Walkability, Congestion, and other Things Missing from Streets

In a recent book review, The Atlantic Cities Kaid Benfield went over a series of great techniques for increasing walkability. The article is too long to entirely recap, but the techniques include things like adding mixed use development, erecting interesting buildings, adding enough density to support transit, etc. They’re generally ideas that have come up before on this blog and the underlying problem is that city streets have been designed exclusively for the car.

But in light of my recent posts on Utah stroads, one of Benfield’s arguments particularly stood out: congestion can be good. Benfield’s point is that sprawl has driven people out of cities and the way to fix that is to put more people back in them. Hence, more congestion.

Provo seems to illustrate this idea well. Though drivers hate vehicle congestion, downtown shop owners are desperate for more people to drive to the area. I suspect they overestimate the positive economic impact of cars, but the point remains that having more potential customers in an area means stronger businesses. In other words, downtown Provo is exactly the sort of place that needs more congestion.

Getting stuck in traffic is never fun. But under some circumstances more people in a given space at a given time means more potential customers for local businesses.

Getting stuck in traffic is never fun. But under some circumstances more people in a given space at a given time means more potential customers for local businesses.

But that’s obvious, right? Who wouldn’t want more customers, be they drivers or pedestrians, near shops?

Apparently the people who design our roads, that’s who.

As I pointed out in those stroad posts, we’ve paved great swaths of our cities — Provo being just one example — in order to speed cars along their journey. The problem then, is that programs designed to reduce congestion — street widening, adding lanes, building new or bigger freeways, etc. — actually put fewer people in the areas where we need them the most.

For most of us, adopting a “pro-congestion” stance is like advocating for something horrible, like murder or AIDS:

But in reality it’s not like that at all. In fact, if we want downtown businesses to succeed it means packing more potential customers into the area. And as counter-intuitively as it sounds, congestion may be an important part of the equation.

This street in downtown rarely sees much congestion, vehicular or otherwise. That means there aren't a lot of customers in the area for nearby businesses.

This street in downtown rarely sees much congestion, vehicular or otherwise. That means there aren’t a lot of customers in the area for nearby businesses.

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