John Norquist

Is Traffic Always Bad?

Actually it's often a good thing, and city policies should take that into consideration.

By - Aug 28th, 2013 10:00 am
Photo courtesy of OregonDOT

Photo courtesy of OregonDOT

No one likes being stuck in traffic. That’s why people complain about congestion. Yet it’s just as true that popular destinations tend to be crowded. Fifth Avenue in New York, Market Street in San Francisco, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are all congested, but people keep coming back to shop or hang out. Maybe we should view congestion, in the urban context at least, as a symptom of success.

If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a single-minded and expensive war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent on increasing the capacity of our roads, they’ve not yet won, thank God. After all, when the congestion warriors have won, the results aren’t often pretty. Detroit, for example, has lots of expressways and widened streets and suffers from very little congestion. It also has lost 2/3 of its population and is in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee.

After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. Like cholesterol, traffic exists as a “good kind” and a “bad kind.” Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.” Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than those just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value, and pedestrian volume.

Fighting traffic congestion by merely adding more road capacity is what urban thinker Lewis Mumford, in his book “The City and the Highway,” called a “monochromatic” transportation system. In his critique of the Texas Transportation Institute’s “2010 Urban Mobility Report,” University of Connecticut engineering professor and CNU board member Norman Garrick wrote that we “lost sight of the fact that a transportation system affects almost all aspects of daily life and that its value should not be judged purely on the basis of how well it affords the easy movement of vehicles.” In doing so, we fail to recognize the way traditional streets shape successful, self-reliant, and stimulating places.

Garrick’s research points out that just 21 percent of average household income is spent on transportation in the state of New York, while in Mississippi, 41 percent of average household income goes toward transportation costs, almost all related to driving motor vehicles. In a political paradox, knowing how each state tends to vote, Garrick notes that New York is far less dependent on the federal government for its transportation budget, with only 15 percent of its funds coming from Washington D.C. In contrast, Mississippi relies on federal largesse for 41 percent of its total transportation budget.

Early in my time as mayor of Milwaukee, my Public Works director and his staff of traffic engineers came to me with a $58 million proposal for adding right turn lanes to “congested” intersections. The plan involved significant property demolition. My response was to ask if they planned on drawing their pensions after retirement. They looked at me strangely, and then answered yes. I replied, “Then why do you want to destroy the tax base that supports your pension?”

From that day forward, they understood the necessity of balancing their desire for faster speed with the fact that people need street corridors not only to travel but also to shop and socialize. Attempts to accommodate through-traffic by widening streets can destroy the surrounding value of a neighborhood. When the property values or retail sales are part of the cost–benefit calculation, road-widening starts to look like a dubious investment.

New York’s Greenwich Village reaps the financial rewards of its perpetual vehicle congestion. In a recent analysis, Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University reported that each 10 percent increase in per capita traffic delay was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in the per capita gross domestic product of a region.

This doesn’t mean that cities should strive for congestion but that they should recognize that traffic is often a sign of dynamism. Moving vehicular traffic is obviously a necessary function, but by making it the only goal, cities lose out on the economic potential created by the crowds of people that bring life to a city.

With governments at all levels short on cash, maybe it’s time to broaden the goals for our streets. It’s time to retire the expressway in an urban context. It should be replaced with a system that examines the performance of street networks, including transit where relevant, and considers economic and social value along with vehicle distribution. It should be a system that measures the value and effectiveness of a city’s street network. If departments of transportation and local governments take a closer look, they may find value in congestion. After all, real estate prices seem to confirm that preference, and shouldn’t our infrastructure reflect that and add value to the place where it is built?

John Norquist runs the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism and previously served as Milwaukee’s mayor from 1988-2004. This column was originally published by

Categories: Norquist

16 thoughts on “Norquist: Is Traffic Always Bad?”

  1. Casey says:

    I sure wish I lived in Milwaukee while he was mayor. Thank you for helping MKE start to find it’s way again.

  2. Bill Kissinger says:

    If you live in Milwaukee now in many meaningful ways you live in Norquist’s Milwaukee. He made many positive and enduring contributions to the city and its infrastructure. Eliminating one way streets, placing parking meters where people want to park, tearing down the Park East freeway, rewriting the zoning ordinances, the list goes on. It is a great thing to have a mayor who loves cities.

