What to do About Traffic

Tolls, telecommuting part of solution

Traffic is getting worse almost every where, and almost everyone knows it. Still, commuters tend to be fascinated when others quantify their misery, and a new study has done just that. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic hasn’t just gotten worse, during the past 20 years it’s increased by 200 percent. Today the average commuter spends 46 hours per year stuck in gridlock, an all-time high.

So now that we know exactly how bad traffic is we can get on with rescuing commuters by building more roads, right? Well, maybe not.

You see, in most political circles proposing road building is like going to a dinner party and proposing that guests eat soup with their hands. Each proposal invites social ostracism because civilized people simply do not do such things. Politicians, like dinner guests, prefer to reaffirm their status among the cultivated class, and so they offer retorts like, “We can’t build our way out of congestion.”

Even the Federal Highway Administration declared that the TTI study “validates what we’ve known all along, the solution to road congestion isn’t just pouring new concrete and paving new roads.”

Of course, we shouldn’t combat congestion just by building new roads. But, even though it might be uncomfortable to mention in polite company, we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that building roads does help. And you need only go as far as the TTI study itself for compelling proof.

The study analyzed 85 metro areas based on how they reacted to increased traffic during the past 20 years. Did they keep pace with new traffic by building new roads or did the gap between traffic and road building grow wide? The results were clear: The areas that resisted roads the most suffered the worst increases in congestion, while the road building areas did the best job of keeping congestion in check. Areas that resisted new roads saw congestion increase 150 percent more than the road builders.

Still, many lawmakers worry that supporting road construction could get them branded as reactionary knuckle-draggers. Instead, they hold out hope that a transit revival will bring congestion relief. But transit is probably just a fashionable long-shot, for while certain reforms could improve service, transit finds itself on the wrong end of very powerful social trends.

Despite ever-increasing subsidies, transit’s market share has tumbled for many decades, and now accounts for a measly 1.5 percent of trips. As our nation has grown wealthier, private auto ownership has increased. Today, even 80 percent of households earning under $25,000 per year own a car, and as long as wealth continues to grow more people will trade in their bus passes for car keys.

Many local governments exacerbate transit’s wasteful ways by bankrolling light rail projects. Even though $1 spent on improving freeways typically reduces congestion more than $13 spent on rail, politicians continue to tout rail as the best way to get cars off the road.

A better way to get cars off the road is to keep commuters from leaving home in the first place. An analysis of Washington D.C. commuting found that traffic delays would drop by 10 percent for every three percent of commuters who work at home. In many cities telecommuters already outnumber transit commuters, and technology’s onward march means telecommuting will continue to expand.

Certainly, there is no single antidote for congestion. Road building helps, so does telecommuting, and other partial solutions include clearing accidents faster (disabled cars account for over half of traffic delays) and ramp metering, which helps keep freeways moving by regulating how many cars may enter the flow at once. Minneapolis makes extensive use of metering, and officials learned how much it helps when they shut it off during an experiment. Without metering, travel times shot up by 22 percent.

We can further improve the way we commute by borrowing from the way we communicate. Because it often costs more during peak hours, many of us wait till off-peak hours to make cell phone calls. Price new lanes the same way, and motorists would also hold off on some trips.

In Orange County, CA special toll lanes operate next to regular lanes. Tolls rise during peak hours and drop during off-peak times, which means that, while the regular lanes crawl along at 25 mph, the tolled lanes move at a brisk 65 mph clip.

Yes, traffic is getting worse but we should not surrender to ever-worsening commutes. Resisting traffic congestion means choosing the best solutions, even if they—re not always the most fashionable.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.