The Congestion Paradigm Begins to Crack

Building our way out of congestion through pricing and toll finance

For many years the prevailing view among America’s intelligentsia, and increasingly among transportation professionals, was that urban traffic congestion is one of those unpleasant, unchangeable facts of nature. “We can’t build our way out of congestion” became the mantra of enlightened urban planners and has increasingly come to dominate the thinking going into federally required long-range transportation plans produced by the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in every urbanized place.

A recent review of MPO 25-year plans by my colleague David Hartgen of UNCC found that many don’t even include the idea of reducing congestion as one of their goals. They are full of politically correct smart-growth plans, bike paths, and transit-oriented development. And oh yes, by the way, after spending $40 billion on transportation over the next 25 years, they admit that delays on the freeways (where 90% of you rubes will still travel) will be about double what they are today.

I’m pleased to say, however, that this Congestion Paradigm is beginning to crack. The revolution began in Texas soon after the turn of the century, when Dell Computer announced that it would no longer expand its operations in Austin (its headquarters) because traffic congestion there had become intolerable. This proved to be a wake-up call, leading the Governor’s Business Council to research the issue and draft the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan. This revolutionary document declared that MPO plans should set aggressive targets for reducing congestion well below today’s levels. And they should develop realistic estimates of what it would cost to accomplish that, as a guide to finding the resources to do the job (which is what led to the current preference for tolling in Texas). Projects would be selected by crunching the numbers to determine which ones delivered the greatest reduction in congestion per dollar spent. Thus, there was no bias against transit projects, if they could deliver cost-effective congestion reduction. But most of the evidence suggested that what was needed was large-scale additions of highway capacity.

OK, I can hear you thinking—that’s just Texas, and we all know they do things differently in Texas. Fair enough, but the second shoe dropped last December. That’s when a similar effort in Georgia reached consensus on a the same kind of analysis and way forward. The Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force recommended setting an aggressive congestion-reduction target for Atlanta in 2030. And to facilitate this, it called for revamping the project-selection criteria for the long-range plan to make congestion-reduction 70% of the project score (instead of about 10% as of now). All four principal transportation agencies in greater Atlanta signed on to this approach, including the MPO, whose chairman also chaired the task force.

But even more remarkably, March 2006 saw the release of a similar report in none other than Washington State, focused especially on the highly congested Puget Sound region. I find this noteworthy because, unlike Texas and Georgia, Washington is a “blue” state, and while it has an excellent, tolling-oriented DOT, its approach to traffic congestion has heretofore been as an exemplar of the Congestion Paradigm discussed above. Yet the Congestion Relief Analysis Phase 1 report ( appears to represent a remarkable change. Consider the following findings:

  • The fundamental reason congestion is growing is a demand/capacity imbalance; vehicle miles traveled increased 91% between 1980 and 2002 while roadway lane-miles grew by only 8%.
  • Without substantial new capacity, travelers will experience increased delay, longer travel times, and reduced efficiency (average delay in the PM peak will nearly triple).
  • Roadway improvements can effectively reduce delay (based on their scenario modeling).
  • The models did not show transit to be effective in reducing congestion.
  • Roadway pricing appears to be the single most effective strategy in reducing congestion.

The study team modeled a number of strategies versus a baseline (what they already have in the long-range plan). The scenarios that were heavy on highway capacity addition produced far more congestion reduction than the two transit-heavy ones. Adding a HOT Network produced additional throughput gain and delay reduction (though their model of converting one existing HOV lane and taking over an adjacent general-purpose lane for HOT is probably unrealistic). And when it came to comparing per-trip user benefits (measured narrowly only as time and vehicle operating cost savings), the same pattern prevailed, for both personal travel and commercial (truck) travel.

This study is a big step forward. Though (I suppose) in deference to Seattle-area political sensibilities, the study did not go as far as it could have. For example, after doing several pure highway-investment and transit-investment scenarios, it also analyzed several “mixed” ones. One of these was “Transit Emphasis + Pricing,” which looked relatively good. But amazingly enough, they did not do (or at least did not report) a “Highway Emphasis + Pricing” strategy. Also, as I mentioned, the study defined the benefits of congestion reduction quite narrowly, ignoring the potentially very large economic benefits from the increase in economic productivity when employers and employees have a much wider radius of opportunity on which to draw (thanks to greatly reduced work-trip times). No benefits from faster and more predictable just-in-time deliveries were estimated, either.

But those are enough quibbles. What’s really important is that the “Congestion is a fact of life—live with it” approach is now under serious challenge in three key states. It seems likely that with a combination of pricing and toll finance, we can “build our way out of congestion” in a meaningful sense. A precondition for this is overcoming the Congestion Paradigm, which is now starting to happen.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.