Tag Archives: toll road

Should Arizona build a new Freeway to Ease Congestion?


By Dom Nozzi

March 17, 2017

Regarding the proposed $2 billion to TEMPORARILY save seconds or minutes by building the “Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway” in southern Phoenix AZ…

Will that $2 billion expenditure of public tax dollars be worth it.

After about 2-5 years, the congestion will be worse (not the best way to spend $2 billion public dollars). Not MIGHT BE worse. It WILL be worse. Adding capacity/widening Carmageddon highway(which often destroys low-income areas or areas lived in by those without political power) is pretty much the worst thing that can be done.

By contrast, one of the more effective tools is a road/highway toll.

In general, since it tends not to be politically feasible to apply a toll, the best options are to realize that congestion is inevitable (a sign of a healthy place people want to be in), and to create ways to avoid the congestion: close-in housing/jobs/shopping, connected streets, grade-separated transit, etc.

The new highway is the same old tactic America has tried to solve congestion for the past century. Every one of those unimaginably expensive efforts has failed. Every one.



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Traffic Congestion: Will Synchronized Traffic Signals Reduce It?


By Dom Nozzi

November 29, 2007

Traffic congestion.

We all hate it.

But it is extremely important to know that congestion occurs even when there are only a tiny number of cars on the road. Have a look at the images I’ve attached below. One shows 40 people walking and in bicycles. One shows 40 people in chairs. One shows 40 people on a bus. And the other shows 40 in cars.40-people

As you can see, the 40 in cars looks like gridlock.

When a road carries, say, 15,000 car trips per day, which is very common for a larger street in American communities, there are going to be a great many times when well over 40 cars will want to be on a given road at the same time. As an aside, in the year 2000, there were 217,955 people in the county I lived in while in Florida, and 239,621 motor vehicles registered.

The only possible way for nearly all county residents to travel ANYWHERE was to travel by car. So we had 220,000 residents owning 240,000 cars in the year 2000 in the county. On average, people make about 11 car trips per day. Even if the county I lived in saw an enormous number of motorists decide to drive less due to expensive gas, we would still have had an enormous number of motorists who would have continued to want to drive the local roads. It is hard for me to imagine that the drop could have been so substantial that we’ll rarely or never see 40 cars (or a similarly modest number of cars) on a major road at the same time.

Don’t forget induced demand. This theory, in part, tells us that a number of motorists are dissuaded from driving at rush hour, or on a congested road, or decide not to travel by car, when there is congestion. When we widen a road or, in this case where my county was proposing to synchronize traffic signals, congestion briefly declines. That motivates many of these dissuaded motorists to return to car travel on that road (the motorist has been “induced”). This is precisely why we cannot build (or time our traffic signals) out of congestion.

Anything that (temporarily) frees up traffic bottlenecks quickly gets filled up again by motorists who were previously dissuaded by the congestion.

For these reasons, I am thoroughly convinced that it is nearly impossible for us to escape congestion in a community that has more than a tiny number of motorists (as Anthony Downs has so clearly pointed out in Stuck in Traffic). As an economist would quickly note, any time you have an unpriced good or service that is in high demand, the inevitable result is over-consumption (or in this case, congestion). The only durable way to avoid congestion is to price roads properly with congestion fees. Widening roads, the economist will tell us, quickly results in congestion when those roads are underpriced (or in nearly all cases in America, “free”).

Similarly, we should not build a bigger coal power plant when we have electrical demand that exceeds supply – PARTICULARY if the electricity is unpriced or free (as is the case with roads and most parking). Instead, the only durable way to ensure that supply is adequate for demand is to induce more conservation via proper prices for electricity.

As a result of all this, an important part of my message in my books and speeches is that it is a tactical blunder to posit that better bicycle, transit, or pedestrian facilities will result in a meaningful reduction in congestion. When each of these “progressive” tactics or influences for congestion reduction fail to reduce congestion, as my observations above suggest is nearly certain, the pro sprawl lobby will quickly point out that all this effort to improve transit, bicycling, or pedestrian services or facilities were a complete waste of time and money. The pro sprawl folks are likely to scream, “Let’s get serious and realistic here! Let’s widen roads to reduce congestion!! Your soft-headed tactics have failed!”

The best tactic to address the pro-car, pro-sprawl folks is NOT to claim that bicycling, transit, and pedestrian services and facilities will reduce congestion. I don’t believe even in our wildest dreams will that happen. I firmly believe that instead, the winning tactic is to strongly urge that instead of trying to reduce congestion, we strive to establish ALTERNATIVES to the congestion, so that people who are unwilling to tolerate it can do something else: Use transit, ride a bike, live closer to work, travel at non-rush-hour times, etc. Transportation and lifestyle choice, not congestion reduction is, in my opinion, the best strategy.

