The future of traffic congestion

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

I just wrote this for the Move Forward blog:

Recent statistics from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute suggest congestion is rising. A congested city, compared to exactly the same city where everyone can move faster, has lower accessibility (the number of places travelers can reach in a given time is reduced). This limits people’s ability to interact, and thus reduces economic activity, but congestion is also a signifier of economic activity. All the great cities are congested.

We would have much less congestion in New York if we closed all the bridges and tunnels entering Manhattan, as all those trips would no longer be made. However that would be a net negative from an accessibility perspective. So, how congestion is addressed matters.

Short term volatility in congestion levels is to be expected. In the very short term, with low unemployment and low gas prices, traffic rises, and as gas prices and unemployment eventually rise again, traffic diminishes.

Over the longer term, there is only so much travel individuals want to or can make; there is only so much time in the day. In contrast with the short-term spike, the mature economies have seen per capita travel largely falling over the past decade or two.

Continued population growth can offset that per capita decline, but that too is leveling off. New technologies are changing whether and how people travel, including telecommuting, e-shopping, and being virtually connected to your friends and family 24/7. Labor force participation continues to fall (even with economic expansion) as automation and information technology change the nature of work.

Overall this nets out to congestion being fairly flat over time (the US’s total vehicle travel in 2015 is at the same level as about 2007, despite a population about 7 percent larger). Reductions in traffic from one cause will induce people to make longer trips or more trips for another. In the absence of road pricing, and with current technologies, congestion levels will change slowly.

However, current technologies, with drivers behind the wheel, will not last. In particular, vehicle automation, once it gets critical mass, should greatly increase road capacity, both because of shorter following distances and because of narrower lanes. New, narrow vehicle forms designed for a single passenger (which is how most cars are used) will become more widespread with automation, as safety fears diminish, and will also increase person throughput.



Effective land use planning can increase accessibility, it can make cities more valuable, it can increase transit ridership, but in practice it won’t do anything significant for congestion. There are marginal things about where you locate driveways and such, but the main issue is that development density, which is good for transit, will increase rather than decrease congestion in its vicinity.

Allowing mixed uses will reduce some need for some travel, as people can do multiple things on-site, but the basic laws of travel demand are that more people, jobs, shops, restaurants, will generate more traffic locally than fewer people. Many city centers in Europe are banning the private car. So, there are now and will be more places that are free of traffic.

Mobility, the speed and directness of travel, and the density of activities are the two determinants of a city’s accessibility and thus economic vitality. Moving people faster, and more directly, in order to expand accessibility should be the primary mission of transport agencies.

Strategies to do that from the public policy sphere include pricing roads and reallocating street space to more productive uses. Cities are getting smarter about both. Furthermore, technological change with autonomous and smaller cars is moving in the right direction. The future is looking bright, and less congested.

Presenting at Penn State: Observing Accessibility

I am visiting Penn State next week. I will give a talk. If you are anywhere near State College, Pennsylvania, I hope to see you.

Flyer for my Penn State visit
Flyer for my Penn State visit

Title: Observing Accessibility

When:December 3, 2015 from 12:00- 1:00 pm (EST)

Where: 110 Henderson Building – Bennett Pierce Living Center

Abstract: Using data from the Access to Destinations Studies and the Access Across America Studies, this talk discusses both the measurement of accessibility, why it matters, and how it might affect traveler behavior, institutional behavior, and public policy. Looking at data from rail development in London in the 1800s, the Twin Cities from 1995 to the present, and 51 metropolitan areas across the US, implications about the effects of accessibility are described, and the rationale for a National Accessibility Evaluation is presented.






The Population Research Institute
The Social Science Research Institute
The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
The Computational and Spatial Analysis Core
The PRI Changing American Neighborhoods and Communities Working Group

Minneapolis Grand Rounds + Saint Paul Grand Round = Twin Cities Grand Infinity |

Minneapolis and St. Paul are blessed with extensive park and parkway systems, among the best in the country, with iconic design.

Official Plan for Twin Cities Grand Rounds (Minneapolis Missing Link Study, p. 15)
Official Plan for Minneapolis and St. Paul Grand Rounds (Minneapolis Missing Link Study, p. 15). I propose here to just connect the red line via the north-westernmost dotted blue line to the light dashed green line, and drop the southern section of the red line (or leave it to some undated future time).

These parkway systems, envisioned by  H.W. S. Cleveland in the late 1800s have yet to be completed. In Minneapolis, there is a missing link in the less loved section east of the Mississippi River. A comprehensive study considered how to fill it, but looked strictly at Minneapolis-based options.  St. Paul’s Grand Round system remains incomplete, and the western section is also under-developed. The wikipedia article on Cleveland says: “Plans for a similar system in St. Paul, would have connected it to the Minneapolis system, but they were never completed, with the exception of the parkways along the Mississippi River.”

