Traffic Congestion and a Non-Solution

Topic: Management Improvement, Problem Solving

I read, Study: Nation’s Traffic Jams Worsening, today on CNN.com. That same headline could have appeared in newspapers every day for the last few years.

For decades traffic congestion has been a problem in American cities and one that has continued to get worse. The typical proposed solution is to increase the number of roads. The theory behind this solution is not normally stated but, I believe, it amounts to: “if we build more roads then the system will have more capacity which has to decrease congestion.” Unfortunately this theory fails to take into account the past data on the increasing capacity of roads “solution.”

I am not an expert in the area of traffic solutions. However, Russell Ackoff has done some work in this area and I trust his judgment more than almost anybody. I have heard him say increasing capacity does not work (unfortunately I can’t find a citation for that statement). All that happens is the number of cars increases and the roads get even more congested. Luckily he understands systems and therefore understands that the system as a whole must be examined. Chapter Seven, Transportation Without a Future, of his excellent book, The Art of Problem Solving Accompanied by Ackoff’s Fables, has some good material on this subject.

The CNN article continues the claim of most such articles over the last few decades (that I have noticed anyway) that the only solution is to increase capacity. They don’t ever seem to show examples of how this has been done successfully. Granted it is theoretically possible that everyplace just fails to increase capacity enough (I just doubt that is the answer – as stated before, while I am not an expert I trust Ackoff’s conclusions).

From the CNN article:

Overall in 2003, there were 3.7 billion hours of travel delay and 2.3 billion gallons of wasted fuel for a total cost of more than $63 billion.

Urban areas are not adding enough capacity, improving operations or managing demand well enough to keep congestion from growing.

The report was released Monday, the same day the Senate resumes debate on a bill that would spend $284 billion on highways over the next six years.

Only job loss or major commitments to expand capacity will decrease congestion dramatically, he said.

The only mention of something other than adding capacity was

Congestion can also be reduced by managing traffic better. The report said such techniques as coordinating traffic signals, smoothing traffic flow on major roads and creating teams to respond quickly to accidents reduced delay by 336 million hours in 2003.

See: Russell L. Ackoff, iconoclastic management authority, advocates a ‘‘systemic’’ approach to innovation an interview of Ackoff by Robert Allio.

The car, currently available only through custom production, goes more than 80 miles per gallon, is non polluting, and would, if in general use, eliminate all urban congestion until well into this century.

I must admit I am skeptical it would be as successful as Ackoff says (though I believe it would result in a large improvement over the current system). I put much more faith in Ackoff’s ability to re-design the system to achieve the aim of decreased congestion than those claiming an increase in capacity will solve the congestion problem.

Yes Ackoff’s solution does require actually changing the system. That is not easy to accomplish. However, if the desire is to reduce congestion the solution is not likely to be to just keep doing what we have been doing (given that it isn’t working). Building more and more capacity doesn’t seem to achieve the desired results.

Ackoff also has also done work on redesigning the layout of the city. Great stuff and quite interesting reading. Read about it in his excellent new book: Redesigning Society.

8 thoughts on “Traffic Congestion and a Non-Solution

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  3. Adding capacity is not the solution, at least in areas that are already densly populated. In Hawaii, for examaple, I think they have a ratio of 1.5 cars per person in the state!

    And on Oahu, traffic is a mess. They added in more lanes, and even a contra flow lane and it is not really helping. They just increased the ridership by one person to use the express lane.

    It hasn’t stopped or slowed down usage.

    Last year, they added in a commuter boat, and now Rail is a big debate.

    What is helping to some extent, is the rise in gas prices now…up at about $4.40 per gallon. In recent studies, I understand that miles driven has actually decreased, and that is the first time ever.

    Reply
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