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Why overpopulation should not be blamed for traffic

The difficulty in commuting in a city is not proportional to the population increase due to three main factors: density, relocation, and mobility.

It is a common perception that the sole cause of the rising traffic in cities is the incessant increase in population. Eric Jaffe in his recent article debunks this perception by pointing out a study done by Shlomo Angel and Alejandro M. Blei. In their work, Angel and Blei show that there are three types of adjustments that take place due to the increase in population: increases in residential density, locational adjustments of residences and workplaces to be within a commutable range, and increases in commuting speeds brought about by shifts to faster roads and transit systems.

First of all, the dense nature of cities decreases the distance to the workplace and the time spent on travelling to work. For instance, walking to work is a common mode of commute in Indian cities followed by cycle, moped or motorcycle and bus. The higher density is also an outcome of the high cost of commute, in the form of time and money spent in transit. This cost forces poorer population to shift closer to work and makes the city regions packed.

In cases where the distance between work and home increases, the relocation takes place either by the workers to the areas close to work or by the business to the employment pool. Jaffe also mentions that this relocation result in cities with more than one business district. For instance, Bangalore the growing IT hub of India, has multiple software technological parks that have led to creation of various residential hubs across the city.

It is evident that density of a city and relocation within the city reduces the traffic burden to an extent. However, the faster roads and transit systems have the largest influence. In their paper, Angel and Blei attributed the reduction in travel time to the shift from low-speed arterial roads to higher-speed freeway in Unites States of America. Similarly various cities like London, New York and Mumbai have been able to reduce the travel time by providing faster public services like subways and local trains. These faster services work better when they are complimented with other transport options like rickshaws in Indian cities and trams in London. However, Bangalore exemplifies the government failure in providing transport options as the city still relies on road transports for commute.

The first two adjustments are organic in nature, however, the third adjustment requires government intervention and sadly that’s where most of the Indian cities fail.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

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