Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Popularity of Traffic Jams Tested

Budapest City Hall is considering the creation of artificial traffic jams as a way to test public reaction to a proposed expansion of cycling and walking space.

The proposal, which says is the brainchild of Deputy Mayor Imre Ikvai-Szabó, is part of gambit to see how motorists might react if road space is given over to cycling and bus lanes on such major arteries as Kossuth Lajos utca, Üllôi út, Bajcszy-Zsilinszky út and Hegyalja út.

During the trial period from July 4 to August 2, the closed traffic lanes would be used for various purposes. On Kossuth Lajos utca, one lane would be closed down on both sides of the street, with the liberated space to be used for "walking and shopping." Somewhat perversely from an environmental point of view, the closed lanes on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, Üllôi út, and the lower rakpart on the Buda bank would be available for car parking.

From what I gather, the idea is probably well-intended. Imre Ikvai-Szabó is relatively new to politics but has been supportive of progressive causes, including the renovation of Nehru park near the Economics University and Vásárcsarnok. Ikvai-Szabó is apparently open-minded and solicitous of diverse views, which are laudable qualities.

However, his idea appears strategically flawed in that it introduces people to the negative aspects of the initiative while concealing its benefits. The above illustration shows how Kossuth Lajos utca would look with a widened sidewalk, some attractive new plantings and a new bike lane. But during the trial, none of these amenities will be in place. The cordoned-off traffic lane will be open for walking, but how many pedestrians will want to step off the sidewalk onto a hot strip of tarmac that merely puts them in closer range to passing traffic?

It's much harder to understand why the closed lanes on the other arteries will be opened for parking. The city is merely taking space from moving cars and giving them to stationary ones. If the ultimate aim is to expand space for environmentally friendly transport users, why not make the closed lanes available to buses and/or cyclists during the trial?

The likely result of this test seems all too predictable: Motorists will hate it because it will exacerbate congestion on roads that are already over-subscribed. Meanwhile, cyclists and public transport users who would benefit most from a progressive transport policy will see few benefits, and may even be provoked against the initiative by the expansion of street parking.

Testing motorists' tolerance for traffic jams strikes me as an astonishingly negative way of promoting environmentally friendly transport. Ikvai-Szabó cites the success of the shared-space concept on Raday utca as his inspiration for the calming of city thoroughfares. I can't remember any trial traffic jams before that project was carried out. The district simply did it -- and with time, residents warmed to it.

Bold action is needed again on the city's thoroughfares. Without it, these initiatives will forever be stuck on the shoals of the status quo.


anna said...

This sounds interesting. Never heard anything like that. But somehow most politicians are not brave enough to really improve the urban landscape. Even most of the shared Citybike stations in Vienna are built on the sidewalk in order not to lose a single parking spot. The major concern by the redesign of the Ring bike path (something which is due to years) is not to lose parking space for cars. Isn't that crazy? I don't expect the outcome to be convenient for cyclists..

Steven M. said...

Given enough time, the reduced capacity will cause some motorists to travel at different times, take different routes, or forego certain trips altogether.

This should end up with the traffic jams equilibrating to the same level as before the lane closures.

Let's hope one month is enough to test this effect.