St. Paul Grand Round scheme
St. Paul Grand Round scheme
Minneapolis Grand Rounds and Missing Link map
Minneapolis Grand Rounds and Missing Link map

Coincidentally, the eastern border of Minneapolis is the western border of St. Paul. This confluence of borders creates an opportunity. The eastern leg of the Minneapolis Grand Rounds could be the western leg of the St. Paul Grand Round.*, **

I have heard rumors of such possibilities, but have not seen open discussion.

Instead of constructing a new, expensive railroad crossing just west of Mn-280 on the Minneapolis side of the line, as proposed in the Missing Link study, just connect Industrial Boulevard to Como Avenue, follow Como to Raymond Avenue, and there you are on the St. Paul Grand Round.

The St. Paul side still requires a tricky connection between Pelham and Raymond through an industrial area, but that is a much smaller scope than completing the Minneapolis Missing Link as proposed requires. This would be in addition to cost-savings, which can then be spent on other things that are more important than duplicating parkway sections within a mile of each other, an indication of inter-municipal cooperation and joint marketing that could lead to better things in the future. Instead of waiting decades to find the funding for the Missing Link, this could be completed in a matter of a couple of years. If Minneapolis so desired, 27th Avenue SE could be improved and remain a spur on the new joint system.

Stylized Graphic of Grand Infinity
Stylized Graphic of Grand Infinity

Notably, the combined systems would no longer be round, but instead the infinity symbol, marking the Siamese Twin nature of our two leading cities, forever connected.***

* I believe there is an official difference in spelling, the “Grand Round” in Saint Paul is singular, the “Grand Rounds” in Minneapolis is plural.

** I don’t mean literally running on Emerald Street, which is split down the middle between the two cities.

*** I am assuming there is an actual Mississippi River crossing on the Grand Round, like Franklin Avenue or Lake Street. I am not sure how it is legally defined, but this is easily fixed with signage.


cross-posted at

Accepting risks

People died in a barbaric terrorist act recently at [insert terrorist act here]. That is terrible news. I wish it didn’t happen. It happens far too frequently.

We ask collectively “Could it have been prevented?” This question is more than idle curiosity, as it informs the follow-up “Can future terrorist acts be prevented?”

I highly doubt both of these propositions. They assume some fantastical superhero-like state, with the strength of an all-seeing and all-knowing Allfather. As much money as the state security apparatus gets, … and this is enough to monitor a lot, it still doesn’t bug my office, and would be very bored if it did. As much computer power as it has, it still cannot predict where I am going this afternoon.

Since we don’t have such a state, some people are proposing giving the state more powers so that we can naively feel comfortable in our security, foregoing our freedoms. The state will be at least a more-seeing and more-knowing Most-father.

Strategies proffered, like banning encryption (if encryption is outlawed, only outlaws, and the government, will have encryption), or registering people based on their religion or ethnicity, or building a wall, or prohibiting refugees are unenforceable or miss the point entirely. These are mostly nonsense ideas which might sound good if you live your life in fear because you watch too much news on television. Will ever more power for the security state really make a difference in our security? Like everything else, there are diminishing returns to investments in security.

Someone with a modicum of skill, who is determined to kill you, and is willing to lose their own life, will kill you.

No – kill them first.

Leaving aside the constitutional problem of killing people who have not actually committed a crime in the United States, is the physical problem of precognition. The state cannot actually monitor everyone all the time, with humans. Imagine 50% of the people were guardian/spies listening in on the other 50%. Do you trust the first 50%? This is such an old problem, there is a Latin phrase for this: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Even the most successful state security systems of fascist and communist countries still faced assassination attempts and revolutions from time to time. Perhaps this omni-state can reduce the likelihood of success of terrorist attempts, but it cannot ever eliminate the possibility. All we are arguing about is degree of security. Frankly, we are fairly safe now. Total global violence is near an all-time low. We should aim for zero deaths from violence, but efforts to reach zero are not without costs, which reduce the possibilities of other kinds of improvements.

Then there are the costs in human life of such a security state, which are often higher then the actual costs of barbaric terrorist acts that justify them. While these are not directly comparable numbers, I will compare them anyway, as getting a sense of the magnitudes of risks is important. In the US, the police killed over 1000 people so far this year. Terrorists  killed 3.  The September 11 attacks killed nearly 3000 people.

Certainly there is the risk terrorists will kill more. Maybe they will get the bomb, or poison the water supply. My 15 year old self was fairly sure that some city would have been nuked by now.

We want to avoid these mega-risks. But we also want to avoid run-of-the-mill non-political intentional killing (US homicides 16121 in 2013 and suicides  41149) and car crashes (33804).  We conspicuously don’t confiscate guns or cars. We accept certain risks as the cost of doing business.

