Cars and cities mix about as well as oil and water. Cities are (or should be) densely populated areas filled with residents and visitors trying to get to work, run errands, spend time with friends, and experience the myriad cultural activities available. When trying to fit so much into a small area, every inch counts. Every nook and cranny needs to be used as efficiently as possible.
In terms of space, cars are one of the least efficient modes of transportation.
This is partially what causes traffic, especially in urban areas. High population density and the dominance of the car combine to create traffic jams that tie up roads in cities across the country and around the world. LA is known for its traffic problems, but every major city in the US has a traffic problem.
Traffic is bad not just because it slows people down, but also because it lowers the overall quality of life in the area near the traffic. Cars sitting in traffic make the air quality worse and generate a huge amount of noise pollution as well.
The seemingly obvious solution to these problems would be to build more roads, right?
Building more roads does not make traffic better, and it can sometimes make it worse. It seems a little backwards, but it’s true. Because it is so inexpensive to drive in this country and you don’t pay directly each time you use a road, if there are more free roads, more people will use it.
So building more roads is out of the question. How about we get rid of some roads instead?
Believe it or not, when you reduce capacity on a road by removing a travel lane, or redesignating that lane for buses and/or bikes, traffic won’t get worse. It’s a phenomenon known as “disappearing traffic.” By taking away space for cars, you can encourage people to do a few things:
- Take a different route
- Drive at a different time
- Not take a trip unless it is absolutely necessary
- Ride a bike
- Take mass transit
Every single one of those options eases traffic a little bit for the remaining drivers, so another benefit of taking away road capacity is actually less traffic for the remaining drivers.
A road like Mass. Ave. could benefit tremendously from shifting road space from cars to buses. Imagine the #1 bus having its own lane? No more bunching, buses coming at regular intervals, not having to fight tooth and nail for a seat – it’s all possible if we choose to prioritize sustainable forms of transportation like buses, bikes, walking, subways, and light-rail instead of continuing to let cars dominate our cities.
The work being done by groups like Livable Streets to advocate for changes and educate the public is extremely important, and they’ve seen some success in the redesign for the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge. Their efforts will be that much more successful when the general public understands how much better our cities can be when we stop prioritizing car travel.
Cities have been designed to favor cars for decades, but it’s time we start demanding that people come before cars.
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator