The Truth About Congestion

Thinking about 95th Street recently, I was reminded of a passage from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities about vehicular traffic:

Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.

Wherever people are thinly settled, rather than densely concentrated, or wherever diverse uses occur infrequently, any specific attraction does cause traffic congestion. … Lack of wide range of concentrated diversity can put people into automobiles for almost all their needs. The spaces required for roads and for parking spread everything out still farther, and lead to still greater use of vehicles…

The more intensely various and close-grained the diversity in an area, the more walking. Even people who come into a lively, diverse area from outside, whether by car or by public transportation, walk when they get there.

The moral is simple: Plan for cars, get traffic. The neighborhoods that people prize in Chicago and elsewhere are those that put people first.

When we think about congestion, we should think of it like cholesterol: There’s a good kind and a bad kind. The bad kind comes from planning for cars and is experienced when you have long queues at stoplights and vehicles frequently entering and exiting parking lot driveways. This is an inhospitable environment for the pedestrian.

The good kind comes from not just putting people first but allowing for a mix of uses. Cars can still be part of the environment, but just one part. The congestion this creates is what we think of when we talk of a place’s “vibrancy.” A street bustling with people going from building to building is an incubator of economic activity and social interaction. As Jacobs writes, even the people who drive to the area end up in the mix.

While 95th Street often feels more like the former, thinking differently about the area can help it transform into the latter.

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3 thoughts on “The Truth About Congestion

  1. Preach, brother. But good luck: Beverly-ites seem pretty married to their cars. And Evergreen is even worse: no bike racks in any of the malls or big stores along 95th.

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    • Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve gotten that impression, but there is a strong walking culture here, too, given the proximity to the Metra stations. What I hope people can take away is that it’s not about forcing people to give up their cars — it’s about providing more options so that not every trip is a car trip. Cars are still important, and I wouldn’t consider myself “anti-car” or “at war with cars.” But we do ourselves a disservice when all our planning decisions revolve around them.

      I’ve noticed the same thing about EP. That Meijer development, especially, is a nightmare if you aren’t in a car. When that mall eventually deteriorates (and let’s face it, it’s designed to), EP will have a huge problem on its hands.

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  2. When I get home after work, the last thing I want to do is get into the car. Right now, the crosswalks on major streets (95th, 99th) are a joke, and bike racks on 95th are I think nonexistent, but we often bike and walk anyway. Preach on.

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