Dial-Up Interstates

Slow-speed highways, high-speed Internet show how we can tackle traffic problems

When it comes to internet connections we are quick to appreciate the importance of speed. Whether we’re shopping, job hunting, or doing just about anything else, we recognize that our opportunities expand when broadband connections let us zip around this global network quickly. We’d never want to return to dial-up now, but that’s what we’re doing with another network – our roadway system.

Fifty years ago today President Eisenhower signed legislation that created the Interstate Highway System. Many years prior a young Ike endured a long lesson on the importance of mobility when he participated in coast-to-coast military convoy. Much of the trip was a struggle, as the group slogged through muddy roads and faced down bridgeless rivers. The convoy inched across America at an average speed of 6 mph, needing 62 days to reach the West coast.

The interstate system sped up travel and connected previously isolated pockets of America to the rest of the nation. Traffic congestion, already a growing problem, was beaten back significantly and new opportunities abounded. Businesses enjoyed larger consumer markets and bigger labor pools. Customers welcomed the greater variety and lower prices that expanded competition offered.

It was something akin to the evolution of the internet. In the days when we called the it “cyberspace,” users enthused about the network’s potential but wailed in frustration as their screeching dial-up modems struggled to load even graphics-free sites. But broadband was just around the corner, and when speed and connectivity improved, opportunity exploded.

Though they developed along parallel routes for some time, the transportation and online networks are now headed in opposite directions. Online performance continues to improve, but on the road conditions are sliding backward. Just as server capacity must grow to ensure fast and efficient virtual travel, so must physical capacity grow to keep up with growing demand for travel across physical space. But capacity hasn’t expanded much. The interstate system was mostly complete by 1980 and since then driving has nearly doubled but our roadway system has grown by only about 4 percent. Our leaders have even avoided relatively cheap fixes, like optimizing traffic signals.

Traffic congestion was once a minor irritant, but it’s been allowed to fester for decades, and now more people are complaining. According to recent surveys, congestion is residents’ biggest gripe in places like Austin, Atlanta, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Diego, and San Francisco. Another recent survey asked Silicon Valley CEOs about their business-related gripes. In the span of a single year, congestion moved from the number nine spot to number two.

The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that each year, congestion drains more than $63 billion from the U.S. economy from wasted time and gas. The U.S. Department of Transportation sees an even bigger drain, pegging congestion costs from freight bottlenecks and delayed deliveries at $200 billion per year. Yet it can be tough to pinpoint the true cost of congestion because a complete analysis would have to account for factors that are hard to quantify – from gridlock-induced stress to opportunities lost.

Since customers and employees have limits on how long they will travel, consumer markets and labor pools shrink when congestion grows. Likewise, employees often settle for less interesting and lower paying jobs because simply getting to work (or even an interview) is such a chore. Alternatively, researchers often find that improved mobility helps the poor climb up the economic ladder, and what’s true for individuals is also true for entire cities.

A study published by the Transportation Research Board examined the economies of Philadelphia and Chicago and considered the impact of a 10 percent increase in travel speeds. The researchers estimate that each year this improvement would save Philadelphia businesses $440 million and Chicago businesses $1.3 billion. Certainly predicting the future is tricky business, but a French-Korean research team also discovered a mobility-prosperity link when they looked at the real-world effects of mobility on 22 French cities. In France a 10 percent increase in average speeds was associated with a 15 percent expansion of the labor market and a 3 percent increase in productivity.

Sadly, all but a few state and local governments have surrendered and aren’t even attempting to cut congestion. How times have changed. Eisenhower and earlier champions of the interstate system like Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt weren’t cowed by congestion. They knew it was possible to improve mobility, and if we could resuscitate that optimism we could beat congestion back with a market-based approach that would avoid the missteps of the 1956 legislation.

The interstate program tackled a key issue, but in the process it shoved an important player, the entrepreneur, to the sidelines. Today Americans expect roads to be governments’ domain, but that’s not always the case elsewhere. For example, France’s tolled motorway system (the equivalent of our interstate system) is investor owned, but in America nearly all aspects of transportation policy suffer because they have been separated from the market.

Where and when roads get built is usually determined by arcane funding formulas that often weigh congressional tenure more than actual need. But investors rarely fund bridges to nowhere; instead they figure out where projects make sense by responding to consumer demand.

The interstate program’s reliance on user taxes (mainly fuel taxes) has also made motorists skeptical of a central characteristic of private roads – tolls. And this aversion to market-based traffic management has much to do with our current congestion woes. If motorists paid each time they used a road (instead of all at once at the pump) they would think twice before piling onto roads at rush-hour. New technology that wasn’t available in the 50s has made tolling more sophisticated, and on Southern California’s 91 Express Lanes, it’s actually abolished gridlock.

Special toll lanes run parallel to regular highway lanes and motorists can avoid congestion by paying a toll that goes up and down with the flow of traffic. This method, called variable pricing, ensures that traffic always scoots along at 65 mph. Since tolls are collected electronically there’s no need to stop at tollbooths and this arrangement can even bring speedy transportation to the transit dependent poor.

Certainly much more can be done. We could legalize competition in transit services (PDF), clear accidents faster, and embrace telecommuting. It is possible to enjoy “broadband” speeds on our transportation network, but if the political dawdling goes on, we’ll continue to be dragged back toward dial-up conditions.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst and the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield). An archive of Balaker’s work is here, and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.