It’s cities with high employment and GDP that experience the biggest increases in traffic congestion and where it’s faster to cycle than drive. In New Delhi average driving speeds are now approaching walking speed. In London, travel speeds are now the same as 100 years ago. As it’s experiencing a 24% boom in office construction, congestion can only get worse unless drastic action is taken.

An article on the Scientific American website last week lists some of the cities where it is faster to walk or cycle than to use a car. The author, Tali Trigg, is particularly interested in traffic congestion during peak periods as well as in the worst hour of the week.

He quotes a 2013 analysis by INRIX (a company producing software and hardware connecting transportation to the Internet of Things and Smart Cities using Big Data). This research compares European and North American cities finding the following ranking.The Top 10 Worst Cities for Traffic in America in 2013, along with total annual hours wasted in traffic, were:

  1. Los Angeles (64 hours)
  2. Honolulu (60 hours)
  3. San Francisco (56 hours)
  4. Austin (41 hours)
  5. New York (53 hours)
  6. Bridgeport (42 hours)
  7. San Jose (35 hours)
  8. Seattle (37 hours)
  9. Boston (38 hours)
  10. Washington, D.C. (40 hours)

Bear in mind that according to urban planners, 5 kph (3.1 mph) is an average human walking speed.

In Europe’s capital cities the similar results were:

  1. Brussels (83 hours)
  2. London commuter zone (81 hours)
  3. Antwerp (77 hours)
  4. Rotterdam (63 hours)
  5. Stuttgart (60 hours)
  6. Koln (56 hours)
  7. Milan (55 hours)
  8. Paris (55 hours)
  9. Ghent (54 hours)
  10. Karlsruhe (52 hours)

Unsurprisingly, it’s cities with high employment and GDP that experience the biggest increases in traffic congestion. With London experiencing a 24% boom in office construction, as reported in today’s Financial Times, we can expect its congestion only to get worse unless drastic action is taken.

The Financial Times says that “Property developers are responding to rising corporate demand from businesses since Britain’s economy returned to growth, the research showed. In particular, the increase in occupier demand came from technology and creative sectors, which comprised half of all new lettings in the period.”

At present, as Tali Trigg points out in his Scientific American article, traffic is no faster in London now than it was 100 years ago in the days of the horse and cart.

Transport for London’s plans to tackle congestion include new urban railways like Crossrail and new suburban railways, plus new cycling infrastructure. At present not all transport infrastructure comes under that Mayor’s control and his office wishes to take over responsibility for suburban rail services.

Crossrail: planned line and proposed extensions

Planned line and proposed extensions to the planned Crossrail network in London, UK, as outlined in the 2011 Rail Utilisation Strategy document of 2011 (p.153). Extensions are proposed to Reading, Tring/Milton Keynes, Gravesend and Staines with a spur from Heathrow to the Maidenhead/Reading line.

It is such an overall integrated approach that is necessary to reduce congestion, especially at the same time as increasing employment and population.

TomTom, the satellite navigation company, also produces its own lists of congested cities,  In their last report, Jakarta came out as the worst city for drivers. We reported these results in February, listing many of the solutions for decongestion.

This advice is vital for fast expanding cities in developing countries. In New Delhi, for example, average driving speeds are now approaching walking speed, according to a report by India’s Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), Centre for Science and Environment(CSE) and the Railway Infrastructure Technical & Economic Services (RITES) and, of course, cycling is much faster.

A study in South Delhi and the capital’s satellite cities Noida, Greater Noida, Gurgaon and Dwarka found that motorists crawl at 4kmph for almost 24 minutes in two hours of driving, wasting 2 lakh litres of fuel for every one million cars travelling daily.

But we don’t find planners in India promoting cycling in their transport plans. Instead they are just building more and more roads and making the same mistakes as Western cities have made, not learning from them. The city of Gurgaon, planned as a counter magnet to decongest Delhi, is in grip of deadly pollution and congestion.

Banning cycle rickshaws because they get in the way of cars is entirely counter-productive. These cities need to follow the example of Curatiba, Brazil, in planning their expansion around a bus and rail network as well as cycle lanes.

These lessons should also apply to other cities such as Beijing where, according to Quartz, the average walking speed is 7.5 mph (12.1 kph), so close to bicycling speed. Note that this is average walking speed, not even rush hour traffic on the worst corridors.

Congestion wastes time, money, causes pollution and fatalities. Its prevention should be at the top of every city’s transport plan. It’s people that need moving, not cars.

This article is published in collaboration with Sustainable Cities Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Thorpe is Special Consultant for Sustainable Cities Collective.

Image: Drivers queue during evening rush hour on the M4 motorway, in west London, July 20, 2004. REUTERS/Toby Melville.