by Dom Nozzi, AICP
We hear it all the time.
“We must widen roads in the face of population growth! Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in endless gridlock!! It is silly to think that we can accommodate a growing number of cars that is sure to come with growth without widening the roads. It’s common sense!!”
We hear this “common sensical” claim all the time. It certainly helps explain why places such as Houston or Atlanta spent billions of public dollars to construct ruinous (and increasingly congested) monster highways that are 10 to 14 lanes wide.
But is it really true that road widening is the “common sense” solution to accommodate growth?
Using this logic, a city that has grown from thousands to millions should have, say, 300-lane-wide highways.
Using this logic, metro Houston and metro Detroit should be paradise, instead of the place-less, sprawl-choked places they have become.
Using this logic, a power plant that is unable to supply enough free electricity in the face of growing community electrical consumption should build a bigger power plant.
Using this logic, a restaurant that is jammed with customers seeking to order a special deal on free lobster dinners should build a larger restaurant.
Clearly, the above “solutions” are absurd. Any first-year economics student would tell you that fundamental economics in a market-based economy is NOT to supply more of the product if demand is immense. No, fundamental, grade-school economics has only one, simple, effective response to excessive demand: Charge a price that consumers are willing to pay.
Why, then, do we ignore first-year economics when it comes to free-to-use roads? Why have we spent the past several decades disregarding this elementary concept? Ignoring this fundamental economic principal by bankrupting ourselves in our hopeless quest to escape congestion when we build wider and wider and wider roads?
Why do we think socialism can work for American roads when the bread lines and overall socialist economy failed so spectacularly in the Soviet Union?
No, we cannot escape basic economic principles. Socialism cannot work when applied to our roads.
The effective way to manage congested conditions on our roads is to employ the “magic of the marketplace.” Remember that concept?
In the same way that the solution to a power plant giving out free electricity is not to build a bigger plant, when demand for a road becomes excessive (i.e., it becomes congested), the solution is not to widen it.
The solution is to provide proper market pricing to efficiently allocate the supply of the road. Commonly, we apply a toll to the road, as London has recently done and New York City and San Francisco recently proposed. And as a number of our toll highways throughout the nation have done for a great many years.
Since such a market-based solution is so politically difficult (how many motorist voters, after all, like toll roads?), it tends to be nearly impossible to impose a toll on a road after it has been free to use for so long.
Therefore, the second-best solution is to let congestion impose a “time tax” on the road, as Ian Lockwood has suggested. Congestion slows down cars, which means that motorists must “pay” to use it by having to devote more of their time to use it.
In the case of either using prices or time, both tolls and congestion therefore are able to efficiently manage road use significantly better than the failed, socialist solution of widening a road.
Because in the face of a tolled or congested road, a number of motorists will choose to avoid the road. Some will choose an alternative road nearby. Or will drive at a different time of day (instead of rush hour). Or will walk, bicycle or use transit. Or will forego the trip completely. In the long run, many people would move closer to their destinations.
But widening a road short-circuits these self-regulating changes in travel behavior. A widened road that is free to use says to motorists: “Feel free to use this major road to drive across town at rush hour to rent a video!”
Therefore, in the end, the free-to-use, widened road gets congested nearly overnight because it induces these “low-value” car trips. Trips that would have never occurred had we not widened this free road.
Because cars take up so much space per driver (a person takes up 17 times more space sitting in a car than sitting in a chair), a road becomes congested after only a modest number of cars are on it. We do not need a city of millions of people before we have congested roads. A tiny town of 100 residents can congest a road.
As a result, we must accept the fact that a healthy city cannot escape congestion (indeed, congestion is a sign of a HEALTHY city). No, the solution is not to attempt to escape congestion by socialistically widening a road. The solution is to ensure that the community has choices about being able to escape the congestion.
For example, the community needs to ensure that there are quality bicycle routes. Quality transit. Sufficient housing near job, retail and cultural concentrations. Adequate sidewalks.
Usually, by the way, these choices naturally emerge in response to congestion, as citizens demand that their elected officials provide such options. It is no coincidence, after all, that the cities with the best transit systems are often the cities that have had the most severe, persistant traffic congestion.
The path to a community with modest tax rates, high quality of life, and abundant civic pride is not to strive to escape congestion by widening roads. As we’ve learned (?) over the past several decades, that “solution” simply results in huge tax increases, intractable congestion, bankrupting and massive road expenditures, plummeting quality of life, and endless strip commercial and suburban sprawl.
No, the solution is to use the market to properly allocate road space. Manage road use by keeping the roads modest in size. Either by establishing ways to avoid having to drive on congested roads, or charging a toll to use the road.
It is, after all, elementary Economics 101.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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