The pro-car lobby will always win if we argue for congestion reduction (in other words, we will end up adopting the failed policies of widening, timing signal lights, etc.).

Two things are essential:

  1. I am thoroughly convinced that we cannot escape or meaningfully reduce congestion (at least in our lifetimes, and for the reasons I point out above).
  1. In cities, traffic congestion is our friend. Any city worth its salt has a congestion “problem.” Congestion is a sign of success. (As Yogi Berri once said, the place got so crowded that no one went there anymore.) We need to leverage congestion to effectively help us to reduce sprawl, encourage infill and more compact housing, reduce low-value car trips, reduce high-speed driving, promote mixed-use development, reduce noise pollution, reduce the number of severe car crashes, reduce gas consumption and air emissions, improve the health of local retail, promote non-car travel, and improve facilities and services for transit, bicycling and walking.

I know of nothing that more effectively achieves the items in #2 more than congested roads in cities. It is no coincidence that some of cities have been known to openly state they are going to “let it be” when it comes to congestion, and will not use conventional strategies to try to (hopelessly) reduce it.

With regard to the idea of “solving” congestion by synchronizing traffic signals: Even if we assume that, somehow, the community in question can violate the Iron Laws of Physics by being the only community in the known universe to be able to escape Induced Car Travel Demand, and even if we therefore assume that traffic signal timing will forever result in motorists saving 12 seconds in their car trip, does this really justify our spending, in the case of the Florida county I lived in, $20 million in tax revenues? Since when does saving a few commuter seconds become the answer to my county achieving a gloriously high quality of life? Of course, in reality, what we are really doing is spending $20 million for a few years of saving a few seconds. After that brief time, induced demand will result in a return of the congestion we naively thought we could eliminate.

Given this, the decision of my county at that time to spend $20 million for traffic signal timing borders on being criminal, given what we now know.


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Filed under Bicycling, Transportation, Urban Design

Is Tolling a Good Idea for US 36 between Denver and Boulder?

By Dom Nozzi

For any major travel route within or between reasonably healthy cities, it is nearly inevitable that such a route will become congested – particularly during rush hours. This is because cars consume so much space that only a few motorists are needed to congest a road.

How much space do cars consume? On average, a person sitting in a car takes up about 17 times as much space as a person sitting in a chair, and up to 100 times as much space when the car is moving. That is an enormous amount of space, and explains why so many cities are suffering tremendously from the disease I call GIGANTISM. Gigantic streets, gigantic intersections, gigantic parking, and gigantic sprawl are the inevitable result of a form of travel that eats up a huge amount of space. Too many communities have made the mistake of thinking they can provide enough space for these space-hogging cars by building over-sized facilities that destroy a sense of place, among other terrible outcomes.

Over the past century, analysts have learned there is an Iron Law of Traffic Congestion. This inescapable law informs us that you cannot build your way out of congestion. You cannot widen a highway enough to eliminate congested conditions in the long term. Indeed, many studies have confirmed that a wider highway becomes congested about five years after the widening. As the adage says, widening a road to eliminate congestion is like loosening your belt to eliminate obesity.

Widening a highway quickly leads to congestion because in a relatively healthy region or community, there is a great deal of latent demand for travel on that route. When congestion is eased (temporarily, I might add), many who formerly avoided driving the route at rush hour now flock back to driving the route at rush hour. Formerly, these newly-created (induced) motorists were discouraged from driving on the congested road at rush hour due to the inconvenience of congestion. Such people opted to use a different route, travel at times other than rush hour, or opted not to make the car trip. Now, with the newly widened highway, such discouraged motorists are “induced” to return to the highway to enjoy the less congested conditions. Congestion therefore re-appears very quickly.

Studies also show that providing even high quality transit will not ease congestion, as the motorists who leave their cars and use transit instead are merely opening up new highway capacity that induces other motorists to start using the highway. The new space is created by the motorists who are now using transit.

An additional problem that highways face is that when they are free to use, they inevitably attract what are known as “low-value” car trips. That is, a person often rationally decides that it would be acceptable to drive to a shopping center on a major road at rush hour to buy a cup of coffee. Since roads are so terribly expensive to build, maintain, and widen, such trips are not affordable for a community to support with its tax revenues.

Finally, a great many car trips are occurring because motorists are so heavily subsidized. The few user fees we have, such as the gas tax, pay only a small fraction of the total cost to build and maintain our road system. And since nearly all car trips end at a “free” parking spot, motorists are also heavily subsidized when they park. Most of the money for car travel comes instead from such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes that we ALL pay – even those of us who don’t use a car (or use a car very rarely). For parking, the cost of “free” parking is hidden. How many of us realize that we are paying for the “free” parking by paying a higher cost for groceries, services, and other products purchased in retail centers? Since bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users, and rare car travelers are also paying these higher costs, those making frequent car trips are, in particular, being subsidized.