There is also the risk that in an enhanced superstate, the police and military will kill more Americans than they do now. Increasing deportation rates of undocumented residents will increase the mistaken deportation of legal residents and citizens. Increasing the level of policing will likely increase the number of innocent people killed or jailed by the police.

Bring the fight to them, so we don’t have to fight them here.

We have of course brought the fight to them.

The number of coalition soldiers lost in the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) (3506) and Iraq wars (Operation Iraqi Freedom) (4814), much less the number of Aghanis and Iraqis.

Had there been no Operation Iraqi Freedom, there would likely be no Daesh. And we continue to pummel them with air strikes and drone attacks, day after day. We could increase these numbers, but face the same problem. We target the “best” targets first (the one with the greatest likelihood of getting the bad guys without mistakenly getting the innocents and creating future terrorists in a multi-generational war), the next best targets second, and so on, until the last target we have little confidence we won’t be mostly killing innocents. If we killed everyone in the country, sure we would kill all the barbarians, but we would kill the innocents too. That is not the American way.

Small amounts of terrorism are among the unfortunate costs of living in the  modern world. Responding by sacrificing our freedoms and the opportunities for others to live in America is a self-inflicted wound that fails to treat the disease it was supposed to cure.

Modernizing American Transportation Policy

I wrote “Modernizing American Transportation Policy” for the Room to Grow series. The blurb is below:

Room to Grow Series: Transportation
Room to Grow Series: Transportation

“[T]oday’s transportation system requires another series of all-purpose modernizations – reforms intended not to prefer one mode of travel or set of destinations over others but to better allow people to make the choices they prefer. ”

— David Levinson

On June 26, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law. As it began to develop, the new interstate system connected communities, moved traffic more quickly and efficiently, and reduced congestion. Nearly 60 years later, the National Highway System spans about 150,000 miles. America’s transportation policy, however, remains stuck in the 20th century and requires modernization.

From their everyday experience, American motorists easily can identify two problems plaguing our existing transportation system: increased traffic congestion and an aging surface-transportation infrastructure whose deterioration outpaces its repair. David Levinson identifies an antiquated, decades-old approach to transportation policy as the primary culprit of not only these challenges, but also other issues, including pollution, inefficient systems for transportation funding and financing, outdated and insufficient transportation management structures, and the development of unnecessary projects, including infamous bridges to nowhere and countless, lesser-known, empty roads.

How can officials bring transportation policy into the 21st century? Levinson offers several innovative ideas that address the actual needs of our transportation system. Policymakers should begin to restore equity in road funding by phasing in a road pricing system for electric or hybrid vehicles, which provide little or no revenue from gasoline taxes. Federal funding for the National Highway System should be dedicated to the maintenance and repair of the current system, not its expansion. Further, Congress should establish Highway Block Grants to give states and localities greater flexibility to fund roadway maintenance projects. Additionally, rather than being government entities, state transportation authorities could be reconfigured as public utilities, a move that would depoliticize the current system. Policymakers also should seek to meet the needs of consumers, not producers, by replacing mass-transit subsidies with transportation vouchers for those who most need aid. Finally, policymakers should tear down and prevent barriers to transportation innovation, especially with the burgeoning growth of self-driving automobiles, and reform laws to allow for advances in technology.


Download the full book

JTLU is now indexed in SSCI

The Journal of Transport and Land Use is pleased to announce that it is now indexed in Social Sciences Citation Index and Current Contents/Social & Behavioral Sciences from Thomson Reuters.

“Social Sciences Citation Index, accessed via Web of Science Core Collection, provides researchers, administrators, faculty, and students with quick, powerful access to the bibliographic and citation information they need to find research data, analyze trends, journals and researchers, and share their findings. The Index includes 3,000 of the world’s leading social sciences journals across 50 disciplines.”

JTLU issues since 2013 are included in the Index. To learn more about Social Sciences Citation Index and Current Contents/Social & Behavioral Sciences, please visit


Since 2008, the open-access Journal of Transport and Land Use has published original interdisciplinary papers on the interaction of transport and land use. Domains include: engineering, planning, modeling, behavior, economics, geography, regional science, sociology, architecture and design, network science, and complex systems. Professor David Levinson, RP Braun/CTS Chair in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, is the founding and current editor of JTLU, the official journal of the World Society for Transport and Land Use (WSTLUR). JTLU is published and sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies.

More information:


Rethinking American Transportation Policy

I posted Rethinking American Transportation Policy at National Review. A selection is below.

U.S. transportation policy needs to be brought into the 21st century. When surface-transportation policy was last significantly overhauled in the United States, in 1991, Americans who wanted to travel to an unfamiliar location used paper maps, usually purchased from a bookstore or gas station. If they were on a toll road, they stopped at the tollbooths and rolled down the window. They listened to an AM/FM radio, a cassette tape, or maybe, if they had a new car, a compact disc. The car of the future was equipped with a fax machine. The Internet, smart phones, and texting were essentially unknown. The Global Positioning System was incomplete, and its use was limited to the military.

