Do Highways Cause Traffic Congestion?

The slow road to economic ruin

Highways, like urban sprawl, are now blamed for just about everything—inner city decline, expensive housing, obesity, urban sprawl, the decline of mass transit, and air pollution. In an amazing intellectual twist, the Interstate Highway System is even being blamed for traffic congestion!

“The Interstate is not longer about just freedom,” wrote Robert Sullivan recently in the New York Times magazine. “In 2006, with congestion rising and traffic delays up nationwide, it also symbolizes a kind of commercial and personal strangulation.”

But, have no fear, the U.S. is wisening up. Carol Murray, the New Hampshire commissioner of transportation, told Sullivan that the state couldn’t design roads that keep traffic from backing up on the fourth of July. “No,” she said, “but if you’re stuck in traffic, you’re going to have something to look at besides pavement”.

A trend dubbed by Sullivan as the “slow-road movement” is making its way into transportation planning circles. I’ll call it the Congestion Coalition. Roads are being redesigned to slow traffic down and “invite” people to get out of their cars. Engineers are being “retrained” to understand that highway building isn’t “just about congestion”.

To be sure, the White and Green Mountains are among the most beautiful in the nation. And if I’m stuck in traffic, I would much rather watch the birds and deer in rural New Hampshire or Vermont than the back-end of a semi on the 405 in Los Angeles.

Of course, that’s not the choice the 40 million Americans currently stuck in traffic face. At some point, Ms. Murray, Mr. Sullivan and other members of the Congestion Coalition need a reality check. And here it is.

In 1982, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University estimated that just one metropolitan area had congestion severe enough that the typical traveler wasted an entire work week “stuck in traffic”. Those were the unfortunate denizens of Los Angeles. By 2003, travelers in 25 urban areas experienced that fate, including Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, Phoenix, Orlanda, Denver, Tampa, and Minneapolis-St.Paul. These urban areas include 98 million Americans, or one third of the population of the United States. Vermont and New Hampshire don’t make the list.

More importantly, the trends are going the wrong way! Only a handful of regions have reduced congestions impacts, and most of the improvements have been modest. The biggest improver, ironically, was Los Angeles. Angalenos found their average hours of delay per traveler fell from 98 hours in 2002 to 93 hours in 2003, but they still found themselves wasting more than two work weeks in congestion!

If this doesn’t qualify as a public policy crisis, I’m not sure what does.

Is there a way out? How did we get from one urban area wasting an entire work week stuck in traffic to 25 in just 20 years?

The answer is simpler than you might think: We stopped building roads. Or, more accurately, we let travel demand outstrip road building by 2 to 1. That’s a recipe for higher congestion, and it’s quickly erasing the quality of life and economic benefits generated by the interstate highway system in the 1960s and 1970s.

So, here’s the simple solution: Build roads. That’s counter to the conventional wisdom of Sullivan and Congestion Coalition, but it makes eminent sense from an objective look at the data.

Solving America’s congestion crisis, however, cannot be just about laying more asphalt. Paving over the American landscape is not the solution, nor is building sprawling roads ten, twelve, or fourteen lanes wide. We need the right kinds of roads in the right place.

Fortunately, innovations in highway design have made it easier than ever to make these decisions. We can measure traffic density and the demand for new roads. Electronic tolling allows private companies to borrow money to finance many new facilities without relying on taxes. This means consumer demand, not politics, can determine what kind of roads will go where, at what time, and at what cost. In France and Australia, private tunneling projects have relieved congestion while preserving neighborhoods and the landscape.

The U.S. economy depends on a transportation system that improves mobility, not reduces it. If policymakers succumb to the “slow-road movement”, mobility, our economy, and our quality of life will suffer. Tackling traffic congestion is an eminently solvable problem. We just need to get politics out of the way of rational solutions.

Samuel Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban growth and land use policy at Reason Foundation. Staley is director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation and co-author with Ted Balaker of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). An archive of his work is here and Reason Foundation’s transportation research and commentary is here.