According to my dad, some things in life, namely death and taxes, are simply unavoidable. While I would never question his wisdom, I would respectfully add one more thing to his list: traffic—snarling, noisy, smoke-belching, infuriating, stop-and-go traffic. It’s become such a part of our lives that we plan our commutes around it, choose our homes to avoid it, estimate travel time based on it, and buy in-car gadgets that are supposed to help us steer clear of it.
Nobody likes sitting in traffic, but aside from how we feel about it, traffic just isn’t good for us. Congestion causes pollution and contributes to car accidents, pedestrian and bike injuries, stress, road rage, and a host of other social maladies. But planners in a few pioneering cities and countries aren’t accepting traffic as just one more unpleasant fact of life; they’re proposing solutions they hope will cut down on vehicular chaos and make the streets more livable for everyone.
Although this idea can take many forms, it works on the simple principle of supply and demand: peak-hour road space is in short supply, and those who demand access should pay extra for it. In London, vehicles driving in the city center during business hours are required to pay a toll. Since 2003, when the city began charging this £5 toll, congestion has dropped 30 percent, traffic speed has risen 37 percent, and vehicle emissions have dropped by 12 percent, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Singapore, Stockholm, and several cities in Norway have adopted similar plans. Chicago is currently considering a congestion-pricing plan in which drivers using the faster left-hand lane would be required to pay a toll, and many cities around the country use congestion pricing to determine bridge tolls. The approach is meant to encourage the use of public transportation and carpooling, and the collected tolls are often used to fund transit infrastructure. However, opponents of these plans allege that they disproportionately affect the poor and middle class, who are the most likely to have to give up driving due to the tolls, leaving less-cluttered highways for the rich, who can afford the fees.
When most people think of traffic management, they probably think about the addition of rules and regulations; but one traffic-calming concept advocates the opposite strategy: removing rules and regulations altogether. Originating in the Netherlands several decades ago, the concept of shared space has spread throughout Northern Europe and the United Kingdom. Many towns in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK have found that their traffic flows better without lane markings, signals, barriers, signs, or any impediments beyond a basic speed limit. The theory is that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are more alert about their surroundings without any clear right-of-way. They are also thought to be more courteous and respectful of each other. Shared space operates on the same principle as highways without speed limits do—it forces people to be more vigilant. Rather than reducing traffic flow, shared-space schemes aim to make the existing traffic safer; the plan is best for smaller cities or quiet areas within large cities. In the United States, Santa Monica, Seattle, Cambridge, and New York City are implementing the shared-space idea.
Another Dutch concept for managing town traffic is the woonerf, a neighborhood where pedestrians and cyclists always have the right-of-way over motor vehicles. In these areas, which lack lanes or signals, cars are restricted to a walking pace in order to assure safe and welcoming streets for walkers, bikers, and local businesses.
In São Paolo, Brazil, drivers with certain numbers on their license plates are prohibited from entering the city on certain days. Space rationing, also in place in Athens, Bogotá, Mexico City, Santiago, and the entire country of Honduras, attempts to cut traffic and congestion by keeping a certain number of cars off the roads. One big side benefit is that it also reduces auto emissions. Beijing implemented a similar plan before the 2008 Olympics to improve air quality; it was so successful that the city made it permanent. Some traffic experts prefer space rationing to congestion pricing because the restrictions are more equitable and don’t place an undue burden on one segment of the population. Critics, however, point out that the plan just forces people to delay car trips until their designated day instead of encouraging them to carpool or take mass transit. Also, the rich can still skirt the rules by keeping multiple cars with varying license plates.
This approach aims to divert faster traffic to alternate routes so that the calmed streets can better integrate with the functions of the community. It’s reflected in many familiar road features—speed bumps, reduced-speed zones around schools, and yield signs—all of which attempt to reduce and slow vehicular traffic while making the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. More extreme examples of traffic-calming strategies include placing islands or medians in roads, inserting choke points that narrow roads to one lane in intersections, and resurfacing paved roads into gravel or cobblestone. All these strategies require drivers to be more mindful of other drivers and pedestrians. In an attempt to make traffic slower and safer, some cities even go so far as to remove or narrow vehicle lanes. Although congestion inevitably increases, the traffic is slower and therefore deters drivers from using those roadways. Smaller cities with larger proportions of foot traffic and local businesses tend to use traffic calming the most often.
In a perfect world, all commuters could bike, walk, or carpool to their destinations, but unfortunately, most of us still rely on cars to get where we’re going. Even though businesses and urban planners are working together to find traffic solutions, their ideas all involve persuading people to do the one thing that will really make a difference: drive less.