What Really Causes Traffic Congestion?

Source: Dave Paco Abraham / Flickr
Source: Dave Paco Abraham / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: Sure there are a lot of cars on the road, but just to say that’s what causes traffic congestion is overly simplistic. Yet that’s what many believe. Just get rid of all the cars, encourage the use of bikes by building more bike lanes, and improve mass transit, and all our congestion problems will be solved. We will all be healthier breathing in fewer pollutants and we all would be better off. Hogwash.

Now I’m not saying that bikes aren’t good exercise (that is, if you don’t get killed riding one) or that pollutants aren’t harmful. That part is true. However, the automobile is not the villain, and mass transit or bicycles are not the saviors either. A balanced transportation system is the answer. Yet we have those who believe that in the absence of extending subway lines or reactivating unused rights-of way, which many believe are cost prohibitive, we must greatly expand our Select Bus Service (SBS) network into any place in which we once wanted to build a subway. Also, all streets should have their traffic lanes reduced with the addition of bike lanes, wider sidewalks and the planting of trees in the center of the street.

What will happen in 30 or 40 years when those trees planted in those tiny center malls grow and become obstacles to visibility for turning vehicles? Do we then destroy them or turn the street into pedestrian and bike malls, banning automobile traffic entirely? Or has anyone not thought that far ahead? Most likely the choice would be to destroy the trees or severely prune them unless by then we are all telecommuting or traveling with our rocket jet packs. In that case I would favor pedestrian malls everywhere.

The truth is that traffic congestion is caused by multiple causes and here they are not in the order of importance.

1- Too many cars for the roadway due to inadequate mass transit options or other reasons.

2- Obstacles in the road causing a blockage and merger. These can be any of the following:

  • Double parking
  • Road work
  • Lane closure due to utility work
  • Road narrowing down
  • An accident

3- Traffic signals out of sync many times on purpose or occasionally when the computers are malfunctioning.

4- Inadequate green time

5- Too many pedestrians crossing not permitting cars to turn

6- Too many trucks on the road due to inadequate rail freight opportunities

7- Overdevelopment in areas where the mass transit system is already overcrowded and the road system is inadequate.

Who Is To Blame?

Sometimes it is the driver who insists on driving his car even if mass transit makes more sense. But that is more the exception than the rule. People usually tend to do what makes the most sense for them. If driving will save them 20 minutes or a half hour, and they can afford the parking, that’s what they will do. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Sometimes DOT is to blame by purposely making the signals out of sync (turning your signal green and the following red at the same time forcing you to just miss it). The DOT believes this will improve safety, especially around school zones, by forcing everyone to start and stop. However, in reality, all it does is increase air pollution, waste gas and time, and cause cars to illegally speed up just catch two green signals in a row, which would be otherwise impossible, thereby increasing danger not reducing it. There is probably nothing more frustrating to a driver than to take 10 or 15 minutes just to travel 10 short blocks without any traffic, but because of ill-timed signals, increasing frustration and possibly road rage. It also makes no sense for the traffic signals to force you to slow down around schools at 3:00 a.m., which they do.

Sometimes, it is the MTA that is not doing all it should do to improve local bus service such as not providing extra buses to beaches when needed, or operating too many buses not in service at the same time that overcrowded buses are bypassing stops, thus encouraging automobiles and dollar vans to create further congestion.

How Do We Fix The Problem?

If you want drivers to leave their car at home, then give them better options. Don’t blame them for looking out for their own self-interest. Build a subway line if that’s what makes sense. Give them a direct bus route if a subway cannot be justified, or at least a trip that can be made by taking two bus routes or even three. But don’t then tell them that third bus will cause them an extra fare and call them villains for driving or hailing a cab. Also, allow them legal spaces for kiss and ride and increase park and ride opportunities so they won’t have to drive all the way. Add bicycle racks to buses or allow bicycle parking in subway stations like they do in Chicago.

Don’t tell drivers you will be further reducing the roadway (causing them more congestion) because you are installing an SBS route. And don’t, then, neglect to mention they will still have to transfer to at least another bus or train — or perhaps two more buses — in order for them to take advantage of the new SBS route, so in the end they still will need their car. SBS has its place, but too many think of it as some sort of panacea when it is not. There are bus routing deficiencies that have existed for 70 years, which, if corrected, could save more time than SBS, yet rarely does anyone address those. Now, let’s discuss how to fix the causes of congestion.

1- We could have fewer cars and trucks on the road by increasing mass transit options and encouraging rail freight.

2A- Police should give tickets to double parking that causes traffic congestion and not merely view summonses as a means to raise revenue.

2B- Schedule as much roadwork as possible for the middle of the night or when the road is not busy, although there always will be some roadwork that causes some congestion.

2C- Also, try to minimize disruptions from utility work. I was once delayed 20 minutes on 62nd Street near the Queensborough Bridge one Sunday morning because only three vehicles were able to cross First Avenue during each traffic cycle due to the utility work. A traffic agent, if posted there, could have allowed vehicles to cross on a red signal, eliminating most of the delay since First Avenue traffic was very light at that time.

2D- Unless the road is widened, which may not be feasible, little can be done here except perhaps banning parking to increase traffic flow.

2E- Again, all we can do regarding accidents is to try to prevent them. Once they occur, traffic congestion usually cannot be avoided if traffic volumes are high.

3- Do not intentionally put traffic signals out of sync causing unnecessary congestion. However, even when they are in sync, congestion can be caused along intersecting streets because their green time has been reduced. In those cases, parking can be banned during those hours, adding a traffic lane near the intersection for right turning vehicles. When a computer failure causes out of sync signals, a smooth sailing roadway can be instantly turned into a parking lot with the same number of vehicles. Fortunately, that problem is usually corrected in a few hours.

4- If there is inadequate green time, that should be corrected, if possible, which may not be that easy to do.

5- The only way to reduce the numbers of pedestrians crossing at an intersection is to either add a mid-block crossing or build a pedestrian overpass.

6- Increase rail freight opportunities to remove truck traffic from the roads, especially the BQE.

7- Add more trains and buses or don’t overdevelop.

Where Do Bicycles Fit In?

Bicycles are a recreational vehicle but we are fooling ourselves if we think that, in New York City, they will ever become a major way to commute. New York is not Amsterdam and never will be, no matter what we do to try to encourage their use. The masses are not willing to put up with an hour or two bicycle commute to work, with riders arriving into the office covered in sweat or drenched in rain, unlike in Amsterdam where only a 20 minute bicycle commute would likely be required. But don’t try to tell this to bicycle advocates. Streetsblog called this New York Times article, which stated that bicycles caused their own traffic congestion problem in Amsterdam, a “preposterous rant.” They then launched their own tirade against automobiles and auto-related deaths, not offering a single factual dispute of the New York Times article.


I stated that mass transit is no savior. That is because, for certain trips, the automobile still remains the best way to go if the densities are not great enough to support subways, light rail or buses. This is something bicycle advocates will never admit. Buses also can cause their own congestion without off-street bus terminals. The days of constructing new highways are over for most metropolitan areas. That does not mean we should not be removing bottlenecks by adding lanes at strategic locations as DOT has recently done near the Brooklyn Bridge. I have provided at least 10 causes of traffic congestion and many solutions. In some instances little can be done. However, too many cars are only one cause of traffic congestion. But it’s not the only one.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA / NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.