DECONGESTION – 7 Steps for Mayors and other City Leaders to cut traffic congestion without the expense of new roads or annoyed residents’


Houston, we have a problem

Our cities are in crisis because they revolve around the car. It’s killing us, our communities and our economy.

Traffic congestion is one of the most significant problems and issues facing Governments, Councils and businesses around the world. In Australia, more than 80% of all trips are made by car and in New Zealander 83% of trips less than 2km are made by car. A British Social Attitudes Survey found that 71% of adults never cycle. Only 3% of Brits cycle every day or nearly every day. There are as many as 38 million empty car seats on the UK’s roads every rush hour.

“The problem is we’re all doing the same things – commuting, business trips and the school run – making the same trips by car at the same time, creating gridlock, congestion, queuing and travel delays’ says Transport Planner and Behaviour Change expert Rachel Smith.

We need to act. Governments and councils cannot afford the cost of new transport infrastructure, low-density suburban sprawl is creating complex and highly expensive transport demands and congestion is costing us all money and wasting our time.

Rachel’s book ‘Decongestion – 7 Steps for Mayors and other City Leaders to cut traffic congestion without the expense of new roads or annoyed residents’ is a book that people can use, not just agree with.

Decongestion examines in detail:

  • The problems caused by too many cars
  • Opinions from Mayors, industry leaders, planners, academics, economists and residents
  • The 7 biggest challenges when cutting traffic congestion
  • The 7 “sticking points” when creating change
  • The 7 steps to a decongested city

The first part of the book explains how the Australian, American and British dream has become our biggest nightmare, and examines the problems associated with, or caused by, our addiction to the car, such as driving on short trips, inactivity and obesity.

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” Ellen Goodman

Rachel interviewed City Leaders, leading academics, industry leaders, Government agencies as well as more than 200 traffic congestion professionals – policy makers, public servants, researchers, planners and engineers – about what they thought were the mistakes made in cutting traffic congestion. According to these professionals, the seven most common mistakes we make when trying to cut traffic congestion are:

  1. Our alternatives to the car are unattractive
  2. We underestimate the importance of vision and leadership
  3. Our lives are created around the car
  4. We’re too rigid
  5. Our low-density land use
  6. Our car parking is cheap and easy
  7. We fail to understand the causes of congestion

Rachel interviewed Mayors and elected members (Councillors) about traffic congestion issues and challenges. Our City Leaders’ said that seven biggest challenges they face when trying to cut traffic congestion are:

  1. Providing good public transport
  2. Integrating transport and land use planning
  3. Restricting car use and car parking
  4. Messaging that the car is the only desirable mode of transport
  5. Building infrastructure for all modes of transport
  6. Getting businesses to stagger working hours
  7. Convenience of the car


What stops or prevents change?

Rachel believes there are seven sticking points to consider before we start looking at how we can create change in our cities. These are seven things that she believes hinder change and may have prevented City Leaders from cutting traffic congestion. Creating change may be difficult until these sticking points are recognised and overcome.

  1. Fear – We have a culture where we fear failure. We’re too scared of embarrassment or that others will laugh if we fail.
  2. Too many choices – The second reason we don’t create change is because we have so many – perhaps too many – choices available today. Choice has made us question everything, and as a result we’ve ended up solving nothing, or very little.
  3. Sense of entitlement – We have developed an extraordinary sense of entitlement. This entitlement obsession has led to the explosion of blame and confrontation that characterises comments in social media, tabloid press forums and consumer affairs television shows. In reality, what all this really means is that too much time is focused on arguing, being angry, whinging, whining and trying to get what we think we deserve, and too little time is being spent on solving the problems of traffic congestion for the future.
  4. Need for instant fixes – Fourthly, we have developed a compulsive need for “instant fixes”. Sometimes these “instant need it right now fixes” are the right choices, but if they are done out of short-term dissatisfaction or frustration they tend to accumulate into a string of failures that have wasted many people’s time and diverted attention away from more significant problems. We are so obsessed with the here and now and the next week that we don’t have time to stop and sit and solve the big problems – land use, congestion and obesity – for the future.
  5. Too busy “liking” on Facebook – Fifthly, we are too busy “liking” on Facebook –“liking” other people’s solutions from our computers and phones without actually getting involved. Facebook and other social media platforms are great for sharing news but it doesn’t solve your problem in reality.
  6. Exhaustion – A recent survey revealed that 53% of us claim to be constantly tired, with 15% feeling “exhausted”.31 If most of us are waking up feeling like we need another eight hours sleep it means we don’t have the time or energy to solve real problems… we’re too busy counting down the hours until bedtime.
  7. Navel gazing – We have developed a “navel gazing” culture. We spend our time chronically analysing every twist and turn in life. We hyper-analyse everything including the predicted mode shares for 2050 and beyond. We seldom consider simpler explanations: perhaps people don’t cycle because they prefer the bus. Possibly it’s just the fact that the majority of everyday commuters have never been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam and so have no idea what all the fuss about bicycles is all about! Maybe we need to stop being hypervigilant and start finding out what people really want to travel and move around their cities?


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein


The Seven Steps for Mayors

The final part of the Decongestion book are the seven steps for Mayors and other City Leaders to cut traffic congestion without the expense of new roads or annoyed residents.

  1. Step 1: Let’s ignite the fuse for change – This step looks at the willingness of Mayors and other City Leaders, and individuals, to tackle problems and the need to ignite the fuse for change. Step 1 inspires leaders and individuals to have a “can do” attitude and to create projects to solve the problems where they live.
  2. Step 2: Let’s communicate with positive messaging – Step 2 encourages Mayors and other City Leaders to communicate tackling difficult issues like congestion and obesity in a fun, positive and encouraging way.
  3. Step 3: Let’s experiment with temporary urbanism – This step encourages us to create opportunities to experiment, test and try new and different solutions in our cities. It invites people to rethink the way we use our streets and public places, and invites the use of temporary projects as a platform to change our cities.
  4. Step 4: Let’s discover what’s on our own doorstep – Step 4 is about discovering what’s on our own doorsteps, so that we don’t have to get in our cars because traffic congestion is often as bad, if not worse, on Saturdays and Sundays than it is on weekdays.
  5. Step 5: Let’s connect to enable sharing – Sharing cars, bicycles and car parking spaces can reduce the number of single-occupancy car trips and the number of cars on our roads. Step 5 provides practical solutions to enable everyone to share resources.
  6. Step 6: Let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable – One in 10 car trips in Queensland is less than 1 kilometre in length, so step 6 suggests communication, collaboration and innovation in order to reduce – or even eliminate – the number of really short trips.
  7. Step 7: Let’s create an infrastructure revolution – The Los Angeles Department for Transport said, “for the bicycle to catch on we need a revolution in our infrastructure”. Step 7 showcases examples and tools to create an infrastructure revolution.

 “We don’t need to question whether congestion exists or not. We all know that traffic congestion exists. We see it every day. It’s what we do about it that’s important” says Rachel

About the author:

Rachel SmithRachel Smith has 20 years of transport planning and behaviour change experience and expertise. She’s the Owner Director of Rachel Smith Pty Ltd, an independent consultancy. Rachel is the author of Decongestion and Underspent, has 2 TEDx talks, was part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab and has spoken in the UKs House of Lords. Rachel is currently writing a new book on ransport, cycling, environment, waste, finance & consumer Behaviour Change.

Or email for 3 free sample chapters


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