Making Gridlock a Priority

We can beat congestion with the right tools

The holiday season drives home the fact that Boston ranks among the nation’s most congested cities. From mid-November to New Year’s Day, traffic increases and horns blast as frustrated drivers sit in prolonged rush hours trying to get to work and the mall.

Nothing like gridlock to sap the holiday spirit right out of people. Unfortunately, this is just a harbinger of the day-to-day future that awaits Boston.

The Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization plans to spend $48 billion on transportation over the next 25 years – $4.5 billion of it on highway improvements and $43 billion on mass transit. Yet, it admits you will be stuck in worse traffic and crawl along at slower travel speeds even after they spend all that money.

Cities across the country are surrendering to the same mantra: “We can’t build our way out of congestion. We tried, but it can’t be done.” The mantra is wrong.

We haven’t tried to build our way out of congestion in Boston or most other cities in the United States. Far from it. Over the last 30 years, urban vehicle miles traveled increased by over 168 percent nationwide, more than three times faster than urban road capacity. In and around Boston, travel on urban freeways has outstripped new capacity by four to one.

Boston, like other cities, hasn’t made eliminating traffic congestion a top priority. Most transportation dollars in Boston will be going to mass transit even though it handles just 6.5 percent of all trips. By spending $43 billion on mass transit, the Boston Region MPO hopes its share of trips will rise a miniscule 1.3 percent, to 7.8 percent.

While mass transit has a bigger role to play in Boston compared with other large cities, highway capacity can’t be short changed if increasing mobility and reducing traffic congestion are honest goals of regional planning. Today, Boston’s drivers experience delays that add about 34 percent to the length of a rush-hour trip – which is actually not bad compared with other large cities like Chicago or San Francisco. By 2030, though, David Hartgen, a transportation professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, finds a rush-hour trip in Boston will take 62 percent longer than it should. That means what is supposed to be a 30-minute trip will take you over 48 minutes.

Boston-area residents will be driving more than 10 million more miles on the region’s roads, and making at least 1 million more trips. Throw in increased business traffic and trucks hauling an ever-increasing amount of freight and you’ve got whole new levels of gridlock.

The only real solution to Boston’s traffic congestion will be prioritizing projects that increase travel speeds and improve mobility for everyone in the region. That means a major part of the plan must include building more highway capacity. But that doesn’t mean more of the same – big, taxpayer-funded freeways. Simply laying more concrete and asphalt is not the solution. Boston must be smart about building new capacity and embrace cutting-edge technologies, strategies, and financing tools.

The Big Dig fiasco has undoubtedly made future mega-projects much more difficult. But the Big Dig has to be seen for what it is: an avoidable anomaly. Dozens of other cities have successfully used the private sector to build major tunnels, elevated highways, and large-scale transportation facilities, often bringing their projects in on time and under budget. Boston’s leery taxpayers can avoid future debacles by demanding that highway projects be built using private-sector money so that private companies assume most of the financial risks.

And that brings us back to priorities. Private companies will finance roads only when traffic demand will allow them to get a return on their investment through tolls. They won’t spend $43 billion on projects that serve only a tiny number of riders. That’s the market accountability that makes sure the right infrastructure is built in the right place at the right time.

Today, variably-priced automated toll lanes keep traffic moving at the maximum speed limit on one of Los Angeles’s busiest freeways. The tolled lanes aren’t congested now, and still won’t be jammed in the year 2025, because the price fluctuates to ensure constant usage at free-flowing speeds.

There are other cost-effective ways to combat traffic, including innovative interchange designs, better traffic signal optimization, turning more roads into one-way streets, and using traffic cameras to boost accident and emergency response times. But these strategies are effective only if the physical capacity exists to redistribute travel demand to less jammed parts of the system.

Boston policymakers need to embrace a variety of options and technologies to build a 21st-century transportation network that reduces congestion, increases travel speeds, and keeps the region globally competitive. Expanding the physical capacity of the road network must be part of that integrated solution.

Sam Staley is director of urban growth and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-author of “The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It.” You can find the book here and an archive of Staley’s work here. Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.