07 December 2018

What Fits In The Box?

Why should we encourage people to give up their steering wheels for handlebars?  Here is one possible answer:

You have a box, and it holds only so much, and once it gets beyond that--then you start to have problems.

The "box" to which economic development specialist Einar Tangen was referring is a city--in this case, Beijing.  But he could have been describing just about any old European or Asian capital--or a few US cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Tangen was describing a reality of the Chinese capital:  It simply wasn't designed for 22 million people--or, even more to the point (for the purposes of this blog, anyway), 5 million cars.  To put that in perspective, Beijing has almost two and a half times as many people, and cars, as New York City.  

From what I've read, I don't think anyone even began to realize Beijing's limits until, maybe, two decades ago.  That is when industrialization--and, with it, migrations from the countryside to the cities--accelerated.  

Beijing traffic jam,  1975

In 1995, Beijing and New York had roughly the same population--around 8 million.  Commuters and visitors to New York--especially the central areas of Manhattan--complained about traffic jams.  Driving from the Hudson to the East River along 14th Street--a distance of about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles--could, and can, take as much as 45 minutes, while a bus ride along the same route might cost an hour.  Meanwhile, even if a Beijing cyclist encountered a traffic jam, it would mean that the road was clogged with other bikes, not cars.  That cyclist could pedal the same distance in half as much time as it took transverse Manhattan.

Today, both cities contend with traffic jams.  Starting in the early 2000s, the ones in the Big Apple started to ease up a bit, at least for a decade or so.  But since 2015 or thereabouts, motor traffic is on the rise once again, in spite of Uber's boast that its services would take a million cars off this city's streets.  Uber and similar services, unbound from many of the regulations that govern New York's taxis and limousines, put thousands of new for-hire drivers on the city's streets.  Also, Amazon and other online shopping services began to offer free shipping for very small orders (Previously, most had a minimum number of items or dollar amount for no-charge shipping), which meant more deliveries, nearly all of which come in trucks.

Beijing's traffic jams, on the other hand, now have the same composition of the ones in most other major cities:  cars and trucks--but especially cars, in Beijing's case. 

Beijing traffic jam, 2015

New York, Beijing and other cities are facing or denying this reality:  They simply can't shoehorn any more motor vehicles onto their streets.  If anything, those places, and others, should encourge bicycling--but make it truly safe and convenient for people going to and from work, not merely a way for the affluent to stretch when they get bored with the gym.

As Einar Tangen said, each of these cities is a box that's already holding more than it was designed to hold.  To keep that box from bursting, planners need to start thinking out of the (auto-centric) box.


  1. The sad thing is politicians and urban "planners" will try to solve their traffic problems by building even more roads, further scarring the land and destroying city neighbourhoods by "improving" urban highways.

  2. Mike W--One problem, I think, is that planners still equate "improvement" and "progress" with more technology--and traffic.