There is Less Traffic Off the Beaten Track

We put together a few tips to help people move smoothly through cities and posted them with the hashtag #TrafficTuesday throughout 2022. Click on the pink subtitles to get to our original LinkedIn posts.


Size matters

It's obvious: networks depend on the size of their cities. The smallest towns basically consist of nothing but an intersection. Medium-sized municipalities often have a radial network of roads and trams. In large cities, tangential connections such as ring roads and metro lines are essential if the city centre is not to become a huge car park.

Street lanes are shown as a deep abyss which pedestrians cross on planks
Illustration: Karl Jilg

Size also matters when it comes to vehicles. Regularly running buses, trams or trains have many times the capacity of a that prioritises cars.

Under the title "Space required to transport 60 people", three photos are shown: rows of car standing four abreast along a street, one bus, and 60 bicycles nicely arranged
Poster: Münster Planning Office

On the flip side, there would be much more space for people in cities if we didn't let cars have so much of it.


 


Traffic is like water

It flows, it dries up, it spills over.


People have the uncanny ability to all want to use the same roads and trains at the same time. Congestion occurs no matter how well roads are planned, as this video demonstrates.

Cities and transport companies have the option of smoothing out peaks in demand—for example with prices that vary in time or place. The basic laws of transport nevertheless remain:

  • There is the most traffic before the start and after the end of the typical working day

  • Traffic is better distributed in the evening than in the morning

  • Tuesday to Thursday are the busiest days, followed by the home-office days of Monday and Friday

  • Traffic flows are completely different on weekends

Traffic planning should not be based on hope.


 

Respect your elders

Transport infrastructure is the prime example of sunk costs. Removing it is generally a bad idea. On the contrary, look for disused lines when seeking a solution for your problem. Putting a former line back into service is often cheaper than building a new one.


In the UK, there is a government fund for this purpose. At least eight lines will be brought back to life.


 

People want to get from A to B

The bigger these places are, the more people will want to get to them. Transport routes have to include major sites in your city—business districts, attractions, airports etc.


The reason why trains can give planes a run for their money on many European routes is that there are no good travel options between airports and city centers—think of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle or London’s Gatwick.



 

Traffic is not a natural phenomenon

It is an interaction between hard and soft factors. Good traffic planning therefore takes into account not only the course of roads and rails, but also the potential for crowding and solutions for exceptional situations.


In June, the "ballet for all" by Zurich's opera took place on the city's Sechseläutenplatz. Because the square is well connected and open, there were no problems when the more than 10,000 people all wanted to go home at the same time after the end of the performance.



 

Transit planning goes hand in hand with urban planning

The North American reflex to build parking lots around everything wastes the most precious land around public-transport stops. This hinders residential development, hurts small businesses, and leads to underfunding of public transport.


"A transit plan without a good land-use plan is a waste of time and resources because the transit is doomed to fail. It will forever be underfunded and struggle to gain ridership. A good land use plan without a transit plan is a lost opportunity."

The video also contains some advanced transit-planning vocabulary: the area within walking distance of a stop is called the walk shed.


 

There is no such thing as a free lunch, right?

We were not quite ready to overturn the concept of opportunity cost on a Tuesday morning in July, but we wanted to point out a free way to increasing the capacity of roads and railway lines: lowering the speed limit.


Traffic on highways with two to three lanes flows best at 80 kph. High-speed trains will drastically lower your network’s capacity if there are slower local or cargo trains running on it as well. Additionally, lower speed limits increase safety, reduce noise, and promote walking.


Indeed, Australia's National Road Safety Partnership Program has busted just about every myth concerning speed limits. So the next time you plan transit infrastructures, keep in mind that the ideal speed limit is probably lower than you think.


 

More of the same?

On the one hand: never change a winning team. Look for solutions that have a proven track record in your own city or in comparable ones. Upgrade your fine-meshed bus network by increasing services or installing priority lanes. For trams and S-Bahnen, increasing the capacity of each vehicle is a good starting point. Finally, if your street space is hopelessly cluttered, it might be time to take to the skies and learn from cities like Medellín that have installed cable cars in urban areas.

However, don’t throw good money after bad. If something does not work, chances are that it still won’t even after upgrade it. The extra lanes on your highway will be as congested as the rest of it almost immediately. You will always have to haul shared bikes from the bottom of hills to the top. Finally, no amount of money could ever turn the London cable car into more than a gimmick.


