April 2, 2015

Redux: Tom-Tom is Smart-Smart – and Dumb-Dumb

Paul Krueger reminded me that I had posted this 511 days ago:


It was Tom-Tom week in the media, when the Amsterdam-based GPS makers released their biannual survey on the most congested cities.


Vancouver congestion graphic


Typical story: Vancouver, Worst Traffic Congestion In North America: TomTom

Hey, we’re No. 1!

It’s a smart strategy for Tom-Tom.  No wonder it’s their Director of Marketing who does the media interviews.  But perhaps because the congestion list comes out so often, the media are taking other angles – namely examining the methodology behind the survey.

The CBC, for instance, which did some digging: Is Vancouver the most gridlocked city in North America?

Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon, has studied the question of traffic congestion and sees real problems with the TomTom study.

‘A lot of the cities that do well in these surveys – sprawling cities like Birmingham, Richmond and Oklahoma City – people drive twice as far as people do in the average city’– Joe Cortright, president and principal economist, Impresa

“If you live in Vancouver and have an average 15-minute commute and it takes an extra five or six minutes longer — that’s your 36% increase. If you live in Los Angeles and have a 45-minute commute and it takes you 10 minutes longer, that’s only a 20 percent or so increase.”

Cortright says that the index doesn’t look at the distance people actually travel, or even the total amount of time they travel.

I got my share of comment too: On Global BC, Sun News Network24 Hours Vancouver.

I was questioning the basic assumption behind ‘congestion’ – that the default condition of our transportation system should be vehicles travelling in free flow at the posted speed limit.  Anything less – which is what Tom-Tom is measuring – counts as congestion.

The danger is that listeners (and decision-makers) assumed congestion is so bad that we should be planning and building a road network where traffic need never slow down.

That, after all, is how congestion’ is defined: 

When traffic demand is great enough that the interaction between vehicles slows the speed of the traffic stream …

[If traffic actually has to stop because of friction, that is something else: a traffic jam. “As demand approaches the capacity of a road (or of the intersections along the road), extreme traffic congestion sets in. When vehicles are fully stopped for periods of time, this is colloquially known as a traffic jam ortraffic snarl-up.]

But that’s the difference between Vancouver and most other places: we don’t assume that traffic should always be able to freeflow at the posted speed limit.  In fact, in some cases (Denman and Georgia, for instance), the intersection is designed to congest as traffic demand builds so we can meter traffic on to the downtown grid.  We deliberately back-up the excess volumes on the Causeway and Georgia to avoid worse congestion in the Central Business District – the place you least want to overload.

We need another word to replace the pejorative label of congestion, which is assumed to always be bad – and then used to justify the staggering amounts of money spent on wider roads and bigger bridges (which then shifts the congestion elsewhere in the system, justifying more road ‘investment.’ Et cetera.).

So how about ‘crowding’?  Crowding is what cities are for: the places where people come together to exchange things, whether goods, services, ideas or DNA.  It’s the whole point of cities – and to de-congest them is to destroy the idea of the city.  The result: one big sprawling suburb, and, as Charles Marohn has so effectively documented, unaffordable amounts of waste.

However, it’s also essential to keep things moving, albeit not always at maximum speed.  That means offering alternatives to those who can take them: commuters need to have a choices, whether  transit, or walking, or cycling, or technology substitutes, or time of day, or a shorter trip, or no need to travel at all.  But Tom-Tom doesn’t measure that.

Yet it’s why the central area of Vancouver is successful.  Even as we accommodate growth, we reduce car traffic – as shown here – and increase the practicality of other modes of transport.

The ideal juxtaposition for the Tom-Tom report would have been a shot of Georgia Street, where the city has taken out two lanes in order to build a water line.  Normally the story would have been ‘Carmageddon,’ given that this arterial has to handle all the traffic from the northwest part of the region in and out of the downtown peninsula.  And yet, the back-ups, according to my reliable source – North Shore bus drivers – haven’t been much worse than normal.

But since that dog didn’t bark and disaster didn’t happen, it hasn’t been news.  Instead of bark-bark, we get Tom-Tom.

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  1. But wait a minute, the Yes side is selling a vote for the Anti-Congestion Tax. If we’re not really congested, there is no reason to vote Yes then is there.?

    Fortunately (or unfortunately) I don’t buy the definition of congestion presented in the post. Time spent doing nothing, whether its idling in traffic or on a broken Skytrain, is unproductive time. It costs the economy money. Furthermore an idling internal combustion engine is an engine producing GHG for no reason.

    The causeway/downtown anecdote is interesting because it reinforces my growing perception that what most people call congestion in my commute has been deliberately caused by the City of Vancouver. If they’re that interested in keeping downtown moving, they should take Howe St and turn it back to a four lane road during rush hour and not a two lane road with an accompanying two lane parking lot. Much of the congestion I see has been caused in this manner or by unbridled building sites where making life easier for developers has apparently trumped the need to make life easier for residents.

    1. Indeed. Much of Vancouver’s policies are anti-car, pro-development without ANY investment into transit or public parks or open spaces. As such the provincial government is correct in pushing back and not handing over money that ought to be Vancouver generated, for example through far higher property taxes, land transfer taxes or development levies.

      Look, for example, at the massive development at Granville and 70th with ZERO new transit, or along Kingsway, or at UBC, or in E-Van, or soon on Jericho land. ZERO new transit there. This is “Vision” ?

      Where is the subway under Granville ? Where is the subway to Jericho land / UBC ? Where is the subway below Hastings to N-Burnaby then onto N-Van ?

      A culture / ideological clash between left leaning “Vision” Vancouver and right leaning provincial government.

      Truly we cannot expect Kelowna or Prince George residents to pay for Vancouver’s traffic woes. Vancouver needs to fix it themselves, by borrowing billions, raising development levies, raising property taxes, raising parking fees, raising land transfer taxes, lower wages/benefits of civil servants and raising user fees. THAT is Plan B. Where is the political will to spread this message ?

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