Why traffic congestion is a good thing

28 Apr 2007|Lee Shupp

I spent last weekend in Vancouver, at the annual gathering of the Association of Professional Futurists. The APF has consistently put on great conferences in cities where the locale fits the conference theme. (For example, a past gathering on “The Future of Reality” was held in Las Vegas; what better place to explore what reality is, and what it may mean?) This year the theme was “The Future of Identity,” and one of the unique identities that we explored was the identity of Vancouver as a city. Vancouver has developed a successful model for cities of the future, and the city has done that on the premise that traffic congestion is a good thing, rather than a problem to be addressed.

The logic is pretty simple, actually. Vancouver has very little space, with ocean, mountains, farmland, and a bog surrounding the city. Hence there is no room to expand outward, only upward. As the city has grown upward and population has increased, traffic has become worse. Rather than trying to put freeways through the city, planners have viewed congestion as a good thing, and have intentionally designed a city that is not friendly to cars. Look at Vancouver by satellite on Google maps, and you will quickly notice the lack of big streets, as well as a lack of parking spaces. This is deliberate, because city planners chose not to play a game that they could not win. They used congestion as a way to encourage people to use transportation other than cars, and it works. Not only that, it’s fun. We took water taxis daily to our meeting site, and it was a wonderful way to begin the day.

As a result, other cities are now studying Vancouver in an attempt to create more vibrant urban spaces. Urban planners are now talking about studies that show that expanding freeways actually increases traffic congestion, rather than fixing it. Hence a new way of looking at traffic congestion has been pioneered in Vancouver.

I like this way of thinking; a great exercise when thinking about a problem is to flip it around, and think of it as an opportunity rather than a problem. Often interesting new possibilities appear. What problem do you have, that might really be an opportunity in disguise?

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