Is Congestion Your Friend?

Vancouver Congestion (Photo by Mark Woodbury)

Vancouver Congestion (Photo by Mark Woodbury)


I recently visited our fine neighbor to the north – Vancouver, and unfortunately had to do most of my getting around by car. This afforded me lots of time, as I sat in traffic on just about every street I traveled in the Downtown area, to reflect upon Gordon Price’s famous adage that “congestion is your friend”. He certainly has a point when considering that congestion should discourage people from driving and encourage transit ridership, walking, biking, etc. Congestion also certainly has a traffic calming effect, making crossing the street as a pedestrian possible and safe just about anywhere along the street, as I witnessed people doing over and over. However, I couldn’t help to also think about the downsides of congestion: commercial areas bathed in toxic exhaust from vehicles that are essentially idling, buses stuck within long queues of traffic, and generally impeded mobility.

Vehicle ownership in Vancouver is generally low by North American standards (55 vehicles per 100 persons), so my best guess is that the majority of traffic on the Saturday I was driving around were out-of-towners like myself (makes me wonder how they will handle the Olympic crowds). However, Vancouver is also well known for the fact that it has no highways, thus traffic is dispersed among a grid of wide, generally four-lane arterial roadways. One curious thing I observed is that they do not use center turn lanes, and left turn arrows, which have cycles that couldn’t be more than 5 seconds, are few and far between, rendering the inside lanes useless for accommodating through traffic. It seems that a few simple tweaks to their light signalization could do wonders for enhancing mobility of their streets. Then again, perhaps this is a deliberate congestion-inducing mechanism the City employs. It seems to me that a more effective mechanism to discourage driving, encourage other modes, and enhance mobility is congestion pricing. Vancouver seems like a prime candidate for congestion pricing given its density and limited entry points to the downtown. I haven’t looked into whether they are considering this. Anyone know?

Whether congestion is your friend certainly depends on where you are sitting, but I for one will never drive in Vancouver again.

10 Responses to “Is Congestion Your Friend?”

  1. Dave Bordoley

    It’s an awesome bike town though. I whizzed around that place like no tomorrow. So easy to get around.

  2. Michael

    Wait! Vancouver is held up as a shining example of how we can just tear down the Viaduct and not replace it and be just like them!

    In fact, they’re an example of how that’s a problem.

    At least they have usable rail mass transit – congestion can’t very well be Seattle’s “friend” when we’ve got no viable alternative.

  3. wes kirkman

    Speak for yourself, congestion is my friend. Michael, there is a viable alternative. It is called choice. You chose where you live, you chose where you work, you chose how to get between those two points and all the other points in between. Stop blaming everyone else; man up and take responsibility for yourself.

    Vancouver is still a relevant model for us in many aspects. Just ’cause some people are sitting in traffic does not mean the City is making an ill decision. What Seattle and the rest of the country need to do is to stop pandering to the “I have no other viable alternative” crowd. There will always be Michaels complaining they don’t have any alternative to driving, ultimately because they’ve made bad choices.

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    This post implicitly assumes that Vancouver has worse congestion that it could. Is that true?

    Places like LA that have tried to build their way out of congestion have found that it isn’t easy. Even Portland with its freeways through town and fairly developed mass transit has a good bit of congestion. I think the point of “congestion is your friend” is that congestion is a reality of car culture, but you can turn it to your advantage.

    By the way where were you visiting that required a car? The couple times we’ve been up train and bus have served us quite well, though of course we were mostly in the city and out at UBC. I also just checked and zipcars are available in Vancouver, though I think you have to prearrange to use in Canada.

  5. Chris

    I’m a huge supporter of transit. That said, gridlock on the streets is not good. Its bad for those times when you are not taking transit and you need to get somewhere not served well by transit. Its bad in terms of quality of life for people living in proximity to gridlock (assuming gridlock is noisier and less visually appealing than a free-flowing street). Its bad for transit without dedicated ROW that gets stuck in it. Ideally, streets, gas and parking (and carbon emissions…) would be priced such that much gridlock would not have to occur. I grant that there are some benefits to gridlock, such as the tendency for people to live closer to their jobs when gridlock is really bad, but that’s just making lemonade out of the lemons.

  6. MJH

    @4 My point is simply that looking at congestion as a good thing because the frustration factor may encourage people to abandon their autos glosses over the negative aspects of congestion, which Chris elaborates on. Congestion impedes all mobility, impacts air quality, etc. A better way to induce mode shift is through pricing and providing even better alternatives.

    Believe me, I would have rather not been in my car, but the people I was with required it.