  3. Todd Spangler says:

    I agree with much of this philosophy but found traffic congestion on the freeways in metro Milwaukee fairly appalling at times. I think traffic congestion in Milwaukee likely has had the net effect of reducing sprawl over the last several decades, but at the same time, traffic jams increase air pollution and restrict the movement throughout the metro area of raw materials for industry, as well as finished goods and consumer products. While my comments in the last two paragraphs would seem to contradict it, I still tend to favor a gradual expansion of the freeway system throughout metro Milwaukee to four lanes. I would argue that the city and downtown in particular are now strong enough and relatively desirable in enough ways that they can withstand some amount of population loss to outlying regions, and that freeway congestion discourages suburbanites from accessing various attractive destinations within the city. Bumping the system to four lanes would improve the flow of commerce, reduce air pollution, increase the quality of life for commuters, and probably improve safety due to less rear-end accidents caused by sudden slowdowns related to traffic jams.

    Out of downtown St. Louis, there are four interstate highways radiating from NW to SW on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, plus one interstate highway bridge carrying traffic over the river into Illinois, soon to be joined by another when the new I-70 bridge is completed next year. Part of the reason the St. Louis downtown deteriorated to a much larger degree than Milwaukee’s did in the latter part of the 20th century was very likely was due to the ease of access to and egress from the downtown core provided by the much more extensive freeway system. The city as a whole has lost a very similar percentage of its population over the last 60 years as Detroit has (856,796 in 1950 to 319,294 in 2010 = -62.7%), the public schools are barely accredited and will almost certainly lose accreditation again at the next opportunity, and parts of northern St. Louis resemble areas in Detroit, reverting to a prairie state due to blocks of abandoned homes being demolished. There is some hope for the future, perhaps, in that some of this reborn prairie has since been turned into farmland, much the same thing that occurred when the area was originally settled 200+ years ago.

    Despite the fortunate position in many ways that Milwaukee is is relative to St. Louis, it’s unfortunate that the opportunity to reduce freeway congestion in Milwaukee through the development of a light rail system was squandered. The one in St. Louis is very good and is a huge asset to the region from my perspective, not that I see many suburbanites using it. So much of the population has been stripped out of the city into the relatively enormous outlying sprawl zone that automobiles are unfortunately the only practical form of transportation over a good portion of these suburban areas. I recognize the greater harm St. Louis suffered relative to Milwaukee in this regard but would also point out that much of the flight to the suburbs in both cities occurred during a period of unique cultural upheaval and change. People are even moving back into downtown St. Louis — I think this likely bodes very well for Milwaukee.

  4. Tim says:

    Todd S. : Milwaukee has some of the lowest traffic congestion in the country. I just want to remind you that the plural of anecdote is not data. Traffic congestion in the Milwaukee metro is rated at #40 in the country & dropping.

    To a certain extent St. Louis has some familiarities with Milwaukee and other med/large cities, I’m not sure how much we can really learn from that loose connection.

    The St. Louis metro does have lots of sprawl, freeways & a relatively struggling central city… coincidence? That does kind of remind me of the Detroit Metro. Now, have you been to a med/large city that doesn’t have a ton of freeways relative to its size?

  5. Todd Spangler says:

    Interesting that Milwaukee ranks that low in traffic congestion — I can only report based on my own experience, conversations with others, traffic reports on the radio, and from what I’ve read. To me, the Zoo Interchange was a major choke point to navigate through commuting from Milwaukee to Sussex, both when I lived on the south side at 27th and Parnell from 2002 – 2006, and in the vicinity of downtown from 2006 – 2009. On the south side, traffic was so bad on I-894 in the mornings headed northbound into the Zoo, I would oftentimes instead take the nearly deserted I-43 southbound at the Hale Interchange, perhaps out of desperation more than anything else, exiting at Moorland and driving north until I was able to get on I-94 westbound towards my eventual destination of Sussex. Traffic was also bad in the evenings headed back through the Zoo Interchange.

    Similarly, when I lived in the vicinity of downtown later on, I often took Silver Spring all the way home in the afternoons from Sussex through the city to connect with I-43 southbound in order to avoid the mess of the Zoo Interchange. I know traffic still backs up to a relatively enormous degree daily in the afternoons southbound into the Zoo because I still hear it on the traffic reports when I listen to Milwaukee radio via the internet. In general, other than the badly congested sprawl zone on I-270 in western St. Louis County, where the Missouri DOT keeps misguidedly (IMO) adding lanes, I just don’t see the same sort of congestion in metro St. Louis that I saw in Milwaukee, regardless of what the statistics say. There is extreme congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge carrying the traffic from I-44, I-55, I-64, and I-70 across the Mississippi, but the new I-70 bridge will help alleviate that and is a badly needed improvement in my opinion.

