Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Congestion?

This probably won’t work, but at least it’ll be expensive!

Dear Winnipeg,

We need to talk about congestion, and specifically, why our obsession with reducing it is making everything else worse.

[And I’m not talking about nasal congestion… that kind sucks, and I have no problem with anyone looking to reduce it.]

[Go Sudafed.]

Also, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about reducing traffic either, which is an entirely different (and worthwhile) pursuit.

Traffic just measures the number of cars, not how smoothly they are moving. And less traffic (fewer cars) means less need for expensive infrastructure, which means less need for high taxes. I don’t think anybody hates lower taxes.

Congestion, on the other hand, is a measure of how smoothly traffic is moving. And people H-A-T-E traffic congestion. [Almost as much as they hate high property taxes.]

So it kinda makes sense that they’d want their local government to DO SOMETHING about it!

But continually trying to reduce traffic congestion is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as a city.

To understand why, we need to look at what it is that causes congestion. And it’s actually quite simple: cars stopping. [Duh!]

Seriously though, that’s it. Congestion is caused by cars stopping.

If all cars continually moved at a constant rate of speed, congestion wouldn’t happen, even with a roadway full of cars. And we’d be much happier. [Like George Carlin said, anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.]

But, whenever just one car stops (or even simply slows down), it causes a chain reaction where everyone else has to slow down or stop. And just like that, you have congestion.

And drivers might slow or stop for all kinds of reasons: construction, being distracted, getting cut off by another driver, or even a chicken darting across the road. [Don’t ask why. She has her reasons.]

This video does a pretty good job of explaining it, although he does come to the wrong conclusion in the end. [Self-driving cars? Gimme a break.]

You see, robot cars would indeed eliminate congestion forever, if the only reason cars slowed or stopped on the roadway was because humans are terrible drivers. [Even though, for the record, they totally are.]

But there’s another reason a driver might slow or stop, and that is, that they’ve arrived at their destination, whether that be home, work, a store, or an intersecting street or driveway that takes them to one of those.

Once you get there, you will slow, and often even stop to park and get out of your vehicle. And if you are on a major road with a lot of other cars, that will cause congestion.

That’s the main reason that the City’s Transportation Standards Manual outlines these “typical features” for major arterials:

  • Roadway consists of at least 4-lane divided, with lanes at least 4m wide
  • Intersections no closer than 400m apart
  • Parking allowed only when and where traffic flow is not impacted
  • Parallel service roads are preferred to give access to adjacent properties so they don’t connect directly to the arterial

All of it is aimed at eliminating any reason for you to stop or slow down. And when done properly, it’ll look something like this:

Chief Peguis Trail between Lagimodiere and Henderson. Nothin’ to see here.

Now, we’ve already talked about the competing goals of a street and a road.

A street is a place where people live, work, do business, while a road is a high-speed connection between those places. A road is not a place, it is on the way to a place.

But a street is a place in its own right, a destination, or at least, it’s a place with destinations on it. And if it has destinations on it, people will go to those destinations, and at least some of those people will be in cars. And when those people in cars get there, they will slow, stop, and cause congestion to all those that are just passing through.

In that sense, it’s inevitable that we have congestion in a city. Any place worth going to is going to have congestion.

When you think about it, the entire purpose of a city is literally to create congestion. Ever since the first businessperson decided to set up a brothel or a saloon on the side of a well-used oxcart trail, the only goal has been to get people to stop.

And if it was successful, many people would stop and pull over their oxcarts, other businesspeople would set up shop, houses would be built, and before you know it, you’d have oxcarts jammed up halfway down Portage Ave every single morning as people converged to buy a saloon beer and, um, whatever it is brothels sell. [My mom reads this.]

Congestion is the mark of success for a city. It means you’ve built something worth coming to, worth stopping at. Congestion means you’ve built something that people value. You’ve built a place.

That’s why congestion gets real bad (or good!) on Provencher, but not on Chief Peguis, even though they have similar daily traffic counts of around 30,000. [And Chief Peguis only has 2 lanes per direction, compared to 3-per for Provencher!]

Provencher Blvd… so many things to stop for!

Seriously, when you think of the world’s most productive cities, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Seoul… free-flowing traffic is probably not the first thing you ascribe to them, is it?

And as we know, the more successful the place, the more property tax dollars it generates for the City, and the more that allows us to have nice things. Like libraries, and pools, and parks, and yes, even nice, smooth roads. [Finally!]

But here’s the rub… if we accept that to have nice things, we need to have successful places, and successful places create congestion, then we need to accept that congestion is the price we pay for nice things.

And therefore there’s no need to reduce it. Quite the opposite actually. Because reducing congestion requires eliminating the reasons to stop, essentially destroying the very places we’ve built, turning them from places into non-places. And non-places don’t generate any income.

Unfortunately, while residents, businesses, local BIZs, the City’s Planning department, the City’s Finance department, the City’s Community Services department, basically everyone, are working to create successful places in our city, there is one group that is actively sabotaging those efforts: the Public Works department.

I know. I’ve ragged on them before. And I’m about to do it again.

Look, I’ve had the pleasure to meet some really nice, really dedicated Public Works employees. People who do care deeply about making this city a better place. So I don’t blame the people. I blame the system.

The system that has them start every project placing congestion reduction as the highest priority. A system where nothing can be done if it might have adverse effects on congestion.

And so it’s probably not surprising that the latest engagement for connecting the Esplanade Riel to Archibald Street with a bike route, as per the Pedestrian & Cycling Strategy, starts with that assumption.

Starting with the assumption that “current traffic volumes” on Provencher cannot be disturbed means that the most logical location for the route, where the stuff is, is automatically excluded from consideration.

Outside of that project, it also means that anything else that might be good for sipping coffee on a patio, like speed limit reductions, decreasing lane widths, and adding mid-block pedestrian crossings, would also be off the table.

Because, you know, congestion.

Except the things that are good for a city, good for a place and good for its businesses, are the things that make people want to stop and spend some time there. The very things that cause congestion.

Time to change the system. Time to have Public Works apply themselves to something other than preventing people from stopping. Because tasking them with alleviating congestion is just a license to destroy the city.

And we deserve nice things, don’t we?


Elmwood Guy