Today, Americans use GPS apps that utilize crowdsourcing not only to help them navigate but also to alert them of hazards and reroute them to avoid congestion. They use radio transponders to pay as they drive through toll plazas without slowing down. And they might subscribe to satellite radio, use a predictive streaming service such as Pandora to listen to music, or subscribe to podcasts that cater to their specific tastes. Electric vehicles have moved from fringe to the forefront of automotive technology. There are even a few self-driving cars on the road.

And yet, despite all these innovations and advances, America’s transportation policy remains mired in the 20th century with road maps and cassettes. Every day, American travelers confront continuing traffic congestion, particularly in larger urban areas, and an aging infrastructure whose deterioration outpaces its repair. The causes of these problems, however, are not as obvious to drivers, including structural issues with transportation funding and financing (who pays and how much), the insufficient and outdated management system that oversees our patchwork road system, and the propagation of unnecessary transportation projects, including infamous bridges and roads to nowhere, which primarily serve special interests.


In the 1990s, devolving power from the federal government to the states allowed them to serve as innovative incubators in social policy. Welfare reform is one such example, where federal policymakers empowered states with block grants. Instead of a one-size-fits-all federal policy, states were given greater flexibility to design their own programs.

Implementing a new federalism in transportation policy would improve transportation policy through innovation. To modernize our outdated system, policymakers should give states and localities the same flexibility they have in other successful decentralization efforts. In the laboratories of democracy, better transportation policies and investments may flourish.

This is associated with the release of Modernizing American Transportation Policy, a part of CRN’s Room to Grow series.


Our Canadian correspondent forwards us this from the Great White North. Justin Trudeau writes a Mandate for his new Minister:

As Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, your overarching goal will be to begin to rebuild Canada for the 21st Century. This will require significant new investments in public transit, green infrastructure, and social infrastructure like affordable housing, as well as key strategic infrastructure that will increase trade and economic growth. You should undertake your work in a collaborative way, with an appreciation that provincial and territorial governments are key partners in successful infrastructure projects. I expect you to re-engage our municipal governments as key partners in the development of our plans and to ensure that across our government we collaborate with municipalities on issues that affect them. I also expect you to align our efforts with existing provincial, territorial and municipal priorities, so long as these are in the long-term public interest.

In particular, I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory, and Cabinet processes, including our first Budget, to deliver on your top priorities:

  • Develop a 10-year plan to deliver significant new funding to provinces, territories and municipalities.  This plan should ensure both immediate increased investments in infrastructure and long-term, predictable funding should support provincial, territorial and municipal priorities, improve access to, and governance of, existing infrastructure programs, increase data collection capacity and promote better asset management of infrastructure in Canada. The plan should focus on:
    • public transit;
    • social infrastructure, including affordable housing, seniors’ facilities, early learning and child care, and cultural and recreational infrastructure;
    • green infrastructure, including investments in local water and wastewater facilities, clean energy, climate resilient infrastructure like flood mitigation systems, and infrastructure to protect against changing weather; and
    • making changes to the Building Canada Fund so that it is more transparent and approval processes are sped up, which would include removing the P3 screen for projects.  It should also be more focused on strategic and trade enabling infrastructure priorities, including roads, bridges, transportation corridors, ports, and border gateways.

This process should result in bilateral agreements with provinces and territories on infrastructure investments.  You should also work with the Minister of Finance to ensure any unspent infrastructure funds are automatically transferred to municipalities through a temporary top-up of the Gas Tax Fund.

No “new federalism” up north.

The Museum of Surface Parking |

The University of Minnesota, along with M-Health, are about to open a new branch of the Museum of Surface Parking (the MSP) on Oak Street at Fulton in southeast Minneapolis, in front of the new Ambulatory Care Center.

This is wonderful news for those in the local Museum-going community, the site will help 21st century college students in particular study the details associated with the storage of cars, as practiced in 20th century America, taking advantage of the University of Minnesota’s position as a great urban university. The site will be a living laboratory, not just for the observation of other people parking cars in the traditional mold, but also enabling students and visitors to park cars, by themselves, for a small fee. The value for transportation engineering courses is immeasurable.

While other nearby sites, similarly within walking distance of the East Bank LRT station, are being developed with “buildings”, this site preserves the historic open feel of the prairie landscape, while not reducing sunlight for its neighbors.

The Museum of Surface Parking - Minneapolis
The Museum of Surface Parking – Minneapolis

This is welcome addition to the collection of Living History sites in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, such as the Streetcar MuseumFort SnellingGibbs Farm, and Kelly Farm. The parking lot will be open 24 hours a day.

Cross-posted from