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Cause of Road Congestion: Too Many Cars 34

Road congestion infographic

Infographic from a large US auto insurance company

I never cease to be amused by otherwise intelligent people coming up with lists of the causes of traffic congestion, but whom always seem to miss the most obvious cause of traffic congestion: too many bloody cars.

In Beijing, by the end of 2010 there were almost 5 million cars on the streets of that city of 20 million people (the 26th largest city in China by population). In 2010 alone there were over 800,000 new cars that were registered in Beijing.

Near the end 2010, the Beijing government realized that there wasn’t enough surface area in the city to sustain close to a million new cars year-after-year, so they decided to address traffic congestion by limiting the number of new license plates to 240,000/year using a lottery system.

In the first 11-hours after making this announcement they received 40,000 online applications.

Like many of our cities in North America, traffic congestion in Beijing is caused by too many cars on the road. There is no other explanation for it.

In the United States there are 812 cars for every 1,000 men, women and children.

The Beijing government seems to grasp the notion that too many cars causes congestion and in addition to restricting the number of license plates, the city lowered the cost to ride the subway to about $0.35USD and committed to doubling the length of its 15-line subway network by 2015.

The true cause of traffic congestion seems to be largely ignored here in North America. We are always trying to blame something exogenous for traffic congestion. It is always the fault of someone else and our society is averse to take ownership for issues that we ourselves cause.

This is illustrated by an infographic on traffic congestion that was sent to me recently. I get a lot of spam through this blog from people trying to promote their brands, but I thought it would be worthwhile to show this one because it highlights how ingrained car culture really is.

The infographic begins by detailing some interesting statistics about driving. For example, it explains that the US collectively drives about 3 trillion miles annually, or that the public roads in the US stretch 4 million miles – long enough to circle the earth 160 times.

It goes on to describe the top 5 most congested urban areas in the US, and urges drivers to drive a few miles out of their way to avoid urban areas in order to avoid traffic congestion.

Although the infographic contains some interesting information, it makes nary a mention of public transportation or bicycles. This despite the fact that the marketing firm that sent me the infographic wrote “Maybe some of these facts will convert more people over to using a bicycle for transportation!!”

The infographic then goes on to list “Causes of Road Congestion” as the following:

  • Bottlenecks (40%)
  • Traffic incidents (25%)
  • Bad weather (15%)
  • Work zones (10%)
  • Poor traffic signal timing (5%)
  • Special events/other (5%)

Thankfully, the infographic didn’t list “bicyclists” as one of the causes of road congestion, and I am happy that they used the words “traffic incidents” rather than the misnomer “traffic accidents”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a major American insurance company wouldn’t mention anything that might encourage its own customers to use any other mode of transportation than their car.

But that doesn’t mean that I won’t call them out on it. Driving a few miles out of your way to avoid urban areas is not a solution to traffic congestion. Moving closer to work, riding a bicycle, taking public transit, telecommuting, carpooling. These are solutions to traffic congestion.

Perhaps I should pull out Photoshop and tweak their infographic to remove the reality distortion and include some pragmatic suggestions to solve the tough problem of traffic congestion.

James D. Schwartz is a Transportation Pragmatist and the Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

Here is the infographic in its entirety:

Road congestion infographic

Infographic courtesy of Nationwide Insurance

i share the road

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34 thoughts on “Cause of Road Congestion: Too Many Cars

  1. Reply Steven Vance Oct 16, 2012 1:34 am

    A bottleneck might imply “too many cars”. A bottleneck is essentially a hole not big enough for everything that needs to pass through it at the time when those things “want” to pass through it. But the listing on that graphic is pretty vague.

    What is a bottleneck in Nationwide Insurance’s definition? Is it when a lane is shut down for maintenance and drivers must merge from two lanes to one lane? It lists “work zones” separately, but that could mean something else, like gaper’s delay. Or is it when the X number of people driving to work in the Central Business District need 10 lanes to do so in a reasonable amount of time but spitefully the city only gives them 4 lanes?