    I’m familiar with the Minneapolis area also — my sense in having spent some amount of time up there is that, if anything, the sprawl is worse than it is in St. Louis, traffic is worse than either Milwaukee or St. Louis, and that much of this is due to the overbuilding of freeways in that metro area relative to either of these other two. However, it still wasn’t anywhere near the level of congestion that I experienced living in the Phoenix area in 1987-88. That area had experienced such enormous recent growth even at that time that the freeway system, such as it existed then, was pathetically inadequate and so congested so as to be virtually unusable, and the main arterial streets were similarly clogged. In that case, in commuting a relatively short distance from Mesa to Tempe in the west valley, I resorted to driving through various small neighborhood streets to avoid the arterials, through which the traffic barely flowed at all. The Phoenix metro area had voted in a regional sales tax a year or two before I moved there to help address this issue and create a more modern and extensive freeway system. My guess is that traffic is still relatively bad but likely better than it was 25 years ago. Obviously, that area has an absolutely enormous amount of sprawl, as well, which is one of the many reasons that I don’t happen to live there.

  6. Andy says:

    Local “congestion” may be a good thing in certain areas on surface streets and in neighborhoods, but that 1. does not mean gridlock is a good thing and 2. bears little weight on the argument that we should tear down all freeways in the city.

    Lets also recognize that congestion does not create a desirable place to be/visit… congestions is a consequence/reaction to a place being attractive to visit/be. If we remove all the freeways in detroit, I doubt people will suddenly flock to the city. (In fact, many of the few good things going on there right now would surely fail)

    Milwaukee is lucky in that many commuters don’t deal with the commute times of Chicago, Atlanta, etc… but it doesn’t mean our system is perfect. 45 south from Good Hope to the Zoo is normally a 9-10 min drive, but during rush hour can be 20-25+ minutes. It’s an anecdotal outlier that the data doesn’t show when we look at the totals, but clearly that is an area that needs addressing to keep commerce running through *and* to our city.

    This doesn’t mean I’m anti mass transit. I would love light rail, I support the street car, and a HUGE supporter of more safe resources for bike travel. But I’m also a realist in where we stand now and how much we rely on the car.

  7. Casey says:

    I agree that congested hwys are bad for commerce. So how do we free them up? Why don’t we look at what they were originally meant for- moving goods and supplies- not commuters. Perhaps a toll on private vehichles using the hwys would deter some from using them as much so goods can travel more fluid?

  8. Andy says:

    It would be inaccurate to assume prviate vehicles do not constitude commerce. Workers moving into and out of the city are just as important. Plus the interstate system was not merely for movement of goods, it was also designed to relive the congestion and increase the safety of an increasing number of automobiles on the road.

    Lets face it, some people just don’t like living in the city as much as we do, if it takes too long for them to get into the city, they may be more likely to look for employers in the ‘burbs where they are. I don’t think that would be very beneficial to Milwaukee. Although ultimately it’s a ratio of cost/benefit for people to come into the city. If the benefits outweigh the cost (ie, reasons for coming in outweigh the time to get there for example) then we’re good… if that ratio changes… then we will have to accept the consequences.

  9. jeff martinka says:

    Interesting column! It provides some very useful perspective.

    Thanks for publishing it, Urban MKE

  10. Tom D says:

    People shouldn’t think that 8-lane (4 each way) expressways are normal or a good thing. Solving highway congestion with more lanes is like solving obesity with bigger pants. And just as bigger pants encourage you to eat more (lots of extra room in those new pants you’re “growing into”), wider roads encourage more driving.

    There seems to be a feeling that every other big city has 8-lane expressways, but that’s not true. As far as I know (and I live in the area), New York City proper has no 8-lane or wider expressway (except on a handful of major bridges over water).

    Most big cities get a lot of “through traffic”. For example, St Louis gets Indianapolis-Kansas City traffic and Chicago deals with cross-country drivers. Milwaukee, by contrast, has very little “through traffic”; except for vehicles to and from the Fox Valley, almost nobody drives through Milwaukee just to “pass through”; almost all of Milwaukee’s traffic is locally-generated and could be reduced by improving transit.

