On the way to class this morning, I was thinking about routes (I have a choice of 3 bridges to get to campus, whose convenience vary with destination) and street networks.  One of the things we’ve discussed in class is the Problem Of Congestion – primarily with car traffic, but certainly an issue in other modes as well.

In class last semester, the professor raised an interesting question:  is congestion really a bad thing?  One argument is that congestion is not always negatively correlated with quality of life – Paris is congested, but people seem to like it.  Another is that congestion can serve (to some degree) as a self-regulating mechanism in traffic patterns:  for those who don’t have to, travelling at peak time is a pain and a deterrent, keeping a certain number of cars off the road or people off the sidewalks or passengers off the buses and trains.

As I approached the classroom building, I saw more people travelling along the same route, including many of my classmates, coming from either of the two main routes from west campus to the building.  As we approached a central destination, everyone who had taken various routes from wherever they were, were now converging along the two pathways, simulating a bottleneck into the building.  It wasn’t that more people had suddenly appeared on campus, but that everyone wanted or needed to be in this particular spot.

It made me think that maybe this tolerance of congestion can be taken a step further:  it is not a problem, but an inherent property of our social system.  It manifests in where people want to live, where they want to go, even what they want to buy (why else would popular items sell out when substitutes are available?).  Therefore it cannot be “cured” or prevented or even almost-completely reduced, simply understood and (hopefully) managed.

Congestion, or tendency toward congestion, is a property of both space and time.  Many people tend to want to go to the same places, at more or less the same times, and there are only so many ways to get there.  Even on a perfectly-networked grid system, in which many combinations of route segments are possible, most people would tend to choose particular routes because they are most direct, have the least obstructions, or are easiest to travel along arterial paths.  And neither are all destinations equal – rarely does everyone want to be in the same place at the same time, many people want to be in only a few places.

One could argue that congestion is made worse by our current transportation system, by having one central destination or several destinations which aren’t well connected, or by our weekday, work day schedule in which most people need to travel at the same times.  I think it’s deeper than that, however:  whatever its manifestations in specific travel patterns, it comes down to the simple fact that, as William H. Whyte said, people tend to be near other people.  We tend to want to cluster together; to be in the middle of things; to get to the center as quickly and easily as possible; and to be part of larger social phenomena.  Supposed “solutions” to congestion like flex time, telecommuting, or increased transportation capacity can only go so far to alter a pretty fundamental fact about human behavior.

What I’m saying certainly isn’t new, but it’s a view that seems to be absent- or at least not prominent – in discussions of transportation systems.  Congestion is not a problem to be fixed, but an inherent property of our system called Society.  We should find ways to make it better for everyone, but we can’t simply treat it as a waste.  It is, I would argue, a part of what it means to be a social creature.

P.S. – I had to go for the old dictionary move, as I was curious what the -gest part of congestion is.  According to the OED, the earliest definition of congestion is:

The action of gathering or heaping together in a mass; a crowding together; accumulation (1563).

Only later – fittingly, in the mid-19th century, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization – did it become:

A crowding together or accumulation which disorganizes regular and healthy activity: congested or overcrowded condition, as of population, traffic, etc (1868).

While the tone of both of these definitions is neutral to negative, rather than positive, both also highlight the social nature of congestion.  Only later did the word come to really imply a problem.