Why is the traffic in my city so bad?

Posted on: 1 July, 2024

It’s not just bad weather, car accidents and roadworks – there’s a bigger reason why the traffic in your city is getting worse.

For most people, traffic is simply a part of life. According to a study by Inrix, UK drivers spend on average 32 hours a year stuck in congestion. These numbers are higher still in large cities – the same study found London to be the second most congested city Europe, with people spending 72 hours on average in traffic.

There are many different things that can cause a traffic jam. Accidents, of course, are likely to prevent or even halt the flow of vehicles on a road. Similarly, poor weather conditions can influence driver behaviour and, as a result, bring moving cars to a stop.

However, while these kinds of factors are unavoidable and often unpredictable, there’s a more pernicious reason congestion happens that often goes under the radar – ineffective urban planning.

How urban planning designed your commute

Urban planning is the practice of designing and managing space. Professionals in this field manage the competing social, economical and environmental demands on space and locations, and help shape urban areas in a way that balances these factors sustainably.

While urban planning is most often associated with the management of cities and towns, it also encompasses transportation planning – the process of creating the policies and designs that ensure the effective movement of people and goods.

Transportation planners assess, manage and optimise transport systems, all the way from streets in local towns to motorways, counties, and projects on both national and international levels. Their role is to ensure roads, motorways and other transport systems facilitate effective movement and safety, both for now and for the future.

In other words, transportation planning maps out the infrastructure that supports the use of vehicles. Without their expertise, your daily commute could be twice as long, and your local supermarket may not even exist.

How the design of a city impacts traffic

A research study found that cities with one ‘dominant’ urban core or centre were generally associated with lower levels of congestion. In contrast, cities with multiple centres – referred to as ‘polycentric’ – suffered the most. As a whole, the study concluded that how a city is shaped had more of an impact on congestion than even the time of day.

This explains why traffic in the largest and most densely populated cities tends to be the worst. In 2022, the average London driver took over 36 minutes to travel just 6.2 miles. The year before, congestion levels had risen to 33%, meaning that a 30-minute trip would take 33% more time during traffic than in normal conditions. A report by TomTom Traffic Index in 2021 named Kiev, Moscow and Istanbul as having the worst traffic on the planet, with Kiev’s congestion level rising to 56% that year.

What happens when urban planning goes wrong?

Poor urban planning can have a variety of knock-on impacts on the lives of a city’s inhabitants. Failing to consider the space needed for population growth can lead to urban sprawl and the destruction of natural, green environments. It can also impact the amount affordable housing available for residents, which will have a subsequent impact on living conditions and wellbeing.

Learn more: Green infrastructure, defined: how could it help us solve the climate crisis?

Traffic itself may seem par for the course and a minor inconvenience in comparison to these impacts, but it has significant consequences, both for a city’s residents and the environment:

  • Damage to the environment: The constant stopping and starting of vehicles during traffic burns significantly more fuel than if a car was to be stationary or driven continuously, increasing the high level of carbon emissions already produced by vehicles. This itself has a wide range of consequences, from reduced air quality to noise pollution and extreme weather.
  • Financial impact: Simply put, time is money. The cost of food will increase if food is spoiled thanks to delays in transportation. Businesses need to extend their hours if employees are unable to make it to the office on time due to congestion. The financial consequences of congestion are so bad that, in the UK traffic is expected to cost the economy more than £300 billion over the next 16 years.
  • Safety risk: Anyone who has been sat in lengthy traffic can testify to the stress it causes, particularly if you’re late for work. This stress can lead to frustration and poor decision making, and actions like speeding, tailgating and dangerous driving puts other road users at serious risk, creating more accidents.
  • Reduced productivity: If nothing else, being sat in traffic is often a significant waste of time. If you’re travelling to work, it’s likely to impact your productivity for the rest of the day, and the time you spend sat in queues could be better used elsewhere.

Why traffic is getting worse

Effective transportation planning is a crucial area of urban planning – one that has major ramifications for the design and functioning of cities and towns. And, as more and more people move into urban areas and new municipalities are built to combat urban sprawl, its importance in the field is only increasing.

However, despite growing awareness of urban planning, along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the proliferation of both flexible and remote working, traffic actually appears to be getting worse.

In 2022, congestion around the world was increasing month on month back to pre-pandemic levels. In the UK, traffic is predicted to increase by 54% over the next 35 years.

Part of this is down to the historical design of our cities, that were never intended to accommodate the journeys of thousands, if not millions, of commuters. Moscow is a prime example of this, with its ring-like layout, established almost 900 years ago, not designed for modern traffic.

Flexible working itself may also be contributing to this increase, with the changes in work schedules and when people start/finish work meaning that congestion is starting earlier and finishing later.

Urban planning matters now more than ever before

There are many ways governments are trying to address increasing levels of congestion, from promoting public transport and encouraging cycle-to-work schemes with businesses to implementing congestion pricing and improving safety and incident response times. However, with the global population (and the percentage of people living in urban areas) on the rise, investing in infrastructure and adequately planning will be key to addressing the increase in congestion and the impact this has on the environment and people’s lives.

Urban planners will play a crucial role in the future of not just our commutes and journeys, but the makeup of the towns, cities and areas we inhabit every day. Through new innovations and frameworks like the 15-minute city model and sponge cities, their expertise will help manage our increasing urbanisation in a way that aligns with the needs of the environment, the demands of achieving net zero and the wellbeing of the population.

However, the planning needs talent and expertise. The lack of skilled professionals in the field is creating project delays, which can lead to increased health and safety hazards and economic implications that will impact local communities and cities.

UCEM have recently launched an MSc in Urban Planning to help address the shortage of skilled planners and the need for sustainable development in the built environment.

In their studies, students will explore the intricate networks of design, development, policies and decision-making that impact the lives of everyone every day. By acquiring the technical understanding necessary to navigate the complex field of planning, they will learn how to balance the need for infrastructure with the demand for sustainable climate change mitigation.

To meet the demand from employers, UCEM have also launched a Level 6 Chartered Surveyor Urban Planning apprenticeship.