One of the occupational hazards in writing a book called Traffic is that every year, just after the annual release of the congestion report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute—which measures highway travel times in US cities—I am contacted by various media outlets to offer analysis on that year’s findings.
I have stopped returning these calls. For one, I am not convinced that TTI is measuring the right things. City X, the reporter will want to know, is now ranked right below City Y. Are things getting worse? In last year’s report, for example, Chicago looked almost as bad as Atlanta. As an analyst for the group Transportation for America noted, however, Chicagoans travel shorter distances than Atlantans—and thus spend less time in the car. “Yet the two are ranked similarly,” he notes, “because the difference in traffic speed during peak hour versus off-peak (say, 3am) is similar in both places. Ultimately, the TTI doesn’t really care about overall quality of life—or commute—for the majority of residents. It’s all about how fast you can drive at peak hour.”
The more profound reason I have stopped returning these calls—or the ones asking how to avoid back-to-school, or Fourth-of-July-weekend, or transit-employees’-strike traffic—is a sense of larger existential futility. Yes, congestion taxes our productivity, it costs our health, and it makes us miserable. We may have even, as a nation, reached “peak travel”—we’ve collectively hit the limit of how much we want to drive. But focusing on congestion numbers (and the media love numbers, as long as they are not unpacked too thoroughly), or even on congestion itself—and what, precisely, is “too much” congestion?—misses the point. It’s like a patient who obsessively tracks his rising cholesterol levels without changing his diet. In the increasingly crowded metropolitan regions of the 21st century, improving overall quality of life has little to do with increasing travel speeds for the individual driver.
Traffic, that great “tragedy of the commons,” is a system in which each person’s search for individual utility (and, theoretically, happiness) directly impinges upon everyone else’s. Cruelly, it does so in a nonlinear fashion: Increase the amount of vehicles by 33 percent and congestion is bound to increase well beyond that. So how do you fix this in a way that is not only efficient but also socially equitable? How might we reorder our cities to improve not simply the vehicular flow on certain highway facilities, but overall quality of life?
Vancouver-based journalist Charles Montgomery, in his ambitious cross-disciplinary and prescriptive book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, notes an apparent paradox: Cities have never been wealthier, more geographically dispersed, or more resource intensive; nor have they afforded more people “private domesticity and mobility.” And yet, he argues, “despite all we have invested in this dispersed city, it has failed to maximize health and happiness.”
It is more than a design problem, he argues—it is a psychological problem. Much of that congestion, which every year gets worse, comes from people seeking increasingly larger homes that require increasingly longer commutes. But as behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman have suggested, the hedonic glow of having that fourth bedroom can begin to wear off very quickly, while the temporal vicissitudes of a daily commute never fade. In Montgomery’s view, generations of planners, developers, and politicians have been similarly seduced by blinkered thinking. “The city is as much a product of the psychological tics, status urges, and schematic errors in judgment of these powerful strangers,” he writes, “as it is one of our flawed choices or happenstance.”