By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Traffic congestion and confusion herald a new age of immobility

The great American developer Trammell Crow, who created modern Dallas, once said: 'I like congestion. It's better than recession.' It sounds like a flip remark, but Crow was right. Congestion isn't a problem, it's the political opportunity of the twenty-first century.

Crow wasn't the author of another adage - that it is always easier to tell people what to do than to find out what is really going on - but he might as well have been because it bears powerfully on the future of congestion. An example of what is really going on is the way buildings have to go on taking the rap for the energy squandered by transportation.

For years architects have accepted the specious argument that half of global energy is guzzled by buildings. Filled with guilt they go home and stuff more mineral wool into the roof space, invite more radon indoors, mortgage the house for a heat pump and learn to talk baloney about wind towers and low-e glass. What they should really do is square up to 'energy experts' with a smart rejoinder like: 'What shall we do about the other half?'

They are entitled to do this because construction is essential. It was there before the industrial revolution and certainly before transport. Go back just 200 years and transport - in the sense of an industry employing one in every six people in the European Community - did not exist. How on earth did the world survive without it? By growing up autarchically. In the old days they knew that dragging huge stones from Wales to Salisbury Plain was not a sustainable activity so they only did it once. Now we have thousands of articulated trucks doing the equivalent trip every day.

The key to ending irresponsible transportation is not to punitively raise its cost, as the government has been doing. That will only prolong its life. Much more effective to allow congestion to overwhelm it and thus bring on the new age of immobility - the answer to the energy crisis, the pollution crisis, the Concorde crisis, the road rage crisis and 99 per cent of all other known crises.

Can congestion really do this? According to the American Highway User's Alliance, a body representing 215 driving and road organisations, it cannot fail. Short of a massive recession or the sort of drastic restriction of civilian motoring that was enforced in World War II, road traffic congestion will continue to increase faster than population, driver numbers and car registrations. The average American already spends 434 hours (18 full days a year), in a car. Soon the figure will become unsustainable as a vicious circle of population growth, more car registrations, fewer occupants per vehicle, increasing adoption of car travel over other modes of transport, and more car journeys takes over. In Indianapolis it already has.The city's population increased by only 17 per cent (150,000 persons), between 1982 and 1997, but the number of vehicle miles driven there went up by 103 per cent - creating as much congestion as if the population had increased by a million.

Multiplied by the 32 per cent increase in the US population between 1970 and 1997, the doubling of car registrations and the 65 per cent increase in licensed drivers, all this amounts to a predictable deadline for gridlock. It is the best kept secret in the world, yet it is the reason for globalisation, Internet banking, e-wholesaling and retailing, supermarket deliveries, soaring urban land values, car company mergers, £50 billion bids for mobile phone licences, media groups, video phones and telefactor gloves.

The end of transport won't be a disaster, it will be a new frontier. Trammell Crow was right, congestion is the answer.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters