You get the kind of traffic you plan for

Why urban transport networks are a twentieth century solution to productivity, and why communications networks will supplant them.

We all hate traffic. Yet we all contribute to it each time we jump in the car. And when we drive to work during rush hour, we are contributing to congestion.

With the Transport Committee’s current inquiry into urban congestion, the public were invited to submit their solutions to the problem. In their responses they will have explained how their favourite modes of transport can be better accommodated. Yet I get the feeling there’s a bigger picture, and a better solution which the focus on transport systems, as invited by the Transport Committee, seems likely to miss. I’ll talk about the solution in a minute, but first I want to define the problem and to explore its causes.

Why people need to travel in peak time

Journeys to work during rush hour fulfill a social function; transport is the way society connects the workforce in order to facilitate productive labour. As urban conurbations grow in size, so do their working populations and the number of people needing to pass through the nodes (the bottlenecks) of the transport network at peak times. So we see congestion on the roads and railways, and we see increased journey durations. As a result, the journeys themselves become stressful, and people arrive in an unproductive state.

Urban transport networks were more or less effective, in the twentieth century, as a means of gathering the workforce on a daily basis. But the economic viability of transport is waning. A somewhat extreme example of this is London, a city where the utility value of the car is negligible for many day-to-day journeys. The immediate context for this is massive urban congestion. In London, you can’t get anywhere fast by car, due to the volume of motor traffic.

We already have a solution

And yet many people no longer need regularly to undertake journeys in order to do office work or to buy and sell goods, because other forms of technology have supplanted vehicles. These activities are more quickly accomplished from home, once travel time is factored in; they are also accomplished better in many cases.

As the 21st century progresses, three things will happen for sure: digital bandwidth will grow, communications software will develop, and people will learn better ways of using communications systems. This will amount to social change, that some are already comparing to the industrial revolution. It is change we have begun to see with more people working from home, occasional teleworking, online shopping and the increasing diversity of residential delivery networks beside the traditional player Royal Mail. That change will go much further, and it will have the potential to relieve pressure from commuter transport networks at peak times.

Ongoing migration to cities may mean those conurbations which don’t facilitate this change will feel increasingly ‘full’, i.e. full of people trying to transport themselves at peak times in order to get basic stuff done, in the 20th century mode.

Current efforts to tackle congestion amount to system modifications that, it is hoped, will alleviate peak time congestion. Yet at its most basic, congestion represents a system where load exceeds capacity to such an extent that the network is no longer usable, at least not as intended. And, significantly, new capacity is often absorbed by a corresponding growth in demand, at least where the road network is concerned. New ring roads soon become as congested as the inner city streets whose traffic they were supposed to displace, for example. The phenomenon of demand growth is somewhat the elephant in the transport planners’ room.

In future this may be better recognised, because there will be a viable alternative to transport networks. Successful organisations (and cities, and nations) will have facilitated the next generation of communications technology. In essence, they will recognise the scope of the problem, and they will start planning for a future they want to see, with more viable ways of connecting the workforce.

December 2016