Congestion Coalition Regains Strength Despite Research

A couple of recent news items have raised the profile of the congestion coalition-a subgroup of planners and Smart Growth advocates that believe slowing cities and the economy down would be beneficial. Will Doig, writing over at (17 December 2011), notes for example, :

“But look around (if you have a second) and you might notice that a lot of the new ideas seeping into cities are aimed not at making them faster, but slowing them down. The buzziest mode of transport now is a bicycle. Streetcars, a pokey throwback, are returning. Walkable neighborhoods, traffic-calming measures and “slow zones” are catching on, and freeways are being torn down and replaced with lower-speed boulevards. Even things like sit-down pedestrian plazas and pop-up cafes seem to indicate a desire to slacken the pace.

“Slower cities have a lot to recommend them. “It’s not just a road safety issue,” says Rod King, the creator of “20′s Plenty for Us,” a movement to reduce London’s speed limit to 20 miles per hour. “There are a lot of peripheral advantages to slowing down traffic.” The advantages include increased biking because roads aren’t so scary, the need for less infrastructure like speed bumps, and better air quality (racing from one traffic light to the next burns more fuel). Add in the public-safety benefits of slower cars (which are hard to overstate — a few extra miles per hour can literally kill) and putting on the brakes starts to look like a no-brainer.”

Noticebly absent from this article and the discussion more generally is the economic effects of slowing down. Economic theary suggests that “slowing the pace” will increase travel times. Higher travel times will increase travel costs. Increased travel costs will lower productivity (not to mention reduce the amount of time we spend with family, friends, and other recreational activities) and, ultimately, our standard of living. (Another effect is encouraging economic sprawl, but that’s another discussion.)

And, these effects aren’t just theoretical. There is an important academic literature that has linked higher travel costs and slower speeds to lower economic growth and productivity. Adrian Moore and I summarized this research and discussed its implications for transportation planning in Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century. Ted Balaker and I summarized much of this literature and examined the national policy implications in our book The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It.

The classic modern empirical analysis was done by French economist Remy Prud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee (published in the journal Urban Studies in 1999). Kent Hymel has made an important recent contribution in the Journal of Urban Economics (vol. 65, no. 2, 2009) on congestion and employment growth. Reason Foundation has also published an extensive policy study, Gridlock and Growth (2009) by David Hartgen, on the practical effects of travel times and speed on metrpolitan productivity and income growth in several U.S. cities.

Slowing down cities may be good for some largely self-contained neighborhoods, but it’s bad for cities generally, their urbanized regions and the national economy.