Congestion Relief Strategies for Asian Cities

This article by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has just appeared in the December 2013 issue of the United Nation’s “Transport and Communications Bulletin for Asia and the Pacific.”  It reinforces many of the strategies and principles set out in the New Mobility Agenda 2014/15 program, and  provides useful reading for anybody concerned with transportation, mobility and public space improvements in Penang and George Town.  A summary introduction to the full paper follows extracting a final section on Optimal Congestion Solutions  and the Conclusions. The full paper is recommended and freely available at


Smarter Congestion Relief In Asian Cities

– Todd Litman, VTPI, Vicroria Canada


This article describes new and better ways to solve urban traffic congestion problems. It emphasizes win-win strategies that help achieve multiple planning objectives and therefore maximize overall benefits.
This reflects a new planning paradigm which expands the range of impacts and options considered in the planning process. Win-win strategies include improvements to resource efficient modes such as walking, cycling and public transport; incentives for urban-peak travelers to use the most efficient option for each trip; and smart growth  development policies that reduce travel distances and therefore total congestion costs. This article discusses the importance of the comprehensive and multi-modal transport planning,describes omissions and biases in current planning, identifies various win-win congestion reduction strategies, and provides examples of successful urban transportation improvement programs.
The win-win approach can be applied to many types of transportation problems, and is particularly appropriate in rapidly developing Asian cities.


This analysis indicates that optimal congestion reduction involves the following steps:

1. Improve alternative modes, including walking, cycling and public transit, and where  appropriate, programs that support ridesharing, carsharing and telecommuting. Provide targeted improvements on congested urban corridors, such as more frequent transit services on congested roads, and commute trip reduction programs at major employment centers.

2. Manage roadways to favor space-efficient modes, such as bus lanes on urban arterials with more than 20 buses per hour during peak periods, transit-priority traffic control systems, and High Occupant Vehicle (HOV) lanes on urban highways.

3. If possible, apply congestion pricing (variable tolls or fees that are higher during congested periods), with prices set to reduce traffic volume s to optimal levels (typically level-of-service C or D).

4. Regardless of whether or not congestion pricing is applied, implement efficient transport  pricing reforms to the degree that is politically feasible, including road tolls, parking pricing,  fuel price increases, and distance-based insurance and registration fees. These reforms may be justified on various economic efficiency and social equity grounds.

5. Implement support programs such as commute trip reduction and mobility management marketing programs wherever appropriate.

6. Only consider urban roadway expansions if,  after all of the previous strategies are fully  implemented, congestion problems are significant and congestion pricing would provide  sufficient revenues to finance all associated costs, which tests users’ willingness-to-pay for  the additional capacity . For example, if a roadway expansion would have US$5 million annualized costs, it should be implemented only if peak-period tolls on that road will generate that much revenue. Off-peak tolls can be used to finance general roadway costs, such as maintenance and safety improvement s, but not capacity expansion.

These policies and investments are not necessarily justified by their congestion reductions  alone, but are often justified when  all their benefits are considered, including increased social equity,  since improving alternative modes and more efficient pricing ensure that non-drivers receive a fair  share of transportation improvement benefits, and  are not forced to subsidize road and parking  facilities they do not use.

Any additional reform revenues from increased parking fees, road tolls, fuel taxes and vehicle  fees can be used to help finance roadway costs, improve alternative modes, reduce transit fares, or  reduce local taxes (they can be considered compensation for the impacts that urban roadways  impose on adjacent communities). It is particularly appropriate to use some revenues to improve public transport and rideshare services, and provide support programs, in the areas where they are collected to help travelers shift from driving to alternative modes, and therefore reduce congestion.


Traffic congestion is a significant problem in most cities. There are many possible congestion reduction strategies, some of which have significant indirect costs or benefits. It is important to use comprehensive and multi-modal analysis when evaluating these strategies.

The old planning paradigm assumes that traffic congestion is the most important urban transport problem and roadway expansion is the preferred solution. But congestion is actually a moderate cost overall, smaller than other transport costs such as vehicle costs, accident risks, parking costs and environmental damages, and roadway expansions can add significant indirect costs. It would therefore be harmful overall to reduce traffic congestion in ways that increase these other costs. A congestion reduction strategy is  worth far more if it reduces other costs.

Chronic traffic congestion can be considered a symptom of more fundamental transport system problems, including inadequate transport options, underpricing, and sprawled development. Under such conditions, roadway expansions usually provide only short-term congestion relief and generally exacerbate transport problems. Roadway expansions also tend to be unfair to people who rely on walking, cycling and public transport, and therefore do not directly benefit and are harmed by increased vehicle traffic.

A more effective approach is a congestion reduction program which include a combination of improvements to alternative modes, efficient transport pricing and pricing reforms, smart growth development and land use policies, and various support activities. Though they may provide only modest short-term congestion reductions, their impacts tent to be synergistic (total impacts are greater than the sum of their individual impacts) and increase over time. As a result, these  win-win strategies are usually the most efficient and equitable overall.

Win-win congestion reduction strategies are particularly appropriate in developing countries where most residents rely primarily on walking, cycling and public transport. It is important that decision makers and the general public understand these issues when choosing solutions to congestion problems.

malaysia penang  ped crossing

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About the author:

Todd Litman is  executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an wcb-pic-toddindependent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems. His work helps to expand the range of impacts and options considered in transportation decision-making, improve evaluation techniques, and make specialized technical concepts accessible to a larger audience. He can be reached at: 1250 Rudlin Street, Victoria, BC, V8V 3R7, Canada. Email:

About the editor:

about the editor 21dec13

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