After sixty years of the Suburban Experiment, we have a conditioned response to congestion on our streets: we add automobile capacity. We widen streets, add turning areas, remove parking and add additional lanes. Economists tell us that congestion costs us billions of dollars a year. What if that was backwards? What if congestion was the essential ingredient our cities needed to prosper?

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I've spent the past couple of months discussing traffic projections and why our approach to managing traffic is glorified guess work with a veneer of science. I recently offered an alternative approach, one that did not require us to make enormous bets on a future we pretend we understand. Today I'm going to talk about getting there; the transition it will take for us to change our transportation system in pursuit of a Strong Towns vision.

It starts with something we all know and understand: automobile congestion. Many of us experience congestion to one degree or another every day. Cars stopped at traffic lights. Streets backed up while someone tries to turn across traffic. Arterials clogged during rush hour while more cars try to get on. This is the America we know.

We also know the "solution" to congestion. The traffic engineering profession -- a formal pursuit still in the adolescent stage of its development -- has conditioned us to the proper response: add capacity. This has become so common sense in our culture that the average person can, from their driver's seat, prescribe the myriad of complex solutions that will immediately gain societal acceptance.

Add new lanes of traffic. Remove on street parking. Build turn lanes. Add signalized intersections. We rarely even debate the necessity of such improvements, let alone their effectiveness.

We also intuitively understand the economic impact of fighting congestion. With each increase of automobile mobility, we see new investments occurring. Strips malls, big box stores and new housing subdivisions, all signs of progress made possible by increasing automobile mobility. Investment responds to the increase in mobility and coalesces where it can be put to most efficient use. This means the big box retailer is able to compete at a lower price than the corner hardware store. The chain grocer is able to offer a wider selection than the corner grocer. The national coffee shop is able to offer the brand recognition not available to ma and pa.

In America, circa 2012, we call this "the market" as a way to sooth ourselves into believing that somehow this represents a consumer preference. That somehow the subsidies meted out in our War on Congestion did not predetermine as winner those few that compete at the narrow margins of quantities of scale. We need to believe that Wal-Mart out competed the old hardware store. Our genuflecting to the American ethos of competition is the only way we can culturally justify buying products made in China, with credit dispensed from China, from pitifully compensated American workers barely paid enough to afford the products they sell.

What would happen if we removed this subsidy?

When I suggest that we convert our STROADS back into streets -- changing unproductive transportation corridors into platforms for growth and investment -- the push back I get is that congestion will become unbearable. If we narrow those lanes, bring back the on-street parking, take out the turn lanes, remove the traffic signals, slow the automobile speeds and welcome a more complex urban environment, somehow we wouldn't all be able to rapidly get to where we want to go.

To this I say: AMEN!

We have spent untold amounts of wealth reducing the time spent in the first and last mile of each auto trip. The result: a nation of fragile and unproductive places, an economy subsisting on financial meth and other desperation moves along with a built environment that forces (let me emphasize that to reinforce the notion that having only one option in a marketplace is quite un-American) FORCES nearly all of us to drive everywhere we need to go.

If we began to unwind this system, converting those nasty STROAD corridors into wealth producing streets, we would have congestion, of course, but in this case, congestion would simply be another word for opportunity. And not the type of opportunity that benefits the global corporation that can purchase toilet paper for 0.005 cents over cost, ship it around the world on subsidized transportation systems using subsidized energy all while protected by the U.S. military. I'm talking about opportunity for real people in real neighborhoods.

Need a gallon of milk? In an America of Strong Towns, you can get in your car and drive or -- if the cost in terms of your time or quality of experience is worth more to you than you would choose to give up in dollar wealth -- you can walk down the street to the corner grocer. Today that is considered quaint, but stop wasting enormous sums of money fighting congestion and now that becomes a real choice. Am I going to sit in my car for half an hour on clogged streets to save two dimes on milk or will I just walk up the block? 

With choice comes opportunity. With opportunity comes investment. I want to free the local entrepreneurs in this country to reinvest back in our cities and core neighborhoods. A tiny bit of love to these places will financially return scores more to our GDP than all the grand infrastructure projects we could ever imagine. All we have to do is stop subsidizing their competition.

And please understand what I'm saying: We can actually spend lots less, have a government that is smaller and more effective and see a ton of local investment -- stuff that will make a city wealthier and more prosperous over the long run -- while providing small business opportunities and a growing, stable and diverse workforce. This is a vision for a New America, one much more closely tied to the best of our heritage than the current consumption-centric, faux incarnation of the American Dream.

To make this happen, we need to realize that congestion is the answer, not the problem. People who want to shop at big box stores can live next to them. That is a choice in the markeplace that I can accept. People that want to live in neighborhoods will also have choices, options that do not exist for them today because we subsidize their competition at every opportunity.

So will congestion be unbearable? Perhaps for a while, but it is not like we are going to go out tomorrow and convert every wealth-destroying STROAD into a revenue-generating street (although a few cans of paint in a city determined to reform could go a long ways in a hurry). This is going to happen gradually over time. And it will be self-regulating; the greater the level of congestion, the more incentive there will be on our blocks and in our neighborhoods to develop alternatives. That's the way markets work.

Spend less money. Build places that create real wealth. Provide options. Drive competition. These are Strong Towns values that we can all buy in to. We just need to start seeing congestion for the partner it is.

 

If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.