Ruinously, like so many other subsidies, subsidizing motorists mean that there are more car trips occurring than would occur normally had the subsidies not been in place. Subsidies encourage many people to make more car trips than they would have otherwise.

Given the above, are there any effective ways to durably reduce congestion over the long term?

The most effective, fair way to reduce congestion over the long term is a toll, whereby the motorist pays each time he or she drives on the road, and pays an amount that is calibrated to keep congestion at bay. As Donald Shoup says about parking, this toll amount is best based on the “Goldilocks” principle. That is, the toll should not be too high, as too few would use a road that the community spent a lot of money to build. The toll should not be too low, otherwise it will be over-used to the point of congestion because it will attract too many “low-value” car trips. Instead, the amount of the toll should be “just right.” An amount that creates a level of traffic that is considered tolerable by the community.

What are the benefits of tolling a highway such as US 36?

First, tolling allows the community to start to create fairness in how much we pay for car travel. By tolling, a higher percentage of the money needed to build and maintain the road is paid by the users – motorists. Without a toll, as I noted above, those not using US 36 at all (or only rarely, or only at non-rush hour times) are paying almost as much as those who regularly drive on US 36. This is patently unfair. Tolling therefore increases fairness by having motorists pay more of their fair share.

Second, tolling is one of the few things – besides a “time tax” such as congestion – that can discourage “low-value” car trips. Again, building a highway that has enough capacity to accommodate low-value car trips is unaffordable.admin-ajax (8)

Third, tolling creates a “willingness to pay” dynamic that an untolled road fails to do. Since some trips are more valuable than other trips, it is important that we create a road system that allows a person to pay if they are willing to do so to avoid congestion. A person that is running late to reach a job interview should have the option of paying a toll to avoid congestion. An untolled road does not provide that desperate person with such an option, and instead offers the same level of access to the road as the person who is making a low-value car trip to buy a cup of coffee. It is clearly unacceptable for a person making a higher value trip to be delayed by a person seeking a cup of coffee. Tolling therefore acknowledges that there are certain trips that are more valuable than others.

Fourth, tolling creates a significant amount of new revenue that can be used to build higher quality bus or rail service (which especially benefits lower-income individuals). The Denver-Boulder region, as well as the State of Colorado, have long had an enormous shortfall in needed transportation revenue due to such factors as a gas tax that is too low (it has not been raised for several decades, despite inflation), and the fact that most revenue comes from sources that ignores how much (or when) a person drives a car. Mostly, these sources are sales tax and property tax. By contrast, user fees are able to account for higher levels of car travel. The new toll revenue can be used to provide more transportation options for lower-income (and other) groups, by dramatically improving transit quality. Without the toll revenue, state and local governments will not have anywhere close to the amount of money needed to provide quality transit in our lifetimes.

Fifth, because free roads and heavily subsidized motorists are artificially induced to travel much more than they would in a more fair system (ie, one that was based on user fees), residents in the Denver-Boulder region are being induced to drive a car excessively. Doing so dramatically increases greenhouse gas (global warming) emissions, fuel consumption, suburban sprawl, strip commercial, and extreme levels of car dependence that significantly degrades the quality of life of the region.

Sixth, untolled roads significantly promote the profits of huge corporations such as oil companies, road builders, automakers, and builders of sprawl housing. Why? Because such free-to-use roads create such high levels of car use that citizens are inevitably compelled to pay a lot of money to such corporations as a necessary part of their subsidized, car dependent lifestyles.

Seventh, by artificially inducing citizens to drive more often due to subsidies, our region is artificially reducing the number of trips that would otherwise be made by walking, bicycling or transit. Why? Because over-providing for car travel creates what economists call a “barrier effect.” The barrier effect is one where non-car travel occurs less often because excessive car dependence makes walking, bicycling and transit use too dangerous or inconvenient.

Eighth, tolling allows the Denver-Boulder region to avoid the failed, ruinous, financially bankrupting path that other parts of the nation have followed. That path is road widening (loosening their belts to eliminate obesity). It is the path that the Colorado Department of Transportation first proposed for US 36: To create a monster highway 10 lanes in size.

Fortunately, wise and tireless efforts by leaders in the region over the past 10 years succeeded in allowing the Denver-Boulder area to avoid that grim, mistaken path. Instead, a much more affordable and effective plan has been adopted: Retain the two free, untolled lanes in each direction, and create a new, tolled (“managed”) lane in each direction that is priced to maintain free-flowing bus rapid transit travel, as well as carpool travel. Free-flowing single-occupant vehicle travel is also provided for, because those willing to pay money to avoid the congestion are able to do so (again, that option does not exist on an untolled road).

