The most effective methods of fighting traffic congestion are often the least politically acceptable according to international experts.
Road pricing – charging motorists to use the busiest highways at peak traffic times – has achieved the greatest impact in cutting traffic jams in cities around the world.
Smart, long-term town planning, including mixed-use developments where people can live, work and shop without using a car, has also shifted the dial in some areas.
Investment in convenient, flexible, high-end public transport, with hubs in residential areas, is also cited among the most impactful solutions policymakers can implement.
Building new highways, counter intuitive as it may sound, has been shown to be less effective.
Despite a growing body of evidence over what works and what does not, governments have been reluctant to pursue policies that don’t play well with voters, says Matthias Sweet, a transport policy researcher based at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Technical issues related to traffic congestion are challenging to address but there are real solutions which are frequently also politically unpalatable,” he told the Cayman Compass.
“For example, very few politicians are eager to embrace road pricing – despite its real potential to alleviate congestion.”
With a threadbare public transport system and a road network that is widely viewed as unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists at peak times, it is unlikely that Cayman could fast forward straight to congestion charges.
Enticing commuters out of their cars must be a combined approach, says Jovana Stanisljevic, a professor in the Department of People, Organization and Society at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.
You can’t wield the stick of road pricing, without the carrot of safe, flexible alternatives.
“If you make other modes of transportation more affordable, more accessible and more appealing, you can start to look at policies to make driving more expensive for people,” she said.
Anything that raises the cost of living is a difficult call for politicians. New York became the first US city to use congestion charges in 2019.
The move is expected to raise $15 billion to help modernise the city’s subway system.
But it took a decade-long political fight to get the policy through and as yet no other American cities have followed suit.
In the US, the primacy of the motor car is ingrained in the culture.
Many modern cities were not designed for pedestrians or convenient public transport and the idea of limiting vehicle ownership is anathema in a country that prioritises personal freedom.
Joseph Kane of the Brookings Institution tracks the source of the problem to poor urban planning. Many American communities are built around cars, with residential suburbs linked to urban centres by sprawling multi-lane highways. Smart modern cities are looking at rethinking the way they build.
“Transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin,” says Kane, who advocates for more mixed-use zones where people can live, work and access amenities without travelling long distances.
He warns that city planners often subtly encourage driving through policy or code requirements, such as a certain number of parking spaces per building.
He is pessimistic, though, about the likelihood of too many governments adopting holistic approaches to planning.
“It takes longer to make a mentality shift than it does to add an extra lane to the highway.”
The world’s widest freeway
Stanisljevic cites the example of the $2.8 billion 26-lane Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas, as exhibit A in the case against building new roads to deal with traffic problems.
A 2014 analysis by the City Observatory think tank found that less than ten years after the project was completed, traffic congestion was actually significantly worse.
“There are examples where building roads has incentivised people to drive more. There is induced demand and people change their behaviour to drive more,” she said.
City of cyclists
Several cities in Europe have developed effective policies to cut congestion. The city of London achieved a 22% reduction in traffic volumes by charging motorists £11.50 to enter the ‘charging zone’ between 7am and 6pm on weekdays.
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, nearly half of all journeys to work or school are taken by bike.
The city has developed one of the most sophisticated networks of cycle lanes in the world and ‘cargo bikes’ which people to carry passengers or groceries are common.
A New York Times feature story from November highlights how Danes use bikes to drop their kids off at school or to travel to the airport, and 55% of riders cite convenience as their primary motivation. Mail carriers and even mortuary services use pedal power in the ‘city of cyclists’, according to the Times.
Stanisljevic cites Singapore as the best example of a city that has stemmed traffic flows through what she describes as a series of “aggressive” anti-congestion measures.
An economic powerhouse with more than 5 million people crammed on to an island of 280 square miles, the Asian city-state is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Yet it remains relatively free of traffic congestion.
The most drastic policies include a vehicle quota system, where residents must bid for the right to own a car and an Electronic Road Pricing system where the price adjusts depending on how many vehicles are on the road.
None of this could have been possible, says Stanisljevic, without smart planning and strong public transport.
“Real estate development was planned in such a way that there was an easily accessible (Mass Rapid Transit) station in every residential neighbourhood so it is easier to take the railway.”
The MRT is also clean, climatised, safe and well maintained, a notable contrast with older subway systems in Paris and London, which are considered less attractive to some demographics.
The lesson from Singapore, she says, is that it takes a multitude of interacting policy measures to move people in a modern city.
“It requires an integrated set of policies that need to be clearly thought through and implemented over a 20-year period, considering trends of population and trade growth.”
Singapore has one other less appealing ‘advantage’ over other cities when it comes to handling traffic. Its authoritarian system of government means it is not accountable to the electorate in the same way as most western democracies.
While this is problematic in multiple areas, it has allowed Singapore’s leaders to bypass concerns that have inhibited more democratic societies.
Political blowback and the ‘long-term’ pay off of most effective transport policies means that they are often not a major priority for politicians who work to four-year election cycles.
While traffic is a nuisance issue for many, Sweet, of Ryerson University, speculates that it is not a significant enough concern to reduce the appeal of the destination to business or visitors.
“Given that Cayman has amazing weather, beauty, and is a generally desirable place for many people to spend time, I would not hold my breath on congestion going away anytime soon,” he said.
“The inconvenience of congestion often pales in comparison to broader amenity packages and what people view as the ‘good life’.”