The Mobility Mission

Learning not to live with congestion

It’s an old story, and often told, that President Eisenhower was inspired to create the Interstate Highway System after it took two months for his World War I military convoy to drive across country. Here on the 50th anniversary of the Interstate, it—s worth examining the real lesson of that story.

Though Eisenhower was focused on military travel, he was effectively saying “mobility in America stinks, and that is unacceptable.” The solution was to build a system that connected the nation with enough highway capacity to allow people and goods to move smoothly – whatever the reason, be it military planning, fun, or profit.

We are at a similar crossroads today. Thanks to congestion, mobility in urban America stinks, and it is unacceptable. A key legacy of outgoing Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta will be the major initiative he announced in May to tackle urban congestion. He declared that congestion costs Americans a stunning $200 billion per year. That cost includes obvious and not so obvious factors such as:

  • The value of people’s time spent stuck in traffic;
  • The wasted gasoline cars burn due to congestion;
  • Lost productivity due to delayed commutes and late freight shipments;
  • The cost of unreliability, like time wasted arriving early for meetings or appointments because traffic wasn’t as bad as feared;
  • Lost value of cargo from delays in shipping;
  • Deaths, injuries and property damage due to accidents caused by congestion, and due to congestion slowing down emergency vehicles; and
  • Environmental costs due to higher emissions and other impacts of cars idling in traffic.

Think about who gets stuck in traffic besides commuters. The delivery people on their way to a dropoff; the cement truck drivers on their way to a job site; the plumbers, landscapers, sales reps, and many others who have to drive from job to job each day. The more time they spend in traffic rather than being where their customers are, the more they have to charge each customer. It adds up.

And the same even goes for people who don’t have to travel around all day on the job. Research shows that people in cities are more productive than in suburban or rural areas. That productivity results from their more frequent interactions with each other, and congestion reduces interactions and productivity. American economic productivity – our big advantage in the global economy – is being undermined by congestion.

Think of yourself at a point on a map of a major city. You could draw a circle that would show how far you could drive in 30 minutes – which is about the lengthiest trip most people are willing to take for jobs and entertainment. Congestion makes this opportunity circle smaller. That means each employer has fewer workers from which to choose, and each worker chooses among fewer jobs. And we need more ambulances, delivery people, landscapers and plumbers to meet people’s needs.

At the same time, the shrinking opportunity circle caused by congestion chokes cities’ cultural and social lives. More congestion means fewer people are willing to make the trip to see a symphony, an art show, a street fair, or a new band playing at a cool club. As more people meet through online matching services, we can see how often distance is a criteria in determining who we date. Few people are willing to date someone who lives more than five or so miles away because getting together through traffic is just too hard.

Building the Interstates was not without expense, challenge or harm. But the benefits are incalculable: mobility has been a cornerstone of our culture and our economy. It is time we remember the real lesson of the story of the creation of the Interstate system. We need to build enough new road capacity in urban areas so that congestion does not choke our economy and our lives.

And yes, it has to be roads. Even as we invest more in public transit, cars and telecommuting are the only ways of getting to work that have actually increased in recent years. Cars are how Americans prefer to travel – and wishing otherwise will not change that. Outside of New York and Chicago, cars carry 90 percent or more of all travelers. But we spend far less than 90 percent of cities’ transportation funds on highways. In fact, 11 of our largest cities spend less than 50 percent of their transportation funds on highways! Ranging from Boston spending 9 percent of transportation funds on highways to Seattle’s 49 percent, the list includes San Jose, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, San Diego, Miami, San Francisco, Philadelphia, D.C., and Los Angeles.

In effect, these cities, and others that spend too little on highways, are choosing worse congestion for their residents and businesses. They are choosing failure and a slow death for their cities. Enough transportation funding currently exists to build some new highway capacity in all urban areas. Even more promising, a large and quickly growing amount of private capital is available to invest in new road networks in cities. Together with better management of existing roads, those investments can eliminate congestion as a factor that limits the economic and cultural vitality of our urban areas.

But first things first: As our Interstate system turns 50, it is time for citizens, business owners, political leaders, and transportation planners to stop tolerating poor mobility and to learn the lesson that traffic congestion is unacceptable.

Adrian Moore is vice president of research at Reason Foundation. An archive of his work is here and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.