June 17, 2018

Happy Car-Free Day, Vancouver. BTW, Can There Be ‘Good Congestion’?

On the occasion of Vancouver’s big car-free weekend — Car Free Day events occurred yesterday in the West End and Kitsilano, and the main event takes place today along 20+ blocks of Main Street — perhaps it’s time to roil the waters with a question. Does traffic congestion slow down economies, productivity, or job growth?

As reported by CNU Public Square, researchers at the University of Colorado at Denver and Florida Atlantic University conclude that it doesn’t.

In fact, they suggest there could be such a thing as “good congestion” and “bad congestion,” just like there’s “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol.”

The study, entitled “Revisiting the relationship between traffic congestion and the economy: a longitudinal examination of U.S. metropolitan areas“, states:

Conventional wisdom regarding traffic congestion suggests that higher levels of peak hour delay would be associated with decreases in GDP and jobs as well as higher wages to compensate workers for the increased costs of travel. We did not find this to be the case. For our regions, peak hour delay had a statistically significant and positive effect on both per capita GDP and jobs. This suggests that our current concerns about traffic congestion negatively impacting the economy may not be particularly well founded.

In terms of per capita income, the results were statistically insignificant. Thus, regions with more congestion were more economically productive with more jobs, and this took place without traffic congestion manifesting itself with higher labor costs.

In other words, congestion is merely an inconvenience with minimal economic impact.

“Without traffic congestion, there would be less incentive for infill development, living in an location-efficient place, walking, biking, and transit use, ride sharing, innovations in urban freight, etcetera,” one author explained via email to CNU Public Square. “And if your city doesn’t have any traffic congestion, there is something really wrong.”

Researchers also referenced the most recent Urban Mobility Scorecard by Texas A&M; of the ten most congested cities in the U.S., seven rank in the top ten for lowest driving mode share, eight rank in the top ten for highest transit mode share, and four rank in the top ten for highest active transportation mode shares.

While Price Tags did not purchase the full report, it’s worth noting that topics like housing affordability, population health, environmental impacts of increased motor vehicle use are not mentioned in the article, nor do keywords like ‘housing’, ‘health’, ‘physical activity’, ‘CO2′, ’emissions’ or ‘pollution’ appear as dependent variables in the data tables of the report appendix.

That said, if a pure focus on economic impact floats your boat — GDP per capita, job growth and per capita income growth — this might be a nice bomb to throw down on the table to unsuspecting family members and friends tonight, after car-free day celebrations.

Photos courtesy CNU (Marcy McInelly) and Car Free Vancouver Society

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  1. Get 3 people in a room to talk about traffic congestion and you’ll get 4 different opinions. Objective measures like ‘monetary impact on GDP’ don’t mean very much for a phenomenon that is primarily defined by one’s emotional tolerance to driving frustration. The Texas study shows that some perceptions of the negative outcomes of congestion are unfounded. This may be accurate, but experience shows us that you don’t get very far simply telling people that their feelings are wrong; although I admit I would like to have seen that as the study’s title.

  2. Those of us who live in the “car-free” corridors find that the nomenclature and graphics are misleading. A tree covering a car? C’mon already. The fact is that every car-free day results in the adjacent neighbourhoods being completely deluged with car traffic for several blocks on either side, the majority looking for non-existant parking spots to attend “car-free” activities. It is ironic, or hypocritical, depending on how strongly one feels about it.

    There is no doubt that this was not the intention of the original and honourable idea of organizers, but surely they should look back and recognize there is great naivete in the handle. It is supremely illuminating that a “car-free” event is attended by hordes of people who have not gotten the message, and the connecting streets are still choked with additional cars that are not just a major annoyance to residents, but in some cases are a danger.

    Our society is far, far from being truly car-free, even with record transit ridership (up 9+% over last year). There is much more work to be done. Let’s start with creating several car-free, pedestrian-only blocks on Water Street. Then move on to central Robson. And Granville. Let’s take back a tiny fragment of the street network from cars. Permanently. Then work up from there.