More lanes do not equal less traffic

Haven’t posted much in recent months on community planning as I’ve had art on the brain, messing around with my new kiln and reading the books I received for Christmas. The last issue of Wired (Feb. 2008) featured a fun compilation titled “Why things suck.” One thing that sucks is traffic. The blurb reaffirms something I learned in my singular community planning course in college: More lanes does not equal less traffic.

    “Our nation is gridlocked. Congested roadways mean that each year, the typical US commuter spends about 40 hours in traffic. That adds up to $78 billing in lost time and wasted fuel, not to mention the environmental damage, road rage, and the proliferation of lame drive-time shock jocks. What’s worse, most jams aren’t the result of an accident or a breakdown; they have no clear cause at all. Drivers react to other drivers, and those drivers react in response. A tiny hiccup in traffic — your fiddling with the radio and get a little too close to the car in front, so you hit the brakes — can send a tremor rippling upstream for miles. One Japanese scientist found that in moderate traffic, a single erratic vehicle can trigger feedback effects that push the entire system into a new equilibrium: a standstill.

    The reflexive response to congestion is to add more capacity. But that, alas, is self-defeating. As the history of cities like New York and Los Angeles shows, a new bridge or expanded artery just invites more people to drive. In the long run, it alters decisions about where to live and work — highways create suburbs, not the other way around. Pent-up demand around major US cities is so great, urban planners say, no amount of construction would alleviate gridlock. Singapore, London and Stockholm have tackled rush hour problems with “congestion pricing” schemes that use heavy fees to encourage people to share rides or limit downtown trips to off-peak hours. Can the US hop on the same bus? A similar proposal for New York City has stalled.”

Usually forgotten in the discussion about traffic are the aesthetic considerations. In this overly pragmatic country, we’re too quick to throw up new infrastructure regardless of how it looks. I did learn in my architecture studios to look for the beauty in everything, but I don’t find much to admire in asphalt as used in roadways as they are generally applied to the environment.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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