Urban density and congestion
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - February 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Part 1  

If there is one coherent idea which runs in our previous series on the nuances of urban density, it is the conclusion that density is not necessarily a bad thing when we speak of population. In fact, the entire movement of people in all of human history is towards aggregation and not dispersal. Well, there is the tendency to disperse, first to discover new parts of the world, from the point of view of western civilization, only to know there were already civilizations in those formerly presumably unknown areas, many of which maybe older and more advanced than theirs.

But when people go to the remotest parts of the world, there still remains the tendency to agglomerate and expand new settlements forming the cities of the world now. Over the turn of the century, the percentage of the world’s population that live in cities has breached the 50% mark and it is universally recognized that this figure will continue to grow in the years to come. Wealth-wise, it is also estimated that 75% of the world’s GDP are created in cities.

But the last decades have shown us how horrible cities can become due to urban woes. The efficiency of cities cannot be questioned – it follows the concept of mass production, which also gave way to the industrial revolution at the turn of the last century. But more people living in cities invariably results to traffic jams, flooding, water shortage, mismanaged waste, air pollution, and a host of other woes. A considerable number of people honestly believe reversing the process is the way to have a better society, or at least arrest the growth of cities.

We often call the culprit “congestion.” But this word may often be misunderstood by both the user and the listener. Or maybe both think they’re using the term correctly but actually have different meanings for it. If we look closely, we may be alluding different meanings each time we use it. What do we mean by “congestion?” When we read in the news, “Manila is so congested we better build a New Clark City,” what does it mean? How about, “EDSA is so congested we need to build another skyway over it.” What do we mean by congestion?

I came to conclude that people usually mean one of two things when using the word “congested”. First, there are too many people; second, there is too much traffic. Truly, too many people will mean too much traffic, especially if each decides to use his own car daily. But that is not absolutely true, if we differentiate traffic congestion from urban population density. I emphasized two things in the last series; 1.) Urban density is good and advisable, and 2.) Density should be distributed more or less evenly over a city rather that concentrated in a CBD tapering to huge sparsely populated suburbs. But that can be planned or retrofitted if we understand traffic congestion as what it really is – a congestion of vehicles and not people. (To be continued)

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