    My renters insurance company asks me about getting me car insurance every time I call to inquire about or change my policy. Every time, I respond “I don’t own a car”. They send out a quarterly newsletter, the majority of which is packed with “safe driving tips” that are really not safe driving tips at all, but really, “watch out, other people are going to harm you on the road” tips. Nothing in there about how we could ask our city planners, engineers, and elected officials, to mitigate all those people who are going to harm me, with better road designs and higher quality mobility, not driver’s, education.

  2. Reply Dr J Oct 16, 2012 8:43 am

    What you write makes sense in our imperfect world but your statement that “traffic congestion is caused by too many cars” needs a comment.

    Technically, traffic congestion is caused by only one factor – variation of speed.

    If you fill every square foot of the road with cars and let all of them move at the exact same speed (low or high, whatever) there will be no traffic congestion at all. Everyone would move forward nicely. This doesn’t happen in the real world, of course. People want to stop eventually, change lanes, make turns, etc. Nevertheless, change of speed is the real cause of congestion.

    • Reply James Schwartz Oct 16, 2012 12:40 pm

      But variation of speed is impossible if cars aren’t moving at all. If Beijing continued to add a million cars each year, it would only be a matter of time before everything came to a standstill, no?

  3. Reply Ines Alveano Oct 16, 2012 11:01 am

    It has been said: building roads to reduce traffic congestion, is the same as trying to “solve” obesity, by putting another hole on the belt.

  4. Reply Steven Vance Oct 16, 2012 11:55 pm

    A bottleneck might imply “too many cars”. A bottleneck is essentially a hole not big enough for everything that needs to pass through it at the time when those things “want” to pass through it. But the listing on that graphic is pretty vague.

    What is a bottleneck in Nationwide Insurance’s definition? Is it when a lane is shut down for maintenance and drivers must merge from two lanes to one lane? It lists “work zones” separately, but that could mean something else, like gaper’s delay. Or is it when the X number of people driving to work in the Central Business District need 10 lanes to do so in a reasonable amount of time but spitefully the city only gives them 4 lanes?

    My renters insurance company asks me about getting me car insurance every time I call to inquire about or change my policy. Every time, I respond “I don’t own a car”. They send out a quarterly newsletter, the majority of which is packed with “safe driving tips” that are really not safe driving tips at all, but really, “watch out, other people are going to harm you on the road” tips. Nothing in there about how we could ask our city planners, engineers, and elected officials, to mitigate all those people who are going to harm me, with better road designs and higher quality mobility, not driver’s, education.

  5. Reply Dr J Oct 16, 2012 11:59 pm

    What you write makes sense in our imperfect world but your statement that “traffic congestion is caused by too many cars” needs a comment.

    Technically, traffic congestion is caused by only one factor – variation of speed.

    If you fill every square foot of the road with cars and let all of them move at the exact same speed (low or high, whatever) there will be no traffic congestion at all. Everyone would move forward nicely. This doesn’t happen in the real world, of course. People want to stop eventually, change lanes, make turns, etc. Nevertheless, change of speed is the real cause of congestion.

  6. Reply Ines Alveano Oct 17, 2012 12:00 am

    It has been said: building roads to reduce traffic congestion, is the same as trying to “solve” obesity, by putting another hole on the belt.

  7. Reply James Schwartz Oct 17, 2012 12:01 am

    But variation of speed is impossible if cars aren’t moving at all. If Beijing continued to add a million cars each year, it would only be a matter of time before everything came to a standstill, no?

  8. Reply Peter Burka Oct 16, 2012 7:18 pm

    To be fair, the last box in the graphic does suggest that drivers “consider taking public transportation” during peak travel times.

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  9. Reply Vince Fury Dec 26, 2012 8:24 am

    Using seattle signs will help lessen the volume of vehicles passing through the road. That strategy was being used in other places that is why too much road congestion is not their problem.

  10. Reply Vince Fury Dec 26, 2012 1:24 pm

    Using seattle signs will help lessen the volume of vehicles passing through the road. That strategy was being used in other places that is why too much road congestion is not their problem.

  11. Reply DamonTolles Jan 2, 2013 1:51 am

    I always try to avoid driving, recently i hop a ride with my friend via car pool because i hate getting stressed out during the morning drive. Problem is that my friend’s car has faulty locks, thankfully he has the number of a locksmith in Perth WA, i told him to keep his number because knowing a good locksmith is always an asset.

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