Traffic congestion: An everyday problem of everyone

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By: Salil Saroj

Traffic congestion has been increasing in much of the world, developed or not, and everything indicates that it will continue to get worse, representing an undoubted menace to the quality of urban life. Its main expression is a progressive reduction in traffic speeds, resulting in increases in journey times, fuel consumption, other operating costs and environmental pollution, as compared with an uninterrupted traffic flow.

Congestion is mainly due to the intensive use of automobiles, whose ownership has spread massively in India in recent decades. Private cars have advantages in terms of facilitating personal mobility, and they give a sensation of security and even of heightened status, especially in developing countries. They are not an efficient means of passenger transport, however, since on average at rush hours each occupant of a private car causes about 11 times as much congestion as a passenger on a bus.

The situation is further aggravated in the region by problems of road design and maintenance in the cities, a style of driving which shows little respect for other road users, faulty information on traffic conditions, and unsuitable management by the responsible authorities, which are often split up among a host of different bodies.

The harmful effects of congestion are suffered directly by the vehicles that are trying to circulate. They are not only suffered by motorists, however, but also by users of public transport –generally lower-income persons–who not only take longer to travel from one place to another but also have to pay higher fares on account of congestion. All city-dwellers are also adversely affected, in terms of deterioration in their quality of life through such factors as greater air and noise pollution and the negative long-term impact on the healthiness and sustainability of their cities, all of which makes it vitally necessary to keep congestion under control.

The most logical approach is to tackle congestion through measures affecting the supply of transport, i.e., the availability and quality of the transport infrastructure, vehicles and their management, since this represents an increase in the capacity for travel.

There are many shortcomings in the current urban road systems which need to be put right: it is necessary to improve the design of intersections, mark roads properly and provide them with suitable signs, and correct the operating cycles of traffic lights, for example. Another possible measure would be to make the traffic flow in the main avenues reversible at rush hours. These measures can relieve congestion considerably and do not usually cost much, the main requirement being knowledge of traffic engineering.

The construction of new roads or the widening of existing ones should not be ruled out, when appropriate and feasible within the context of a harmonious form of urban development which provides for adequate spaces for pedestrians and preserves the architectural heritage. It should be borne in mind, however, that building more and more roads, under- and overpasses and urban expressways may be counter-productive in the medium and long term and may actually make congestion even worse, as we have unfortunately seen in the cases of some cities which adopted this strategy.

Big savings may be obtained through a system of traffic lights run from a central computer. The rather high cost of this system in the view of many municipalities might make it advisable to set about this programme initially in several stages and only in certain sectors of the city, beginning with the progressive replacement of obsolete traffic lights by newer ones suited to the necessary technology. The application of this system in areas of heavy traffic would show off its virtues and obtain citizen support for its wider use.

Another very real need is to organize a public transport system which provides effective service. Substantial benefits are provided, not only for buses but also for private cars, by segregated lanes for public transport. It may also be necessary to reorganize the bus lines into trunk and feeder lines, to give them certain preferential traffic rights, and to improve the quality of the buses used and the business capacity of their operators. Buses of a higher standard than those generally in service may also have a useful role to play, especially if their operating timetables and frequencies allow them to offer a viable alternative to private car users.

A significant contribution can be made by transport systems similar to above-ground subway lines, organized on the basis of buses running in their own segregated lanes, with regular journey frequencies, centralized control, boarding and alighting of passengers only at designated stations, and a requirement that passengers must purchase their tickets before boarding the bus. Although installing these systems is a complex matter and the construction of the necessary infrastructure will assuredly need the contribution of public resources.

It is important that public transport should be improved in order to provide a rapid service of decent standard and thus maintain the present proportion of journeys made by this means. In developing countries, over half of all journeys –and as much as 80% in some cities—are made by public transport.

If well designed and executed, measures affecting supply offer an interesting potential for tackling congestion. Even so, it is necessary to incorporate other measures, especially respecting demand, to be able to solve the imbalances in infrastructure use and aid in achieving an acceptable balance for the community as a whole.

The aim of these measures is to persuade a substantial number of private car users travelling at rush hours or in areas of heavy traffic to use higher density forms of transport, use non-motorized means of transport, or change the times at which they travel.

Some measures may involve the application of regulations and restrictions. Others may provide economic rewards or disincentives for adopting forms of conduct that reduce congestion. Both types of measures need to be considered for a better overall result, since economic measures may not be fully effective, while those involving regulations may be vulnerable if the controls are weak.

Substantial results can be achieved through the rationalization of parking spaces, since their availability and cost condition access by private car users. Permanent or daytime prohibition of parking on the main streets, charges for parking on other streets, the regulation of paid parking in private parking lots and free parking offered by institutions and firms to their workers or to the public, economic incentives for not going to work by car, and intermediate parking lots for leaving cars and continuing the journey in public transport are potentially useful measures if applied in the right places and the right way. Some of them may also generate income for the municipalities.

