St Paul had his moment on the road to Damascus. Mine hit me on the road to Pialligo, late last Christmas night, while driving to the animal hospital.
The revelation was about traffic congestion on Canberra's constricted boulevards. At 1.30am on Boxing Day, there wasn't any. Traffic, that is.
So when our local leaders go on about widening roads to "bust congestion" and "get hard-working Canberrans home to their families [a few minutes] earlier", they are not just offering up a prayer to Our Blessed Lady of Acceleration. They are talking about spending tens of millions of dollars of our money to solve a problem that only exists - if at all - for about four hours on working days.
That's about 1000 hours a year, or about 11 per cent of the time. For the other 7766 hours, there's no problem. Mention Canberra congestion to someone from a big city, and they fall about laughing.
All the evidence is that if you choose to make something - like driving - easier and more convenient, people tend to do it more. This is what economists call "induced demand". Road widening is a classic example - the increased road capacity quickly fills up again. The Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas - the world's widest - is now up to 26 lanes. The congestion hasn't stopped.
Traffic doesn't behave like a liquid, moving faster through a wider and smoother pipe. It behaves like a gas, expanding to fill the available space.
I'm of the opinion that spending big money to encourage more cars onto the road is not very clever, even if it appeals to like-minded voters. It's also completely incompatible with several other worthy aims, including better public health and minimising climate change.
It would be better to put that kind of money into things that actually will reduce road congestion, like public transport and cycling.
Sooner or later, we will also have to bring in road user charges in place of fuel excise. Electric vehicles make it inevitable. As with any number of goods such as electricity and air travel, there will be "peak", "shoulder" and "off-peak" rates.
The video clip below perfectly illustrates the folly of widening roads to "bust congestion". It's from a recent episode of the ABC series Utopia, and has gone viral in the urban planning community worldwide.
We need to start making better choices.
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