Happily, toll revenue from single-occupant vehicle travel will substantially supplement the extremely depleted coffers of our transportation departments, which gives us a near-term ability to provide the quality bus and rail transit we strongly desire.

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Is a Road Toll a Form of Social Darwinism?

By Dom Nozzi

I believe I am strongly, sincerely concerned about improving the conditions of the poor. And that is PRECISELY why I am strongly supportive of such tools as road pricing (tolling). I don’t buy the common argument that such a position is social Darwinist (as many on the political left often claim, not to mention many on the right, who prefer to keep this form of socialism for driving a car).NA-AY730_TOLLus_G_20090702145736

Such an argument is within the same family of thought that one of the most effective ways to help the poor is to buy them all a car so they can get to a job in the drivable suburbs.


Any pricing/gift mechanism that promotes car use (such as a free car or free highways) is particularly onerous to the poor — even in the short term. In fact, in the article I read recently about road pricing experiences in California and Minnesota, advocates for the poor were initially opposed to road pricing, but now that they see it working so well (and low and behold, the priced lane being frequently used by the poor), they changed their tune and are now supporters. Their support is due in part to the fact that in both states, a good chunk of the road pricing revenue is being used to enhance transit, which is mostly used by the poor.

Imagine that.

This may be hard to believe, but even the poor value their time, which means that even the poor are more than willing to pay a few bucks to drive a congestion-free travel lane if the consequences of being late for something will be quite costly if they are running late.

Is it not patronizing to assume that the poor do not value their time?

Anything that promotes auto dependence, such as free highways, is extremely harmful to the poor — even in the short term. One hundred years ago, most transportation was socialized in the sense that it was primarily paid for by the entire community when public transit was provided. When it was publicly provided, the poor benefited from the fact that they did not have to own their own car. Today, we’ve foisted the lion’s share of transportation costs on private households, instead of the community, by largely privatizing transportation.

That’s fine if you are wealthy. But if a poor household must now buy and maintain expensive cars, the proportion of household income going to transportation shoots upward exponentially. Instead of 2 percent of household income 100 years ago, transportation now consumes over 20 percent of the income of a low-income household (income that COULD have been directed to better transit and better housing, food, education, etc., but instead is being directed to GM and OPEC).

Would it not be better if the poor lived in a world where there was high-quality transit (paid for at least in part by road pricing) and the OPTION of being able to pay to use a congestion-free travel lane when they are running late for something? No one is FORCING the poor to use priced lanes. They always have the option of using unpriced lanes.

It should also be noted that policies artificially promoting car use (via such things as free parking or toll-free roads) promote community dispersal, which leads to a loss of retail health and jobs in low-income areas as that retail and that job base moves to sprawl.

“Policy-driven, lopsided” distribution of wealth (as many opponents of tolls proclaim)? You bet. EXACTLY why such tools as road pricing are needed. There is nothing more economically inequitable, policy-driven, lopsided, and physically segregating than having all of us forced to travel by car.

Toll roads are perhaps the most effective, equitable way to have motorists pay their own way instead of being subsidized by free roads. Nationally, who has opposed congestion pricing (toll roads)? In places like California and Minnesota, when congestion pricing has been proposed, it has been wealth-cheerleading conservatives such as Milton Friedman and the Reason Foundation who have pushed it, not the political left.

The left has been the major political obstacle, with their bleeding heart concern that road pricing would be affordable only to the rich, would hurt the poor, and would thereby create “Lexus Lanes.” In the US, environmentalists are FINALLY getting on board with road pricing.

Why is the left finally getting on board?


The congestion has gotten so bad, so unaffordable to correct in conventional ways, and so seemingly intractable that even the bleeding hearts are being forced to acknowledge that road pricing is one of the very few effective tools we have.

One last thing: Ken Livingston, the mayor in London who is now world-famous for instituting the very successful road pricing in London, is known as “Red Ken” because of his socialist views. Curious that so many on the political left in America, then, are opposed to road pricing.

This from Michael Moore:

“…Liberals have acted and voted conservatively so often that they have redefined the term ‘wimp.’ This is why Americans usually hate to vote for liberals. A ‘liberal leader’ is often an oxymoron — liberals don’t lead, they follow. Conservatives are the real leaders. They have the courage of their convictions. They don’t bend, they don’t break, and they never give in. They are relentless in pursuit of their ideals. They are fearless and they take shit from no one. In other words, they actually BELIEVE in something. When’s the last time you ran into a liberal or a Democrat who stuck to a principle just because it was right?”

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