Staggering the starting hours of activities relieves congestion somewhat, as it spreads the morning rush hour over a longer period, while restrictions on vehicle use can take a substantial part of the total number of vehicles out of circulation. The application of such restrictions only in the most congested sectors or times, as for example in central areas during the morning and evening rush hours, may have more lasting effects than their more general application, since it will give less incentive to buy extra cars to get round the restrictions. Another form of restriction is to charge differential license fees depending on whether or not the vehicle can be used every day of the week.

Road use tariffs, which have been proposed by many academics and urban transport officials because they represent an attractive concept for making drivers pay for the costs they cause to society, are the measures which have met with the strongest resistance, especially from private car owners. These measures seem to get results, at least in the short term, but they are questioned from every imaginable angle. They are unacceptable for users, since they require them to pay for moving about in conditions of congestion; there are doubts about how to apply them; there are objections about their effects on areas immediately next to those subject to tariffs; they are accused of being inequitable with regard to persons with fewer resources; it is feared that economic activities in the areas subject to tariffs will be adversely affected; there are doubts about their long-term effects on town planning, because they are an incentive for cities to expand unless there are severe controls on land use; and last but not least, it is claimed that their application would be theoretically inconsistent unless other related prices, such as those of green spaces, are also made subject to the recovery of their marginal cost. It would therefore appear that the likelihood of their application is limited, unless some city (other than Singapore, which has extremely special conditions) manages to put them into effect successfully. They may perhaps be tried out first in developed countries, if the congestion there reaches intolerable levels, no other effective means are seen to exist, and the theoretical and practical doubts that still affect them can be successfully solved.

If carried out permanently ever since childhood, education in proper road use can help to reduce congestion by teaching the population not to drive in an undisciplined manner or fail to show due respect to other road users, whether pedestrians or other drivers. Likewise, pedestrians must also be made to observe traffic rules and cross the street only at suitable places and moments.

The rapidity with which congestion can reach acute levels in big cities makes it essential for the authorities to take the right approach when seeking to adapt urban transport systems in this respect, both in the case of public transport and in that of private car use in problem areas or times. The first concern should be to relieve the effects of congestion on those who have little or no responsibility for causing it, by:

  • Promoting or recovering the road system’s quality of a public good, by facilitating the free circulation of those who do not contribute to congestion, or only do so to a negligible extent. This mostly means providing public transport with clear, unimpeded routes and giving it some degree of priority over other road users, including segregated bus lanes when appropriate in order that it should not be held up by congestion;
  • Keeping the emission of pollutants under control; and
  • Limiting congestion in order to prevent it from endangering the quality of life and sustainability of cities.

Reducing congestion also has the result of reducing the emission of pollutants that contaminate the air, since in most cities in the world the transport system is one of the main culprits for atmospheric pollution. An integrated strategy for combating these two problems can therefore result in more efficient solutions than the application of isolated measures to combat each of them separately.

Everything indicates that an effort should be made to apply a set of actions designed to affect both the supply of transport and the demand for it, in order to rationalize public road use. It must be recognized that a style of personal mobility based essentially on the use of private cars is not sustainable in the long term, although this does not necessarily mean that it should be prohibited. Private cars have many uses which make urban life easier, such as facilitating social life, shopping or travelling to distant destinations. Using them every day to go to one’s place of work or study in areas of heavy traffic is a different matter, however.

It is therefore necessary to design policies and measures of a multidisciplinary nature which will make it possible to keep congestion under control, since it is not reasonable to think of eliminating it altogether. In the case of cities in developing regions, while local conditions must always be taken into account, it would seem advisable to give priority to the following measures:

  • Rectification of intersections
  • Improvement of road markings and signs
  • Rationalization of on-street parking
  • Staggering of working hours
  • Synchronization of traffic lights
  • Reversibility of traffic flow direction in some main avenues
  • Establishment of segregated bus lanes, together with the restructuring of the system of bus routes

At the same time, it is necessary to establish a long-term strategic vision of how the city should develop which will make it possible to harmonize the needs of mobility, growth and competitiveness, which are so necessary in the world of today, with the sustainability of cities and the improvement of their quality of life. This is a complex task, calling for high professional and leadership qualities on the part of the town planning and transport authorities, and it could perhaps be made easier by the establishment of a single unified transport authority in metropolitan areas.

Keeping congestion under control is an ongoing, never-ending task. Tools exist for this purpose, some of them more effective and some of them more readily accepted than others, but a set of measures which has the support of the local population is needed in order not to run the risk of succumbing in the face of the modern scourge of traffic congestion.

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