24.1.16

DISTINGUISHING TRAFFIC TAMING FROM CONGESTION CREATION.

Samuel Staley of the Reason Foundation suggests that greater traffic congestion hampers the working of labor markets.
The time spent stuck in traffic or on a slower commute or journey is time not spent shopping, eating at home with family, playing or working.

Longer commutes limit the size, scope and depth of labor markets. Firms have less access to workers because workers generally don't look for jobs far from where they live. And it's well established among urban economists that workers will accept lower paying jobs in order to avoid too long of a commute.
He concedes, though, that there are two different types of congestion. There's the kind of generalized highway crowding that additional lanes can not ameliorate, and there are the local traffic-taming measures to make commercial districts safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Traffic congestion's localized impacts, however, may not be quite as negative for certain types of neighborhoods. The key is understanding the difference between regional and localized congestion. And different strategies for disparate mobility problems may be necessary.

John Norquist, CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, recommends that traffic analysts distinguish between "through traffic" and traffic intended for local destinations, citing a case in Milwaukee where city officials preserved several city blocks of retail business instead of widening the road to improve traffic circulation. On the block level, congestion may be a sign of economic success, but the congestion itself still inhibits mobility and circulation. Congestion still has a negative impact. The question is whether congestion can be reduced, or even eliminated, while also preserving the features of the block that make it economically successful. On the block level, eliminating congestion may not be practical or feasible.

But what is good for the block is not necessarily good for the region. Most transportation policymakers focus on regional congestion, not the relatively isolated nodes or places that many planners envision when they consider the supposed benefits of low circulation. Congestion relief is typically focused on improving traffic flows along miles of congested roadway and intersections.
Perhaps there are some busy nodes that might be better served by an interurban, or full-fledged commuter trains.  Public money spent on improved exurban roads might well be a regressive transfer.

And Reason's Robert Poole suggests that the expressways might work well as for-profit enterprises.
Despite America’s 19th-century history of privately franchised toll roads, most people have trouble seeing highways as businesses. If they have been exposed to economics, they think of roads as classic examples of “public goods,” which must be provided by government because there’s no way to exclude those who won’t pay for them. While that might be mostly true for city streets and boulevards, it is not a problem for limited-access highways, where entry can only occur at certain points and charging for use is easy thanks to 21st-century electronic tolling, which is eliminating toll booths altogether. Just as electric utilities can charge variable rates to encourage customers to not use power-hungry appliances during periods of peak demand, expressway companies can charge more during rush hour to encourage motorists to shift nonessential trips to off-peak times.

In light of ever-worsening congestion, America’s urban freeways constitute a massive case of government failure. They do not give their customers reliable mobility, and their method of financing (via flat-rate fuel taxes) vastly undercharges urban users (especially during rush hours) and generally overcharges rural highway users, whose roads cost far less to build. And without market pricing, we don’t know how much urban expressway capacity people would be willing to pay for.
Per corollary, we don't know how much Passenger Rail capacity people are willing to pay for, either.  But the rent-seeking truckers continue to collect their subsidies.
Chronic freeway congestion ought to be intolerable to Americans. It’s a crude form of rationing, based on time instead of money, like Soviet bread lines. The idea that everyone should be equally miserable, stuck in congestion, is similarly un-American. HOT lanes and toll concessions have given us a glimpse at a better future.
Indeed.

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