Too Many Short Trips
Urban Crossroads #110

                                                                          Traffic congestion in Amman. (Source: Jordan Times)

A simple and effective way of quantifying traffic congestion is by assessing the number and length of car trips that people make. Each time a trip is taken, a vehicle occupies space on the road, thus contributing to traffic congestion. The longer the trip, the longer is the vehicle on the road, and the bigger is its contribution to traffic congestion.

Encouraging people to limit the number of trips they take in their cars clearly will alleviate this problem. The fewer the trips, the fewer the cars on the road. The more people walk, use public transportation, or telecommute, the less they need to use their cars.

I had devoted a number of previous articles to improving pedestrian accessibility and public transportation in the city. For this article, I will discuss solutions that limit the number of trips we take in our cars. For example, if we can carry out a task online, i.e. via the Internet, rather than having to physically go somewhere to do so, we are contributing to relieving traffic congestion. If items are delivered to us (food, groceries, mail, ...) rather than we driving to get them, that relieves traffic congestion. For example, having one vehicle make a trip to deliver pizzas from a restaurant to twenty addresses will contribute far less to traffic congestion than having someone from each of those twenty addresses drive to the restaurant and back to get the pizzas.

To carry on this line of thinking, consider the many little trips we make in Amman on a daily basis to carry out various tasks, many of which could and should be accomplished without us having to leave our homes or travel long distances. Here are a few of them:

Think of the times you need to use a post office. Mail is not delivered to homes in Jordan. We therefore need to go to the post office to get our mail. We also have to go to the post office to send mail (we don't have mail collection boxes on the streets) or to use services that post offices in Jordan provide such as accepting payments for telephone or utility bills. Post office facilities in Jordan are relatively few and far in between, which means many of us need to drive to reach them.

A good number of bank transactions may easily be carried out online, as with making a transfer or paying a bill. Still, this online option very often is unavailable, and we find ourselves having to go to the bank to complete many transactions.

Even if you wish to contribute to recycling your home waste - which all of us should do - there is nobody to pick up your recyclable paper and plastic waste. Instead, you will need to put these recyclable materials in your car and drive to one of the rare (and infrequently emptied) paper or plastic collection stations found in the city. Considering that most of the volume of our waste consists of paper and plastic products, these items take a lot of space, and transporting them involves considerable effort (in fact, it is truly remarkable how little waste we produce when we take our plastic and paper waste out of our general waste, but that is another subject).

I recently collected the yearly stock dividends for me and my children. Since many joint stock companies will not readily transfer dividends to the bank accounts of share holders, one has to physically collect them from the companies' offices or from the banks they designate. I ended up having to go to four banks, and then to my own bank to deposit the dividends. All in all, I spent about four hours doing so, a good part of which was spent driving. While it is always nice to collect money, no matter how small the amount, this remains an example not only of time and energy wasted, but also of needlessly adding one more car to Amman's congested streets.

Finally, I think of all the local printed materials that have been hand-delivered to me (rather than sent by mail) over the years: invitations, publications, and letters. Again, I think of the time and energy wasted in making those deliveries, and how they contribute to increasing traffic congestion in Amman.

Each one of those different trips may be insignificant on its own when it comes to traffic congestion. Together, however, they add up and have a considerable impact on traffic in the city. There are so many of those trips we shouldn't have to make. We therefore should examine them more carefully, and look into ways of allowing people to do without them.

Most of Amman's major streets are functioning far above their capacity and no longer can handle the amount of vehicles that move through them or park along their sides. Planners and decision-makers in cities around the world have come to the realization that the solution for such a problem does not lie in building new roads and expanding existing ones. Such interventions only invite additional traffic and make traffic congestion far more difficult to solve in the future. The solution lies in taking cars off the street. To achieve this, there is a need to give people attractive alternatives to using their cars. Many such alternatives do exist. We need to be resourceful and determined in identifying and implementing them. Otherwise, we will experience increased deterioration in the overall quality of urban life in Amman.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 04, 2010