How Traffic Jams Decentralize Cities: Scientific American

Sarah Fecht writes about How Traffic Jams Decentralize Cities:


“In a new paper in Physical Review Letters, [Marc] Barthelemy and his colleague, Remi Louf, have constructed a mathematical model to explain how cities and their surrounding suburbs evolve to be polycentric. Their findings suggest that population size and automobile traffic congestion play large roles in driving the creation of alternative hot spots, even in small- to medium-size cities. “It’s an interplay between how attractive the place is, and how much time it takes to go there,” he says. At first everyone goes to the city center, but as the city becomes increasingly crowded it becomes more difficult to get there. Eventually subcenters spring up toward the city’s outskirts, providing more convenient locations for residents to work and shop. Cities with accommodating transportation networks remain centralized longer, but once population density passes a certain threshold, cities inevitably become polycentric, Barthelemy says.



David Levinson, a transportation engineer at the University of Minnesota, says it is not altogether surprising to find a relationship between population size and the number of urban subcenters. A group of economists made that assumption a few decades ago. Barthelemy counters that the economic models were “fuzzy” and untested. “After 20 pages of calculation, they don’t have a prediction and they don’t test their model,” Barthelemy says. “We can test our results against data.”


Having a clearer understanding of the evolution of metropolitan polycentricity could prove useful, Levinson says, especially considering that two thirds of the world’s population is expected to be urban by the year 2050. “There’s a lot of urbanization left to happen,” Levinson says. “If planners imagine a city to take a particular form, but that’s not the way the city wants to behave, we’ll be making unwise investments.”“