"If we design cities and regions for cars, they fail for everyone, including drivers"

We found this snippet of an interview with leading urban planner Brent Toderian online. In just a few minutes, he explains why building new roads like WestCONnex fail to solve congestion - and what cities and suburbs can do instead.

INTERVIEWER: We complain in our big cities there’s a lot of congestion, we need more roads, wider roads to accommodate all the cars. You say we need the opposite in order to cut down on commuter congestion. Explain that.

BRENT TODERIAN: Well it’s true. This sort of knee-jerk reaction to congestion – which is a product of successful cities, all successful cities have congestion – the knee-jerk reaction is to say “well let’s keep building more roads, more lanes of traffic, and that will somehow solve congestion”. 

The one thing we know about cities and mobility is that it won’t solve congestion. There’s a well-established concept called the law of congestion or induced traffic. In other words, when you build more lanes, they fill up, because they induce development – sprawling development, further and further down the 401 corridor or other areas like that – and they induce us to choose to drive more frequently and longer. 

And so invariably, what we find is that whenever we build more roads, they fill up relatively quickly. So it’s a very expensive model – billions of dollars spent on that kind of infrastructure – and we know it won’t succeed.

On the other hand – certainly at a city level, and increasingly at a regional level – if you invest that money, or more of that money, on walking, biking and public transit infrastructure, and at a regional scale particularly, public transit infrastructure, that replaces those car trips with trips that are first of all much healthier for us from Karen’s perspective and my perspective, more environmentally friendly, socially interactive, and they take up a lot less space. So we can move a lot more people with a lot less public money and a lot less public infrastructure and a lot less space in our cities, and a lot less parking and things like that.

And at the same time, you combine that with techniques that actually work to reduce congestion – like congestion pricing or carbon taxes, financial tools that get people to reconsider how they move around – and that’s how you can actually reduce the number of cars on your highway or on your urban streets. But building more lanes is politically expedient, so it often leads to that kind of ribbon-cutting that politicians like – but we know it’s expensive and it doesn’t work.

INT: But Brent, let me ask you. You raised financial tools, and that brings up a good point. Not everyone can afford to live downtown, especially in a city like Toronto or Vancouver, where you’re from, so they move out to the suburbs. We need those highways to commute from outside into the city. Not everyone can afford that walkability.

BT: We certainly need ways to commute. And driving – let’s be clear – driving’s always going to be a part of this conversation. But the irony is that if we design cities and regions for cars, they fail for everyone, including drivers. Because everybody’s fighting for that finite amount of space, and we can’t possibly build enough roads to accommodate it.

But if we build smarter suburbs and smarter inner cities – if we rethink where we’re putting our growth, not all to the suburbs, but a lot more of it in the inner city in terms if infill – we know that costs a lot less public money, and it has a lot more public benefits. The math of that is really powerful.

And then in the suburbs, it’s not about no suburbs, but it’s about making suburbs with more choice. More walking, biking and transit opportunities within the suburbs and between suburbs. And yes, for those who have to drive, they will, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for those people, it actually benefits them when we make walking, biking and transit more attractive, because they’re not fighting with everybody else for that finite amount of space.

So when you design a multimodal city, a multimodal region, it works better for everyone, including drivers. So this whole narrative about the “war on the car” is the really lazy and political narrative. But it’s not even true, in the context of if you design for cars, it fails for everyone, including drivers.


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