Breaking from my usual reporting, I’m fusing together two of my passions – traffic and politics – in order to ask you to stop heckling your lawmakers over terrible traffic.
Don’t worry, you can continue complaining to them about everything else.
It happens every day: you’re sitting in traffic on your way to work, school, or maybe you’re just trying to get some coffee. From Texas to Maine, California to New York, snarled, gridlocked, or otherwise awful congestion has been a problem for decades. Tempers run high, drivers become aggressive, and major cities convert from entertainment havens and productivity centers to parking lots at the morning and evening rush hours.
“Why don’t you fix it?” ask the American people, pleadingly. Well, traffic presents a not-so-easy-to-solve problem for lawmakers.
Take Austin or Los Angeles, for example, easily among the nation’s worst: $1.6 billion was spent on expanding the 405 freeway in L.A. just a few years ago, and, yet, traffic hasn’t changed. Austin has gotten so bad that it recently released its traffic data to the public in the hopes that hackers, programmers, or maybe an average Joe can solve the city’s traffic matrix.
The cold-hard truth: traffic will never get fixed unless you’re willing to pay tolls to use roads, or willing to bulldoze hundreds of buildings alongside your morning commute.
What engineers, as well as social scientists, have found is a concept of induced demand, which is “economist” for a situation in which creating more of something leads to even higher usage.
This phenomenon explains why turning I-10 into four lanes from two lanes or expanding the famous I-85 from “The Walking Dead” won’t solve the current problem. More lanes and more roads mean more cars because people now desire to travel on that path more so than before. So, in fact, expansionist roadway policy preserves the existing situation.
Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania, two economists, decided to examine kilometers driven and roadway building in major cities across the U.S. during a twenty year period (1980-2000).
What they found confirms the above idea of induced demand, uncovering a proportional relationship in which a city expands its existing road network by some percentage, and the miles traveled by drivers also increases.
Additionally, what they found in their paper is far from any universal truth, as adding ten lanes onto a highway or adding four new, large roads between two destinations are destined to alleviate traffic. What they are quantifying is relatively small changes, such as expanding a two-lane interstate to a three-lane, and so on, that the state and federal departments of transportation (DOTs) would be proposing and executing.
In their final words, they concluded, “road capacity expansions and extensions to public transit are not appropriate policies with which to combat traffic congestion. This leaves congestion pricing as the main candidate tool to curb traffic congestion.”
Despite some anomalies in the law of induced demand, many engineers still hold it to be true. I would, however, direct you to Randal O’Toole’s rebuttal here if you are interested in his take on the conclusions of the UPenn and UTorronto economists.
Who Would Pay For Something That Was Free?
While countries like Singapore and England have successfully curtailed traffic by imposing high usage tolls, whereby drivers are charged for driving during rush hour traffic, tolls are something for which most voters aren’t willing to pay.
In an executive summary by Robert Poole, he said, “Federal efforts dating back to the 1970s to induce one or more urban areas to price its freeways have all been unsuccessful, which reinforces the political scientists’ skepticism.”
Furthermore, he claimed that freeway pricing was and is considered politically impossible by political scientists, citing taxpayer, voter, and highway user group opposition. Still, many researchers believe pricing to be the only way through the problem.
A recent report by RAND found that one of the most efficient ways to decrease traffic congestion is congestion pricing. This report came after the organization looked at Los Angeles and how that city’s problem will only get worse in the coming years unless new policies are developed and implemented fully. In support of that argument, we can look at London and Stockholm. In London, charged zones caused the number of cars on the road to decrease by a significant margin. Moreover, the Stockholm congestion charging scheme also reduced the number of vehicles.
Sometimes it may feel like we’re alone in our misery while sitting in traffic, but if you think the U.S. has bad jams, U.S. drivers are only stuck in traffic, on average, for 42 hours compared to the nine working days the Chinese spend stuck. When it comes to the king of hours wasted in traffic congestion, however, that crown goes solely to Los Angeles.
Los Angelenos spend a staggering 104 hours in traffic per year, costing the average driver over $2,000, traffic data company INRIX reported. In fact, many U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Stamford, Baton Rouge, among others, made the top hundred list of INRIX, helping contribute to the eight billion hours Americans waste in traffic per year. What’s interesting, though, is that Los Angeles is 75% congested at peak travel times, which is only on par with China’s eleventh worst congested city, Shenyang.
Dog Days of Summer
There is one fundamental problem: just like the energy grid in the summers of Texas (everyone runs their AC units all day), you experience over-usage several times during a cycle (rush hour) and yet none at all during most other times.
Trying to alleviate rush-hour traffic by substantially widening roads to Chinese mega-sized proportions would perpetuate great under-usage during most periods of the day just to handle peak hours; it doesn’t make sense economically, governmentally, or transportation-wise. The same would go for doubling Texas’ energy infrastructure (power plants, generators, energy stations) just to deal with peak usage during a few, hundred-plus-degree days.
“It’s a Part of Life”
So, unless we want to spend billions of dollars to promote massive transportation projects or spend our money to pay excessive tolls, traffic is just another part of life. It’s the price we pay to be able to spend time with our family, friends, and the charge we incur to participate in education and the workforce.
Perhaps if we broke the synchronicity of that system and staggered work times, school schedules, and meals like the Senate staggers its elections, we’d all spend a little less time in traffic. But, truthfully, does anyone really want that?
Lay off your lawmakers about the traffic on Main Street until you walk a mile in their shoes on their district’s gridlocked highway. The problem is much more complex than what it initially appears.
Sorry that I can’t write more; I’ve got to go – lots of traffic where I’m heading!