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The Real Lesson From "Carmageddon"

Samuel Staley
July 22, 2011, 3:06pm

The much ballyhooed closure of the I-405 over the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles ignited a national discussion and debate over cars, infrastructure, and funding. (See, for example, the New York Times "debate" hosted on Room for Debate here.) Of course, now Carmageddon reminds many of like the Y2K scare: Much ado about nothing.

Not surprisingly perhaps, some have begun to wonder if the "success" of getting Angelinos to abandon their cars for the weekend might be translated into broader policies that permanently reduce driving. Steve Lafleur, a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, cautions against this reaction. The real lessons are two fold. First, people will adjust their behavior over the short term when faced with extraordinary circumstances. Second, and perhaps more importantly, people respond to incentives. In a piece written for the Frontier Center and reprinted at newgeography.com, Lafleur writes: 

"The most important lesson, though, is that people respond to incentives. Since the city obviously doesn’t want people to “stay the Hell away” forever, they’re going to have to come up with another way to use incentives if they want to tackle gridlock. LA drivers spend over half a billion hours per year stuck in excess traffic delays, which costs the economy roughly $12 billion dollars. Adding more freeway lanes seems like an obvious solution, except for the fact that it doesn’t work. Studies have shown that every percentage increase in roads leads to an equal percentage increase in driving. In other words, more roads mean more driving. There are certainly exceptions to this, since the optimal level of roads isn’t zero, but it does illustrate the fact that we can’t just build our way out of traffic congestion. Instead, we need to introduce strong incentives other than fear to reduce congestion. That incentive is congestion pricing."


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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