Rush Hour Remedy

Prescription for unjamming traffic jams: A unique combination of technology and economics.

CATHARINE JAAP IS A SECRETARY for a lawyer with a law firm in Los Angeles, California. Her workday begins at 9:00 every morning, but she gets herself to the office by 7:30 or 7:40. An eager beaver? No. In fact, she reads the paper until 9:OO. But to arrive at 9:00, she says, she would have to leave her home-“10 miles on the nose” from her office-even before 8:OO because of rush-hour traffic. Instead, she rises early, leaves at 7:15, and spends only 15 to 20 minutes door to door. Leaving work, she must wait until after 5:30 to begin the drive home.

“It’s inconvenient,” she admits. Stores aren’t open in the morning and are often closed by the time she’s going home, so she can’t run errands along the way. Every day, five days a week, she spends at least 10 hours at the office-nearly 11 hours away from home. But “I decided years ago,” she explains, “that that’s how I was going to deal with” rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles.

Across the country, Joseph Dikdan is a vice-president of sales for a large computer services firm in New York City. He lives in Pine Brook, New,Jersey, 26 miles due west of the Lincoln Tunnel. He could take a bus, but it’s cheaper, he’s found, to commute with another person, splitting the cost of gas and a toll into the city every day. “And the bus isn’t any faster,” he adds.

So he leaves Pine Brook a little before 8:OO in the morning. Like others who work in cities and drive during rush hour, he’s resigned himself to express- way congestion as a way of life. “I know how to work around it” to reduce the problem to a minimum, he says. Still on the best of days, it takes him 40 minutes to make it into New York, and all too often travel time mounts to as much as an hour and 10 minutes, which works out to a “leisurely” drive averaging about 22 miles an hour largely on 55-mph roads.

Every workday, stories like these two commuters’ are repeated all across the country. Millions of Americans work in major metropolitan areas. Some of these people take a train, some a bus. A few can walk or bike to work. But most of them, as anyone who drives can attest, take their cars.

The result is that the country’s urban “expressways” have become anything but an express mode of travel. Originally designed to enhance the convenience and mobility of city life, they are increasingly a frustrating source of inconvenience and limitations. Nor is congestion the only problem; urban sprawl, pollution, and noise are also linked with the proliferation of expressways, or freeways, in the last few decades.


Politicians’ and urban planners’ attempts to solve the problem of urban expressway congestion have been a dismal failure. Traditional responses to congestion have been aimed at increasing the supply of roadway space or reducing the demand for it by providing alternative means of transportation. Neither approach has worked.

Until about 15 years ago, the knee-jerk “solution” to freeway congestion was to build more and bigger expressways. The most notable effect of this policy was a dramatic rise in the number of vehicles snarled in rush-hour tie-ups, leading economist Anthony Downs to formulate the Law of Peak-Hour Expressway Congestion: On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.

The reasoning behind this is not complex. Additional roadway capacity adds to the attractiveness of driving relative to other means of getting about the city. New drivers, and those who previously took other routes, are attracted to expressways if their travel time is lowered by using the new facilities. In the longer run, improved road systems, by providing ready access to the city, encourage more urban residents to settle in outlying areas. So in almost every case,

carving out a new expressway or widening an existing one has been found to generate a greater volume of traffic than the planners had projected from prior trends. Sometimes congestion would be shifted from one site to another, but it would never be overcome.

Faced with the failure of the more-is-better approach-and with widespread dismay at “the paving of America”-transportation planners switched gears. Instead of increasing roadway supply, they now try to reduce roadway demand by diverting commuters to fixed-rail rapid transit systems. These projects require enormous capital outlays and heavy operating subsidies, but they are thought to be the only alternative to additional road construction and the attendant increase in traffic, pollution, ‘and noise. The rationale for rapid transit rests on the belief that frustrated commuters would prefer a safe, quiet, relatively cheap ride to work instead of the hassle and lost time of battling the freeways. Unfortunately for the taxpayers in areas that have gone ahead with such plans, this supposedly commonsense belief has turned out to be false.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), serving the San Francisco area, was the first modern fixed-rail system designed specifically to lure commuters from the roads. After an investment of over a billion dollars, analysis of traffic flows indicates that BART has succeeded

mainly in drawing riders from buses and other preexisting public transit, without significantly affecting automobile traffic or congestion. The system now requires an operating budget of about $100 million a year, two-thirds of which is drawn from state and local taxpayers’ pockets.

BART is often cited favorably by those seeking to bring rapid transit to other cities. The truth is, however, that it has been a monumental flop in improving the overall efficiency of transportation in the San Francisco region. In fact, the inflexible fixed-route layout is so ill-designed to meet the needs of a modern metropolis that regional planners have proposed land-use controls to force the population to live and work closer to the BART stations!

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Writing in Reason’s January 1982 issue, R.S. Taylor-Radford explains how a unique combination of technology and economics can defeat one of the greatest scourges in American life: the traffic jam.

    Taylor-Radford knew that flying cars were just around the corner.

  • ||

    Should Reason somehow last 365 years, will we need to endure this schtick everyday?

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    The Singapore method of using a system similar to stadium seat licensing works for them.

  • T||

    Yeah, congestion pricing is a doomed idea because everybody already thinks they pay enough in road taxes.

    We're going to charge you more money to drive to work! Sell that idea to the public. I'll wait.

  • PapayaSF||

    The SF Bay area has had congestion-priced bridge tolls for years now.

  • T||

    DC has been doing it forever on the Metro. But as a general rule? I don't see it happening.

  • Nando||



    The only problem with this road pricing scheme is that it fails to take into account to primary factors.

    a) People don't have the time flexibility to drive at non peak times. Their hours are often set by someone else.

    b) People often don't have alternative routes.

    Singapore's ERP pricing is a joke... it does nothing to relieve congestion and everything to increase government revenues. Even S$6 charges between 8:30 and 9 AM don't make a difference.

  • Slothrop||

    Ladies and gentlemen, Allan Ginsberg.


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