Archive for November, 2010

The title is in reference to this article in the West Island Gazette calling for a new major artery west of St-Charles Boulevard to ease traffic that is caused by people heading to the 40.  Now, I commented on this article, it was linked to from the front page of The Gazette web site, to the effect that the only way they’ll relieve traffic is by tearing down the highway.  Either they didn’t agree with my opinion or felt that since I wasn’t a resident of the West Island (I included the URL to this site) I don’t get to voice my opinion.  At any rate some of the comments not to mention the article itself got me kind of worked up so I just wanted to lay out some basic congestion principles.

First of all, I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m no expert but these are well documented phenomena that everyone should at least be aware of.  Also, it’s just common sense.  I’ve quickly prepared some extremely crude illustrations but hopefully they will be at least somewhat illuminating for those of us who learn visually.

1 – Generated Traffic and Induced Travel

Here is all you need to know about that but to make a long story short, when you increase capacity on a road the number of trips on that road increases.  Kind of a Field of Dreams situation only substitute SUVs for Shoeless Joe Jackson and lung cancer for a game of baseball.  This has been documented over and over again yet we keep dealing with traffic problems by building new roads, the solution first posited and pushed by car companies, oil companies and tire companies.  It’s no secret that General Motors, et al. destroyed America’s street car systems by buying up, shutting down and dismantling the public transportation infrastructure in most American towns.  Ever since we started building highways what we do when the highways fill up is…  build more highways and due to generated traffic they keep filling up and forcing us to…  build more highways.  Which is a purely temporary solution as we can see from even a cursory glance at the history of the 20th century.  So, highways fill up, so what?  That just means there’s more cars off of your nice suburban residential streets, right?  Well, that brings me to point number two:

2 – Highways concentrate their traffic onto small points such as on and off-ramps

Highways dump massive amounts of traffic onto off-ramps and on-ramps, the only points of entry or exit.  The problem is that everyone using the highway is going to the same place even if they may be coming from completely different places.

Illustration #1

As you can see by even this terrible, terrible drawing it’s plainly obvious why congestion is so bad in that area.  Any area around the ramps are going to be choked with traffic with most people coming up St-Charles just to get bottlenecked into the east or west ramps.  And anyone who doesn’t want to take St-Charles will take a smaller residential street.  If a new major road were built west of St-Charles as the article suggests what would we have?  Well, due to the induced traffic two major roads, both clogged with people still taking smaller streets to get away from it.  All of this at great cost, of course.  We wouldn’t do it any other way.

Contrast that with a grid situation where people have lots of choices about which route to take:

Everyone’s coming from somewhere different just as in the west island and everyone’s going somewhere different just as in the west island but with all of that choice there are no bottlenecks.  There is traffic, don’t get me wrong.  A lot of it.  But when was the last time you got stuck, and I mean traffic jammed, stand-still, not moving at all stuck on a grid?  And when was the last time you got stuck on a highway, trapped with no escape?  (This happened to me recently on the 40 around the junction with the 15 and once I got off the highway and  into the grid I got home a lot quicker that if I had stayed on.)  The traffic may move slower on the grid but it always moves.  Barring some kind of horrible accident, of course.  Slow and steady and all that.

And don’t forget the cost of buildings highways through cities.  Everyone who drives should have to read the chapters in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker about East Tremont in the Bronx and 3rd Ave. in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to see what impact our addiction to driving has had on many, many people.  But just as a visual aid let’s take a look at Red Hook, Brooklyn and it’s neighbour separated by a highway, Carroll Gardens.  Here are some maps of the average income in each neighborhood:

Red Hook

Carroll Gardens

Income disparity?  And this is just the best example I could find with the minimum amount of research.

This is just one instance of a highway destroying a neighborhood.  Oh, and I wonder how all those people who live where this proposed “major artery” is supposed to go feel about living next to or being moved because of this thing.

Of course, reducing traffic and congestion isn’t so simple.  There are a lot of factors involved such as public transportation, zoning so that all  kinds of businesses can exist not just in one sequestered part of town but mixed into residential parts, etc.  It’s a complicated topic.  But why repeat the mistakes that we’ve made when we know how they turn out?

Back when we didn’t all live on credit and we could only spend the resources we had physically at hand only millionaires lived as the middle and upper-middle class suburbanites of today do.  To think that a way of life that is so unsustainable can continue only highlights the greed, hubris and stupidity of those who believe that it can.

And the TRAFFIC!

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