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After a long warm summer, it was a bit drizzly for two days this week. And immediately we had two record traffic jams. On Tuesday we saw the worst morning rush hour and on Thursday the heaviest evening rush hour of the year.

After years of investments in asphalt, viaducts, public transport, cycling plans and so on, will we ever get rid of the traffic jam? No, we won’t. Apparently, we don’t think it’s bad enough as it is. The traffic jam of today consists of people complaining about the traffic jam. And it will get worse. That’s because if in due course the car takes over the driving, you can do something else in the traffic jam. Then you solve the traffic problem not by solving the traffic jam but by solving the problem. But still, that will even aggravate the traffic jam, because people will show less traffic jam-avoiding behaviour. Moreover, they will be even less inclined to take public transport because the advantage that you can work there while travelling will disappear.

“Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity”

The traditional call for more asphalt and more public transport was all around this time again. I lose the belief that either of these options will yield something. The possibilities are being exhausted and it increasingly delivers far too little economic and social value in exchange for the further degradation of the environment and other misery. Both the Central Planning Bureau CPB and the Council of Environment and Infrastructure RLI recently called for that reason to stop building more roads and railways. As an urban planner, Lewis Mumford aptly said in 1955: “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity”.

There are often complaints about the economic damage of congestion, about 2-3 billion per year for the Netherlands. But the really hard economic costs, those of the transport sector, are only just over 1 billion. To put that into perspective, the social costs of accidents are 15 billion a year, not to mention the enormous emotional damage. Perhaps we should try to complain less about traffic jams and solve that problem first.

Our region often complains about the fact that much more is being invested in infrastructure in the Randstad than near us, but it could be a blessing in the long run. Because before you know it, our landscape will be just as ugly here as it is there already in many places. We will have to achieve a shift towards more cautious and smarter investment in new infrastructure. Just as the region plans to strengthen the Veghel-Asten-Eindhoven triangle, with the aim of reducing traffic pressure within it.

Many drivers do not seem to pick up on the relatively easy options.

And I foresee that sooner or later we will start charging for road use, if only because the expected breakthrough of electric vehicles will not result in the collection of enough tax money to pay for the infrastructure. And if we do that anyway, we can hopefully also start charging a bit variable.

Many drivers do not seem to be able to take up the relatively easy options. Examples include making working hours more flexible, planning your meetings a bit smarter, making better use of traffic information or using e-bikes. A small financial incentive is already doing a lot, especially in our trading nation. But even without this incentive, the alternatives are available to many.

Returning to the metaphor of the fat man and his belt. If broadening the belt does not have the desired effect, would narrowing it be an option? It seems that people who want to lose weight buy a slightly too tight belt for some extra motivation for a healthier life. Imagine: less asphalt to solve the traffic jam. Then tomorrow will really be good.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. The six columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So that Tomorrow will be Good. Here all previous episodes.

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