Can traffic congestion be cured?

I went to a lecture last night be Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution. His main insight that I am still dwelling on is that traffic congestion is an inevitable outcome of the way we have organized our urban societies. And as long as we have successful and vibrant cities, there will always be congestion – at least, as long as we value democratic governance and individual liberties. Here’s a column I plucked off the Brookings site that gives the gist of the argument:

Can Traffic Congestion Be Cured?

The Washington Post, June 30, 2006

Anthony Downs, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program

The Bush Administration recently launched a new “National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network.” This new policy deals with both air and ground travel, but focuses mainly on highway traffic congestion. But does this strategy show an understanding of what really causes traffic congestion and what might be done effectively in response? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), “congestion results from poor policy choices, and a failure to separate and embrace solutions that are effective from those that are not.” This is inaccurate. Traffic congestion is a worldwide problem with four primary causes:

First, congestion exists because societies organize economies so most people will work during the same hours each day. This makes interaction among firms and agencies possible, thereby increasing society’s productivity, and raising overall efficiency. But it also requires most workers and students to travel to and from their places of activity at the same times. This overloads ground transportation systems during the morning and evening peaks, and often longer. No large metropolitan areas have enough infrastructure to transport everyone who wants to move during peak hours simultaneously; nor do they have enough resources to build it. Hence some travelers must wait until others have moved. That waiting constitutes traffic congestion.

Second, rising incomes intensify congestion by permitting more households to purchase vehicles and buy homes—mainly in suburban areas. That encourages a shift to private vehicles from public transit, walking, or bicycles. This trend is occurring worldwide, including in Europe and Asia.

A third cause is population growth. When metropolitan growth is accompanied by rising prosperity, more households buy more cars, and roads become more congested. This is what is occurring in China today.

The final cause consists of incidents and accidents. They result from high volumes of traffic generated by the first three causes.

So, contrary to the USDOT’s assertions, traffic congestion is not caused by poor policy choices but rather, by economic success. That is why traffic in high-tech areas fell sharply when the “internet bubble” burst in 2000. Moreover, since the U.S. population will continue to increase, and we hope it will remain efficient and with rising incomes, congestion will remain a fact of life for most Americans.

Can anything be done to counteract traffic congestion? Sort of. Some policies might make it less intense than it would otherwise become.

The National Strategy suggests using high tolls during peak hours and tolled traffic zones (as in London), so as to force more drivers to pay the true costs of moving during peak hours. But the London system is unworkable in the U.S. outside of a few places like Manhattan. Plus, putting high enough tolls on enough major roads to reduce their usage is not politically acceptable to most Americans. It would force millions of lower-income drivers off roads during the most convenient times.

However, if the tolls were confined to only some of the lanes on each road—so-called HOT lanes—and they were newly added lanes, it would permit most drivers to travel free during peak hours but also provide a choice of moving faster.

Other tactics mentioned in the National Strategy, such as roving teams to move accidents off highway lanes, providing more current road information to drivers, more lanes in key bottlenecks, and synchronization of traffic signals, would help. So would ramp metering on entrances to expressways and traffic management centers.

But the belief that these fixes will reduce existing congestion significantly is a delusion. As long as we operate our economy efficiently, continue raising our incomes, and add 30 million people—and 30 million vehicles—to our metropolitan regions each decade, we will have rising congestion.

And maybe that’s ok.

Congestion should be considered the price Americans and others around the world pay to achieve and sustain high-level economic efficiency and to provide millions of households with varied choices of where to live and work and the means to move between them.

That price has indeed been rising over time, causing greater personal inconvenience and higher business costs. But our prosperity and growth have also been increasing. We may not like paying this price for greater prosperity, growth, and choices of where to live and work. But until we are willing to reduce those benefits, we will continue to have rising congestion.

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