 


Everything's not lost if you have built the wrong transit system

Countries like Japan and Switzerland have long shown that you can develop your existing infrastructure into something more suitable. RM Transit's video points out a few concrete steps how you can improve your rail lines using existing corridors:

Upgrading your vehicles is often the easiest step to improve your lines. Low-floor trains without internal divisions have a higher capacity. Light-rail vehicles might reduce journey times due to their acceleration and cornering speed, and increase passenger numbers due to their comfort.


Take the next step. Trams can be extended to become interurban lines. Light rail can be the foundation for either metros or S-Bahn systems. Slight tweaks to infrastructure can relieve bottlenecks and decrease journey times.


Don't be afraid to do things differently. The theory on transit planning has become extensive and well-researched in recent years, but sometimes it's still profitable to deviate from it. Zürich and Zug are examples where S-Bahn and interurban systems were introduced on existing normal-gauge tracks with extensions in the right places.


We would add another step: use networked thinking to evaluate your network. Some problems can be solved by tweaking signage in stations or making small changes to carriages and platforms. Switzerland's integrated network shows what is possible if you prioritise scheduling.


 

Reclaim the streets

How much space do you give to each mode of transport? If you live in snowy parts of the world, you will have already seen how little space car traffic actually needs. If streets aren't plowed immediately, cars forge their own paths through the snow. The areas that remain snowcovered can be turned into bike lanes and sidewalks.

The photo shows an intersection on a snowy day. The actual curbs are drawn in blue. The partially cleared areas show that cars actually use much less road space. Future bike lanes, plazas, and pedestrian refuges are drawn in yellow dotted lines.
Source unknown

When it comes to improving the quality of life, any square metre of pedestrian space or even greenery counts – as this viral picture from Düsseldorf illustrates.

The image shows two photos taken from the same spot in Düsseldorf. In 1990 there is a six-lane highway running along the Rhine shore. In 2019, the road has been replaced with greenery and a bike lane.
Source unknown


 

Rail is oldfashioned

In shop talk we often say that the basic components of railways are still the same as they were in its pioneering days in the mid-19th century—a metal wheel guided by a metal rail that lies on an absorbent bed.


Alongside all the trappings—vehicles, signalling, safety systems and so on—the essence of the railway has in fact also evolved, of course. What remained constant, however, was the physics of the relationship between the weight of the vehicle (including its passengers) and the track. The bigger and faster the vehicles, the higher the forces that have to be absorbed. Trams are not called "light rail" in English for nothing, but even for them a significant track bed is necessary


The English city of Coventry wants to change that. Its very-light-rail system is supposed to be two-thirds cheaper than a conventional tram. This is made possible by small, lightweight vehicles and a track height of less than 30 centimetres. The latter is crucial because it would not interfere with existing utilities.



 

Be smart...

Unfortunately, it’s way past 2015 and the hoverboard still hasn’t been invented. This means that traffic is mainly two-dimensional, constrained to the ground and any flyovers and underpasses you build for it.


This makes it obvious that trams and busses will be just as stuck in traffic unless you prioritize them—pretty simple, right?


 


... but not too smart

Unless it has a high probability of solving your transit problems, you should be wary of falling for the appeal of something new. As this tweet points out, self-driving cars do not really solve the actual problems of cars:

The tweet by @Momifornia1 reads: "US: our roads are all gridlocked with cars, how do we fix this? Japan: trains! Netherlands: bikes! Colombia: buses! US: MORE CARS but they drive themselves!"
The original tweet has since been deleted

The fact that fewer than two people sit in the average car means that the energy required to move around a ton of metal and plastic is used inefficiently.


Infrastructure for cars uses up far more space per person and vehicle than other modes of transport—however, this could be improved by self-driving cars that are able to follow one another more closely.


Cars spend most of their time in parking spaces or garages, so both its production materials and the space required to park it are used inefficiently.


 


What makes rail networks effective and efficient?

Looking at the ten US cities with the lowest number of trips per track mile, the following things stand out:


A train every 15 minutes is not enough on urban lines. Increasing frequency to close to the network’s capacity makes sense from the viewpoint of marginal costs.


Each station has a catchment area around it. If this circle with a radius of approximately 500m around a station is densly populated and/or features a lot of people-oriented businesses, more people will get on and off. The video looks at a fair few stations next to highway interchanges, which is mainly an American thing, but it does crop up in Europe every once in a while—looking at you, Zürich Brunau.

