Why a former big-city mayor says congestion can be good (and what he left out)

Wed, 2013-08-28 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist has a thoughtful piece in Strong Towns that recommends taking a hard look before widening streets. Congestion can actually cause an uptick in retail sales, for instance. In other cases, the costs of buying real estate while losing the tax revenue from those properties is more than the benefits a street widening can bring.

Here's what Mr. Norquist left out: Improving congestion no longer has to mean widening streets or adding expressways. Smart technology offers dozens of solutions, from smart traffic control to smart parking to multi-modal mass transit to route planning that solves for the fastest time and many more.

Yes, adding roads and lanes may no longer be cost-effective. But that doesn't mean you can't make a big dent in congestion. And when you do that, you get a city that is both more livable and more productive. -- Jesse Berst

"No one likes being stuck in traffic. That’s why people complain about congestion," writes Norquist in his piece Is traffic always bad? "Yet," he goes on, "it’s just as true that popular destinations tend to be crowded. Fifth Avenue in New York, Market Street in San Francisco, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are all congested, but people keep coming back to shop or hang out. Maybe we should view congestion, in the urban context at least, as a symptom of success."

Norquist likens congestion to cholesterol – noting that if you don't have any, you die. But as with cholesterol, you can have a "good kind" and a "bad kind" of traffic. "Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than those just driving through," he says, "and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value, and pedestrian volume."

He has lots more to say; click to read his piece here and be sure to scroll down to the bottom where you'll find lots of comments from readers about what his point of view.


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.