    One possibility would be to designate any added 4th expressway lane as a “HOT” (“High Occupancy/Toll”) lane where single-occupant vehicles would pay a toll. (The original three lanes would remain free and presumably more crowded and slower.) Minneapolis does this today.

    The HOT toll revenue should go toward:
    * the cost of collecting the tolls
    * paying off the bonds used to build the new lane
    * subsidizing parallel transit service

    You can read more about HOT lanes (in general) here:

    Read more about Minnesota’s HOT lane experience here:

  11. Bill Kissinger says:

    Having spent most of my life in Milwaukee, but the past 10 years in Chicago I have learned one thing about congested freeways. They are a strong inducement to use public transportation. After my first year of misery dealing with the unpredictable traffic on the Eisenhower freeway, I ditched my car and started to take the Green Line el. My daily commute went from wholly random, to a very predictable 20 minute train ride.
    As an added benefit, I get to read instead of staring through the windshield for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour each way. The people watching is always interesting and occasionally, I find myself in an unexpected conversation.
    The answer to congested freeways isn’t exclusively more lanes, it includes reliable, clean, safe public transit on fixed rails, buses, bike routes and a robust cab trade.

  12. Andy says:

    HOT lanes are a great option. I’m not a big fan of trying to add lanes to 94 for example… and that’d be a good way to get more people carpooling and driving more efficient cars, plus make the freeway fliers more reliable.

    Not only that, but some areas of our freeway system have some fatal flaws. In my forementioned Hwy45 example, the sharp curves when the freeway crosses HWY100 is a major area of congestion for the mere sake that people instictively hit the brakes around the bend… and then that leads to big backups for no good reason. Couple that with areas like the watertown plank and bluemound entrances where people want to get over quick to go I-94 eastbound and you have a recipe for daily issues.

    So while added lanes could be a solution in some cases, other times it’s not. It all depends on the situation and what the cost/benefit analysis bears out as the best solution.

  13. Tim says:

    As far as I can tell, there is no one against improving the safety and maintenance of the Milwaukee freeways system. No one.

    Yes, get rid of the left hand ramps, cloverleafs, abrupt lane merges & low visibibility/tight turns.

    Most criticism is saying ‘Just don’t waste the money on blindly widening the freeways”. Widening is expensive work with ~25% of the DOT budget coming from borrowing the cash. That’s not responsible & it’s not even going to improve the commute in the Milwaukee area for more than a couple years.

    We have to ask if we can spend that money better or maybe just don’t spend it at all. The option to not spend the money for widening isn’t even on the table, think about that.

  14. Andy says:

    Tim, there was quite a bit of opposition (including myself) to adding more lanes going south to the IL border in the I-94 construction. So I’m not sure how you can say that the discussion of not adding lanes isn’t even on the table.

    I can think back to other examples too… when the marquette interchange was built people balked at the price so the discussion was had (and ultimately decided upon) to reduce the number of lanes on the ramps… and look how that turned out in the end.

    Win some, lose some… but you can’t say it isn’t ever discussed.

  15. Tim says:

    Andy, people like you and me are having the conversation about less lanes but the DOT is not.

    Have you been to any of their sessions where they “gather input”. They have some figureheads listen to complaints/suggestions and the complaints/suggestions go into the big circular file labeled trash.

    It is theatre.

    Alternatives are not being considered.

    Please tell me how the marquette was changed, as far as I can tell they built everything to handle 4 lanes in most directions. The problem is how they integrated that with the existing 3 lane freeway. They screwed up the transition and went to their unlimited budget to fix it.

  16. Rich says:

    Ended up here after reading a different Norquist article and it’s notable how little things have changed from five year old comments. WI DOT predicated the designs of both the Marquette and the Zooon having a four lane E-W link between them and were paying the price again. The new Zoo is set up to very efficiently deliver five eastbound lanes plus an on ramp worth of traffic into a lane drop on a blind downhill curve at 69th St and it piles up like nuts.

    DOT was forced to go back and fix westbound Marquette integration into 27th St s-curves then and is in the process of similar work on 894 SB; waiting to see if the same gets applied on EB 94 too

    As for congestion in general, everyone obviously has their own personal calculus, but I’d wager that its consistency that matters most. MKE doesn’t have “bad” traffic in any study that considers the whole day, but, per capita and — most importantly — when “I” need it, it’s a highly variable, poorly functioning system where travel times can double in a heartbeat, like Brewers or Bucks games

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us