• 9 May 2023
  • Cycling

  • by

10 Myths About Traffic Congestion

Rethinking how we travel requires reconfiguring our cities. But what happens to already jam-packed roadways when we allocate more road space to buses, bikes, and pedestrians?

How long does it take you to commute to work? For many people living in Europe, a 25-minute trip between home and office is normal. Surveys in other countries, however, show a greater variation in commute times. One study by the University of Cape Town, estimated an average of up to 90 minutes spent in transit for people in South Africa, though those who used a passenger auto averaged just one-third of that time. Nigeria and Costa Rica likewise report that residents can spend up to one hour each way on their daily commutes.

© Adam Coppola Photography/Green Lane Project

While we know that reducing time spent commuting can lower a person’s stress levels and allow them to spend time on other pursuits such as leisure or family time, we hear less about the root cause of such long commutes: too many cars trying to use the roads at once. Traffic congestion itself is the natural consequence of an abundance of individual passenger vehicles on the roadways at the same time, yet the larger problem lies in its impacts: people do not arrive to work or school punctually, goods cannot be delivered, or emergency and service vehicles are not able to pass through. Reducing congestion, then, means prioritizing travel through alternative means of transport, like bicycles and buses and limiting priority for private motorized vehicles.

In 2020, after pandemic-related business closures showed a drop in road traffic, officials in several cities quickly implemented schemes that prioritized sustainable transport options. By repurposing former mixed traffic lanes as bike lanes, cities like Berlin, Bogotá, or Mexico City revealed what a better commute could look like. What initially may have been conceived as a way of offering a safer (health-wise) alternative to public transport, bicycles grew to be a quite popular means of transport once given space in these cities. For some, the experience of life without packed train or bus commutes or hours spent in gridlocked traffic, this taste of sustainable mobility made the future of travel look brighter.

These rapid shifts also revealed that slow and bureaucratic planning procedures can be overcome if political will exists. Yet with travel restrictions lifted, traffic has returned. To retain the gains that this shift to multi-modal transport created, however, big changes are required. Planning decisions can limit the number of private vehicles on the roadway by creating space for alternatives. Bogotá is one example of how this transition can occur seamlessly. Pop-up bike and bus lanes that appeared on thoroughfares during pandemic closures there grew popular quite quickly. Now with traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels, making these lanes permanent fixtures is a priority to keep congestion and its impacts at bay. Let us look at how they have worked to counter concerns about congestion and win over residents:

Myth 1: Adding bike lanes will disrupt traffic flow.

Strategic planning over the last two decades allowed Bogotá to build out its bike paths more quickly once the pandemic arrived, as this case study by ITDP lays out. When the pandemic-related shutdowns occurred, lower traffic volumes allowed the city to connect already-existent bike paths to major thoroughfares, quickly expanding capacity to meet the increased number of cyclists on the road. Although this did remove one lane of operation for cars, it alleviated congestion on public transport while increasing the safety of bike riders and encouraging commuters to bicycle by offering them a more direct route. Altogether, this change allowed for a more efficient use of the existing overall capacity of the transport system. While officials note an economic difference between cyclists—the majority of whom are less affluent—versus motorists, in the end, they determined it to be “more efficient and equitable to maintain corridors that afford space to cyclists and pedestrians.”

Myth 2: Once traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, changes to road allocations will automatically lead to greater congestion in the long run.

In the case of Bogotá, the added cycling lanes on main roads initially posed few problems. With less traffic due to work from home orders, car traffic was almost unaffected. As mobility demand returns to pre-pandemic levels, however, car users are confronted with a lower road capacity for their vehicles because road space has been reallocated to bikes (and buses). In the short term, this leads to more congestion and puts pressure on drivers to adapt. Yet, in the long run, this may prompt a reassessment of individual travel patterns, with drivers opting for alternative routes or switching to—now more attractive—modes of transportation such as public transport or cycling. Therefore, the return to pre-pandemic traffic levels will not automatically lead to more congestion in the long haul. Instead, the new traffic equilibrium is dependent on the adaptation of individual travel patterns. (See also myth 7).

Myth 3: Dedicated bus lanes cause congestion.

Although residents of Jakarta overwhelmingly use private transport options, city officials created dedicated, protected bus lanes that use scarce road space efficiently. One may argue that these bus lanes reduce and slow down car traffic. However, for decades it has been common sense, that ever more lanes for cars are not an effective means to reduce congestion, but rather attract additional car traffic, until a new (congested) equilibrium is found. Instead, dedicated bus lanes and quality bus systems such as bus rapid transit (BRT) offer a seamless path through otherwise congested thoroughfares and serve as a smart instrument to guarantee people’s access to workplaces, education, and daily points of interest.

Myth 4: Building broader highways or expanding the infrastructure will alleviate congestion.

For many of the last decades, cities across the US have added lanes to their highways in place of building out public transport yet commuting times due to congestion have not been lowered. The only result: more cars on the road and more pollution.

Myth 5: Too few people use bicycles to justify the space a bike lane takes up.

Cities across Europe, from Copenhagen and Amsterdam to Paris have shown that if you build it, they will come. Cyclists who feel safe on their streets will take to that option when it is available to them.

© Adam Coppola Photography/Green Lane Project

Myth 5: Too few people use bicycles to justify the space a bike lane takes up.

Cities across Europe, from Copenhagen and Amsterdam to Paris have shown that if you build it, they will come. Cyclists who feel safe on their streets will take to that option when it is available to them.

Myth 6: Roundabouts are disruptive to traffic flow.

This may not be a myth so much as a misunderstanding of the intention behind roundabouts. Implementing roundabouts is a great way to slow down traffic in residential areas. By replacing stoplights, congestion caused by back-ups at these lights during busy times of day can be relieved.

Myth 7: Traffic congestion is a natural part of city life.

The term congestion itself is simply a way of saying that there are a lot of people trying to use the same route at the same time. That said, congestion poses several challenges: how do we get goods delivered if traffic comes to a standstill? What about emergency vehicles? Finding an equilibrium in an urban area requires de-prioritizing individual passenger vehicles in favor of bicycles, pedestrian traffic, and public transport in order to retain open corridors for those services and support smoother travel options for all.

Myth 8: “I can get there fastest by car.”

Congestion on roadways can really slow you down, whether you are in a bus in Johannesburg, a matatu in Nairobi or your own car in Berlin. Traveling by private car, however, adds time in other ways such as searching for parking or maintaining the car. Dedicated lanes for public transport or bicycles can alleviate some of the traffic on the roadways and these alternatives to the private vehicle can prove to be quite speedy, especially during rush hour.

Myth 9: Work commutes are beneficial, giving people time to unwind from a busy day.

This myth has been floating around in recent months, yet the opposite has proven true. Rush hour traffic can lead to worse health outcomes as it increases stress to be stuck on congested roadways. At the same time, these added hours spent in transit take time away from families and leisure activities, two known stress-reducers.

Myth 10: I have more freedom when I drive myself, even if that includes time spent in traffic.

In their planning to enhance sustainable mobility options across the city, Bogotá officials noted that “existing class inequalities can be seen in the modes of transportation chosen.” Those in the upper classes or who work in office jobs may be more likely to choose a private vehicle instead of public transport. Making public transport options (slightly) more attractive may make for a more comfortable ride for some but may not convince those who drive cars to step out of their vehicles. This requires a more systemic approach to continuously enhancing the quality of service of public transport, while at the same time making the use of private motorized transport less appealing (because it will be more time-consuming, more expensive, and less comfortable).



Further resources