MORE HIGHWAYS, MORE CARS, MORE CONGESTION, MORE EMISSIONS . . . ? – Lessons from the learned

Penang aerial photo of highly devloped road system - from Joshua Woo

Aerial photo taken from above article by Mr. Joshua Woo.

Commentary of  Assoc Prof Ahmad Hilmy Abdul Hamid from the School of Housing, Building and Planning,of the  Universiti Sains Malaysia. (See bio note below and list of scholarly publications)  — commenting  on a letter to the editor by Mr. Joshua Woo Sze Seng that appeared in the Star newspaper  last week on 28 May on the topic,  More Highways, More Cars?:

MALAYSIANS are very lucky to have freedom of expression. Anyone can write anything in the newspaper or social media, barring of course things that insult the fabric of our harmonious society.

Unfortunately, this same freedom also allows opinions to be shared by people who might be clueless as to how things work in certain areas.  Yet, these people appear as if they are an authority on the subject just because they are passionate in their beliefs or they happen to shout louder than most.

When Mr. Joshua Woo wrote as an opinion piece  in the Star newspaper  last week on 2 May,  More Highways, More Cars?:   He opens with the following challenge statement:

“THERE is a common saying in the public transport policy debate that, “supplying more highways simply creates more demand for their use”.

To which Mr. Woo responds as follows:  (And here I insert my own numbers to bring into sharp relief the key challenges in the unfounded argument of Mr. Woo.)

With these off-the-cuff  ex cathedra opinions he has basically trampled on decades of research and studies by prominent and eminent scholars on the subject and perhaps unwittingly relegated “transport system studies” to some mysterious subject dealt only by heretics –  much like alchemy of old who tried to convert lead into gold.  But the truth is this:

While highways and road traffic are familiar topics to most of us, the planning, design, construction and operation of highways and road traffic is most likely not common knowledge.

Against this background I share below excerpts of the findings and conclusions from articles published overseas many years ago by scholars who have no vested interest in opposing the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Hopefully, this fact will convince  readers of the honesty of the articles’ contents. Since most of the articles were published long before the proposed PTMP, they cannot be accused of bias against the plan.

Position of the experts: 

1997, Prof Phillip  Goodwin [1]

Solving Congestion, Inaugural lecture for the Professorship of Transport Policy, University College London, October 1997.

The good Professor explained when we must not build roads, increase spending, lose votes, damage the economy or harm the environment, and will never find equilibrium. The full contents of his talk can be downloaded at: discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1244/1/2004_22.pdf.

Among his most interesting observation was :

Smeed and Wardrop calculated that since the number of cars required to move a given number of people is much greater than the number of buses, then a transfer from car to bus would enable the traffic to go faster, and in certain circumstances this is enough to offset the extra time spent waiting for the bus, walking to your destination and so on.

Goodwin ends his speech in 1997 aptly when he said: “It may all seem very complicated just at the moment. But we do our children no favours if we confine them to a car-dependent mobility. And I think our grandchildren will wonder what took us so long.”

2004, Alison Cassady, Tony Dutzik and Emily Figdor [2]

– More Highways, More Pollution: Road-Building and Air Pollution in American’s Cities, US PIRG Education Fund

The study found that American cities with the largest highway networks per capita also tend to be those with the greatest air pollution. The authors of the study also warn that further highway expansion could lead to additional air pollution and threats to public health.

2009, Petter Næss, Martin J. H. Mogridge, Synnøve Lyssand Sandberg [3]

– Wider roads, more cars, Natural Resources Forum 25(2):147 – 155

There is a prevalent belief among policy makers that increased road capacity in urban areas does not in itself cause any growth in car traffic worth mentioning. Such a belief neglects the simple economic theory of supply and demand, as well as more specific theories about the dynamics of traffic under congested conditions. An empirical study of commuting patterns in two transport corridors in Oslo, Norway, shows that a considerable proportion of commuters are sensitive to changes in the speed of the respective modes of transportation. The mode chosen depends to a large extent on the ratio of door-to-door travel times by car and transit. Freer flowing traffic in the road network will induce a higher proportion of commuters to travel by car. Conversely, faster public transport will reduce the proportion of car commuters.

2014, Adam Mann [4]

– What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse, Wired (www.wired.com)

“As a kid, I used to ask my parents why they couldn’t just build more lanes on the freeway. Maybe transform them all into double-decker highways with cars zooming on the upper and lower levels.
Except, as it turns out, that wouldn’t work. Because if there’s anything that traffic engineers have discovered in the last few decades it’s that you can’t build your way out of congestion. It’s the roads themselves that cause traffic. The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more.

“Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.”

2015, M .Beck & M. Bliemer [5]

– Do more roads really mean less congestion for commuters? (Theconversation.com)

In transportation, this well-established response is known in various contexts as the DownsThomson Paradox, The Pigou-Knight-Downs Paradox or the Lewis-Mogridge Position: a new road may provide motorists with some level of respite from congestion in the short term but almost all of the benefit from the road will be lost in the longer term.

Congestion is determined by the weakest links in the road network. If road capacity expansion does not involve widening of these bottleneck links, congestion may simply move to another part of the network without solving the problem. Moreover, it could potentially make congestion even worse.

The Braess Paradox is a famous example in which building new roads in the wrong location can lead to longer travel times for everyone, even without induced demand, because such new roads may lead more car drivers to the weakest links in the network. The reverse may also be true: removing roads may even improve traffic conditions.