  7. dang

    Congestion is your friend when it causes individuals to re-evaluate their choices and eventually results in shifting cultural attitudes. Congestion can serve as an equalizer, making mass transit or bicycles equal to or superior to cars when getting from point to point–not to mention the freedom of movement and choice it provides. Of course, superiority of mass transit or bicycles requires some mechanism for separating them from the congestion (i.e dedicated lanes, tunnels, grade separation)

    Congestion is not your friend if it results from a lack of alternatives. It is your friend when it forces those alternatives to become prevalent and when it generates modal parity and helps generate a culture where 55 out 100 people choose to own a car, much less use a car on a regular basis. Congestion pricing and other fees are only part of the solution to reducing congestion–tools for managing congestion AFTER there are viable means for moving people about an environment that is scaled appropriately to allow other modes to be viable. Think ridership levels and housing densities. Think scale and distances.

  8. Tony the Economist

    @wes kirkman

    You’re co-location theory works on paper, but fails in reality. Jobs and housing are not evenly dispersed across the region. A disproportionate number of jobs are concentrated in Seattle/Bellevue/Redmond. There is not nearly enough housing in the immediate vicinity of these job centers to provide housing for all the workers. Even if there was no preference for single family housing, there is simply not enough housing period close to these job centers. The second highest concentrations of jobs are in the region’s industrial zones. Most municipalities prohibit housing of any kind in these zones and with good reason. Heavy industry is hazardous to human health and safety. There is another several hundred thousand jobs that a person cannot co-locate near even if they wanted to.

    However, you are not the first one to think of this “brilliant” idea. Sadly, thousands of others have as well, which is exactly why housing near these job centers is more expensive than comparable housing farther out. Of course there are exceptions owing to neighborhood effects. The CD is cheaper than its location would predict for this reason, but a single family house in Queen Anne costs more than the same house in North Seattle which costs more than the same house in Lynnwood. An apartment rents for more on Capitol Hill than it does in Fremont and more in Fremont than in Snohomish County. As traffic congestion gets worse, the demand for housing close to jobs increases (even if population remains constant). If that demand is not matched by an increase in supply, the result in increasing prices and gentrification.

    Ironic that Dan and others lament how “inevitable” gentrification is, when congestion is the primary cause of it. Eliminate congestion and there is no advantage to living close in.

    Of course one could also just build row upon row of 40 story condo towers (see Vancouver), but then you gobble up all the land in downtown for residential towers, leaving no room for jobs, which decentralizes your jobs and results in half of those sustainable West Ender’s commuting OUT of downtown BY CAR. Then, the next logical step is simply to push your co-location theory even farther, jack up congestion so far that people forsake their preferred neighborhoods and preferred job preferences and everyone just lives next to where they work. But then, why bother having a city? Your metro region essentially becomes a series of adjacent non-interacting small towns. If small town economics is what you want, move to a small town. They are more “sustainable”.

  9. Joshua Daniel Franklin


    Your housing/jobs theory works on paper, but fails in reality. While it’s true that we currently have a big imbalance from 50 years of car-centric zoning and highways, the trend is reversing. Significant amounts of housing can be built within easy biking or transit distance of jobs. I suppose we’ll need congestion pricing or something to deal with all the commuters living in the 20th Century, though.

    For example, I was just looking at Redfin’s neighborhood population estimates for SLU and it’s very interesting to compare to the 2000 census (go to Redfin, search for a neighborhood, click on demographics on the right; I used socialexplorer for the census). Hundreds of people, predominantly middle-income in their 20s and 30s, have moved in, and by the way there are already a significant number of kids. The apartments are relatively expensive (only 1 condo building in SLU), but in my experience pricing has more to do with them being new construction than location–I see similar prices in new buildings in the U-District, Lake City, and Redmond. Older buildings such as the Archstone Belltown are quite a bit cheaper.

    It’s all about geography. The amazing thing about geography is that you don’t need to build bigger roads or deep-bore tunnels, and you don’t need to own a car.

  10. Andrew Russin

    I just returned from an inspiring car free week in Vancouver where I tested the bus network (excellent)and explored some of the closer in neighborhoods outside of downtown: Kitsilano, Fairview, Southcambie, Renfrew, Strathcona. I highly recommend the recent (2005) award winning book on Vancouver planning called: Dream City by Lance Berelowitz.
    Regarding housing and mobility I was struck by the simple but brilliant street grid network that extends throughout the entire city. Approximately every tenth street is a major commercial street with bus transit (originally streetcar) and healthy retail activity. Wow, what a concept: Everyone can walk from their house or apartment to the main street to do their basic needs errands or catch the bus. These main streets are two lanes in each direction in addition to curb lanes for either parking or bus priority at rush hour. Traffic moves quite well but at about 20-30 mph.These are very wide streets but the tree lined sidewalks are almost always 12 to 18 ft wide so walking is a joy. (Surprisingly few bicyclists, maybe because walking to bus is so easy).

    It has taken me many visits before I really noticed the power of this simple grid pattern. Has anyone else been struck by this? Some of these streets are now cool special shopping streets like Commercial Drive and Main Street, but generally you find is mile after mile of affordable retail, hardly ever shuttered storefronts, allowing for a multitude of independent mom and pop stores.

    Sadly, Seattle’s arterial streets were never planned as bus and retail streets, and are not wide enough to do work this way. Any ideas?

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