: it is cars causing congestion and pollution, not people on pavements or bikes on cycle lanes.

This is clearly illustrated in a report by Transport for London that reveals the biggest contributors to congestion are traffic volume (55%) and excess demand for road space (16%). In other words, traffic congestion doesn’t come down to insufficient supply of roads, but to excessive demand of drivers.

Investing in roads will therefore not solve congestion. Instead interventions must promote a shift to modes of transport more efficient in moving people. “A 3.5m lane of mixed traffic can carry 2,000 people per hour, a bike lane 14,000, a pavement 19,000, and dedicated public transport, such as rail, up to 100,000 people per hour,” the report points out.

Transport for London monitoring data has already revealed that Central London segregated cycle lanes are moving five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway. TfL adds that evidence “suggests that while these schemes may have short-term negative impacts on traffic speeds during the construction phase, longer term impacts may be negligible”.

Traffic evaporation

Similarly, traffic filtering schemes are proving successful in reducing traffic volumes. Using the mini-Holland project in Waltham Forest as an example, the number of vehicles decreased by an average of 44 per cent across the whole Village following implementation. Out of the 14 roads in the Village, 11 saw significant reductions in the number of vehicles.

This proves that traffic does indeed disappear when cities make it more difficult for cars to get around. Drivers might avoid the area, drive at a different times of day, or (fingers crossed) leave their car behind and try a different way of getting around. This is  demonstrated in a 2002 academic study of 70 case studies worldwide and many other studies.

Notwithstanding the overall reduction, it is true that traffic volumes increased on a minority of roads within and on roads surrounding Walthamstow Village. Such increases are hard to stomach and more must be done to minimise this effect and impact. But this should not get in the way of the overall and potential benefits of such schemes.

Population growth in London is expected to generate more than five million additional trips each day by 2041, according to the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. London can’t build extra roads to meet this demand. Planning for the future, therefore, comes down to making bold decisions now that encourage a dramatic shift away from the private car to more active forms of travel. Rebalancing streets is simply sensible planning for the future.

Image: Flickr, Simon Smiler

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