Mixed traffic sends mixed messages. Building a metro line next to a highway or a tram line on an existing street are not going to magically solve road congestion.


Transit is no end in itself. Lines and stations need to serve a purpose. The video mentions the sin of “transit-oriented non-development”, which really says it all.


 


Many of the interesting and important questions in life start with "What if"

In October we followed CNN's new podcast Downside Up down the rabbit hole: what if cars had never been invented?


What is obvious from the start is that our world would look completely different. Places where no car and no car-centred infrastructure can be seen have become rare, and it is almost impossible to picture such an oasis in an urban or suburban area. The following aspects mentioned in the podcast weren't quite as obvious to us:


Streets and sidewalks would still exist. They predate motorised cars, but cars were given more and more space over time.


We would have more space—not just on sidewalks, but all around our homes. Many cities started converting parking spaces and side streets into café patios and mini-parks in 2020. Try picturing this effect on a much larger scale.


Suburbs probably wouldn't exist. People moved out of city centres for two reasons: one, getting to work became much easier when workers could afford cars. Two, many urban areas were blighted by highways. The result is what is called the "bacon belt" in German: an affluent area surrounding cities from where people commute to work by car.


Highway development reinforced existing inequalities and created new ones. As Chris Cillizza mentions in the podcast, thoroughfares and turnpikes were mostly built in African American neighbourhoods. This is not so much a case of overt racism, but a consequence of homes and land being worth less in these areas—an effect that can be spotted around the globe.


Cars are here to stay for at least a bit longer, but we think that all transit and urban planners should ask this "what if" question as often as they can. What if we close off this side street? What if we remove these parking spaces? What if we plan new residential developments completely carless?


One area of life where these questions are asked continuously are of course books. Here are some of our team's best recommendations on books exploring alternate realities:

  • Mind and Nature by Gregory Bateson (recommended by Martin Omlin)

  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (recommended by Floris Piso)

  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (recommended by Lesia Hychko)

  • Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore and The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (recommended by Raffael Hirt)



 


"Trains before planes" is one of the slogans of climate activists

Unfortunately, the current reality is the exact opposite in many ways. Air travel took off after the second world war as both tourism and jet engines were developed rapidly. This led to a high market share that high-speed rail is only starting to claw back, as this video outlines.

Here are some of the problems we need to solve:


International train journeys need to be as simple as flights. This means direct trains, tickets that can be easily booked for the entirety of a journey, and competitive ticket prices.


We need to look beyond the obvious. Both budget airlines and budget train operators found success in focussing on leisure rather than business travel. This makes budget operators sustainable next to established competition because it unearths hidden demand. Yes, a plurality of customers switching to budget railways will come from established competitors (50 percent in the case of the French Ouigo), but there is potential for induced demand and demand captured from other modes of transport (25 percent each in Ouigo's case).


Networks need to be developed with an international perspective. International lines require high-speed infrastructure that doesn't just end on each side of the border and cross-border interoperability. Only the latter would allow for whole countries to benefit from infrastructure like the Eurotunnel by prolonging Eurostar lines to places like Manchester or Edinburgh. In the words of the video, “operators can only induce demands where governments have decided to build tracks.”


Let's get this done!


 


Do you own a car?

It's probably twice as expensive as you think it is. According to TechAltar's video below, car owners know pretty well how much they spend on fuel, but underestimate all the other costs—from maintenance to insurance and depreciation. In Germany, the yearly costs amount to over €7000 even for small cars like VW Golfs or Opel Astras. As the video demonstrates, you could get all-inclusive local and nationwide public-transport passes as well as buy two to three bicycles for the same amount (actually, the creator spends around €1600).

Incredibly, this money still only pays for about half the actual cost of a car. The other half is subsidised by the government—through direct incentives to buy new cars and EVs, the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as well as externalities and nonmonetary costs such as pollution and noise.


The question is: why do individuals, the state as well as society decide to buy into such an expensive system? The question is partly answered by the lack of knowledge about the actual costs already mentioned. However, the system's vicious cycle is as important: because having a car is so heavily subsidised, many people do, leading to the state having to expand infrastructure—and so forth.


The answer is what we have tried to promote in the #TrafficTuesday series: finding smart solutions that actually solve the problem at hand. We hope you enjoyed reading up on it!

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