Dealing with congestion

Last week, Chris Murphy, a US Senator from Connecticut, took on the issue of transportation. He kicked off the conversation by focusing on the commute and invited people to share their ideas for how to fix it. He even live streamed his ride, sharing in the frustration of many who find themselves stuck in crippling traffic each rush hour.


We became aware of all of this because the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (@Tri-State) copied us on a couple of their responses. To that end, I seem to have been credited in a number of places with the quote: “Curing congestion by adding more lanes is like curing obesity by buying bigger pants.” I’m sure I’ve used that — it’s a brilliant line — but don’t credit me with it. I’m not sure where I first heard that, but I’m stealing like an artist there.

Sadly, while Senator Murphy calls for an “honest discussion”, his argument included this patently false statement right out of the Infrastructure Cult’s talking points memo:

Federal gas tax receipts in 1993 were $19.6 billion. By 2013, that had climbed to $29.2 billion. To this, Congress annually adds billions more. Sure, the gas tax has not been increased since 1993, but let’s not pretend that is the fundamental cause of our transportation woes or — more importantly — that what we “need” is more “big projects.”

Most of Senator Murphy’s conversation dealt with the chronic issue of congestion. Notice I did not call congestion a problem. It’s clearly not. Within our places — on our streets — congestion is an indicator of success. As Yogi Berra reportedly said:

“Nobody goes there any more because it is too busy.”


Indeed. The most successful places are full of congestion.

Between our places — on our roads — congestion signals many things but, for me anyway, it primarily indicates America’s cultural — and the engineering profession’s technical — misunderstanding of the systems we have built.

Consider the hierarchical road network. It’s so commonplace today that we rarely stop to question it. Small, local streets empty into collector streets. Those collectors empty into arterials. The arterials empty into major arterials which eventually end up pouring into our highway systems. Small to big; it’s the way things are done.

Stop a moment to examine a watershed. There you have ditches that flow into small creeks. Those creeks flow into larger brooks and streams. In turn these flow into larger rivers and, ultimately, these systems come together to form some of the world’s major waterways.

We all intuitively understand that, when we experience rain or snow melt on the edges of a watershed, there is a compounding effect that occurs. We’ve become fairly competent at realizing that, by the time all this rain comes together, it very often produces a flood.


We’ve so grasped this concept that we’ve taken steps to address the problem at the source. We don’t allow people to fill their wetlands. We require developers to retain their runoff on site. We build retention systems to hold back runoff and feed stormwater into the natural systems more slowly so flooding does not occur. We take these steps and others at the source to mitigate the cumulative, negative impacts of stormwater runoff. Namely: flooding.

Instead of a river network, examine a similar system of roadways during a typical commute. Here we have rain of a different sort: the automobiles that emanate forth from the development we induce, subsidize and cheer for out on the periphery of our cities.

Why are we so shocked when this produces a flood?



If we were going to design a system to generate the maximum amount of congestion each day, this is exactly how it would be done. This is why all American cities — big, small and in between — experience some level of congestion during commutes. We take whatever cars we have and funnel them into the same place at the same time. We manufacture a flood.

I’ve written a short eBook describing the ways I would go about using price signals to make some rational choices about our transportation investments, but I’m going to simplify by sticking with the river analogy. When we want to decrease flooding in a watershed, we go to the source. We try to retain that water, to absorb it as near to where it originates as possible. We understand this is way cheaper and vastly more effective than building massive infrastructure systems to handle the runoff once it is sent downstream.

For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.

For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive. We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive. If we develop a system that responds to congestion by creating local options, we will not only waste less money on transportation projects that accomplish little, but we will be strengthening the finances of our cities. We can spend way less and get back way more.

That’s the essence of a Strong Towns approach.

Closing note: The river analogy was originally mine — although it’s so obvious I’m sure someone else has used it before — but it was improved upon greatly in an email I received from Ben Gomberg, the Active Transportation Manager from Mississauga, Canada. I emailed him back but got an error message and I’ve been unable to connect with him in any other way. If you know Ben, please tell him his email to me was brilliant.

This article was originally published here.


The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of growth that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline. It has made America’s cities financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed.

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