2015, Susan Handy [6]

Increasing Highway Capacity Unlikely to Relieve Traffic Congestion, University of California, Davis

Traffic congestion has traditionally been addressed by adding additional roadway capacity via constructing entirely new roadways, adding additional lanes to existing roadways, or upgrading existing highways to controlled-access freeways. Numerous studies have examined the effectiveness  of this approach and consistently show that adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion for long because it actually increases vehicle miles travelled (VMT).

Increased roadway capacity induces additional VMT in the short-run and even more VMT in the long-run.

A capacity expansion of 10% is likely to increase VMT by 3% to 6% in the short-run and 6% to 10% in the long-run. Increased capacity can lead to increased VMT in the short-run in several ways: if people shift from other modes to driving, if drivers make longer trips (by choosing longer routes and/or more distant destinations), or if drivers make more frequent trips. Longer-term effects may also occur if households and businesses move to more distant locations or if development patterns become more dispersed in response to the capacity increase. One study concludes that the full impact of capacity expansion on VMT materialises within five years and another concludes that the full effect takes as long as 10 years.

Capacity expansion does not increase employment or other economic activity.

Economic development and job creation are often cited as compelling reasons for expanding the capacity of roadways. However, most studies of the impact of capacity expansion on development in a metropolitan region find no net increase in employment or other economic activity, though investments do influence where within a region development occurs.

Conversely, reductions in roadway capacity tend to produce social and economic benefits without worsening traffic congestion.

The removal of elevated freeway segments in San Francisco coupled with improvements to the atgrade Embarcadero and Octavia Boulevards has sparked an on-going revitalisation of the surrounding areas while producing a significant drop in traffic. Many cities in Europe have adopted the strategy of closing streets in the central business district to vehicle traffic as an approach to economic revitalisation, and this strategy is increasingly being adopted in cities the US, from New York City to San Francisco.

Concluding remarks

In case you are wondering who the authors quoted above are, below are short notes of their biodata and affiliations. I hope that the public, as well as the authorities in Penang, would respect the field of transportation and her fraternity of scholars and practitioners and to what they have kindly shared and advised on. The public should not be swayed by unfounded opinions offered by individuals or groups who ignore evidence on highways and traffic operations.

Notes:

1. Smeed was the first transport professor at University College London and Wardrop was an English mathematician and transport analyst at UCL’s Transport Studies Group who developed the ‘First and Second Principles of Road user equilibrium’. John Wardrop was also my supervisor when I did my MPhil in Transport Studies at UCL (1984-1986). Wardrop retired in 1987 and died in 1989.

2. Alison Cassady is managing director of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress.

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the US and have earned coverage in outlets from National Public Radio to the Financial Times.

Emily Figdor is campaign director @MoveOn.

3. Petter Næss is professor of planning in urban regions, Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Martin J. H. Mogridge, (December 2, 1940 – February 29, 2000).

[1] was a British transport researcher based in London. He proposed the Lewis–Mogridge Position that traffic varies in relation to the potential avenues of travel available, thus arguing that adding new roads to a transport network was potentially counterproductive (see Braess’ paradox) if a wider knowledge of local transport routes was not applied.

[3] Synnøve Lyssand Sandberg has been a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research. She has also been head of the planning unit both in Kongsberg and Skien municipality

[4] Adam Mann is a Wired reporter and freelance journalist. He lives in Oakland, California.

[5] Matthew Beck is a senior lecturer in infrastructure management, University of Sydney
Michiel Bliemer is a professor in transport and logistics, network modelling, University of Sydney

[6] Professor Susan Handy teaches in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis. She is part of The National Center for Sustainable Transportation which is a consortium of leading universities committed to advancing an environmentally sustainable transportation system through cutting-edge research, direct policy engagement, and education of future leaders.

Consortium members: University of California, Davis; University of California, Riverside; University of Southern California; California State University, Long Beach; Georgia Institute of Technology; and The University of Vermont. – June 1, 2019.

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About the author:

Assoc Prof Ahmad Hilmy Abdul Hamid  in the School of Housing, Building and Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia. His research interest is on Land Use-Transport interaction, Bus service provisions, Area wide Traffic Impact. He spent two years in the Middle East as a Transport Planner, and was engaged in Transport related consultancy service for 10 years in Malaysia before working as a lecturer in the University. He has now worked in universities for a total of 20 years. The experience of working with government and industry in the field has helped him understand the issues and available choices beyond the limits of ivory towered theory.  (See list of scholarly publications at https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=jAmVbSsAAAAJ&hl=en .),

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About previous author: 

Joshua Woo PenangMr. Joshua Woo Sze Seng is the DAP -Democratic Action Party’s strategic and communications director — DAP being a major party in the current government. Previously he was a member of the traffic management committee and urban planning committee of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council. He has and continues to publish steadily articles and opinion pieces support the Penang state government policy and position on the PTMP and related large infrastructure projects . He maintains a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/joshuawoosz.  And a Personal blog: https://jwsz.blogspot.com/  Articles on SRS/PTMP by Mr. Woo appear regularly  in Malaysiakini – www.malaysiakini.com – https://www.malaysiakini.com/a?language=en&q=Joshua%20Woo  And in Free Malaysia Today at  https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/tag/joshua-woo/  Other recent articles by him defending the road lobby and the  SRS/PTMP include:

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About the editor

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, mediator and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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