You Can't Get There from Here

19th-century transit plans won't solve 21st century traffic problems.


When it comes to motor traffic in cities, is urban sprawl part of the problem or part of the solution? The conventional wisdom has been outspoken on this issue. The more spread out the city, it maintains, the greater the traffic congestion. Los Angeles is, to many, the proof of this phenomenon.

"Businesses locate in our crowded downtowns while most affordable housing for workers is in outlying areas," Don Griffin and Mark Pisano, president and executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), write in a typical analysis of L.A.'s traffic problems. "Hundreds of thousands of employees climb into their cars and flood the freeways morning and evening, many driving clear across the region."

In reality, however, sprawl can be efficient, because it locates workers closer to their workplaces. Indeed, most commuting is now suburb-to-suburb. Industry appears to follow the labor force into the suburbs, with the result that most work trips are faster and shorter than is widely supposed. Although congestion is still a problem, dispersion—sprawl—does alleviate it. Advances in telecommunications suggest that industry will become ever more footloose. And, indicates the available evidence, dispersed living patterns may in fact decrease travel time and congestion.

By analyzing Census and U.S. Department of Transportation data, we have discovered a number of trends that run counter to the conventional wisdom:

• Most Americans do not work downtown. Most travel to work is suburb-to-suburb, over relatively short distances and on relatively uncongested routes.

• Downtown crowding and traffic do not grow without limit, because decentralization is a safety valve that offers relief.

• Markets for mass transit are extremely limited.

• Land, labor, housing, and transportation markets interact in ways that are favorable to the urban economy's success. This process, which includes adjustments to shorten commutes, can be undermined by such government interventions as urban renewal, overinvestment in downtown infrastructure, or construction of downtown convention centers.

• The government actions usually proposed to deal with traffic congestion are inappropriate and more likely to contribute to traffic problems than to solve them.

Turning to Los Angeles, we find that the downtown area accommodates only 3 percent of all jobs, compared to 11 percent in San Francisco, a more "traditional" city. For the greater Los Angeles area, using 1980 census data, we have identified 19 major activity centers—including a downtown more than twice the size of the one identified by census authorities. All 19 centers combined account for a mere 17.5 percent of the area's jobs, with other employment spread too thinly to form traditional centers. Such dispersal reduces commuting times: the shortest work trips are suburb-to-suburb, or "lateral," rather than from suburb into downtown, or "radial." Nationwide, people who live and work in the suburbs constitute 45 percent of the work force—both the largest and the fastest-growing group of commuters—and face an average commute of only 20 minutes.

Trip time data are difficult to obtain for the region, at least after 1980. By default, anecdotes about the three-and four-hour round-trip commuter prevail. Yet a 1988 survey reported in the Los Angeles Times found that half the daily work trips in Los Angeles County were under 10 miles, 71 percent under 20 miles—little different from the results obtained in a Caltrans study 20 years ago.

These findings suggest that the suburbanization of jobs and residences has a raison d'être in the travel savings that result. Not only are businesses and housing decentralizing, but they are moving closer to each other. Locally, for example, the Orange County area has in recent years added more jobs than workers. This trend is decried by many planners, who fear it will increase the "jobs-housing imbalance." To the contrary, it represents an adjustment to the earlier growth in housing.

Ironically, as Los Angeles's dispersed development is becoming an international model, its form is vilified by civic leaders who misread trends and advocate a variety of misguided interventions. Weak-headedness is too often combined with ham-fistedness. SCAG recently released the foreboding forecast that the area's rush-hour freeway speeds (currently averaging about 35 mph) will soon slow to 17 mph. This prediction has become the centerpiece of the prevailing doomsday scenario. But it is grounded in a projection of jobs-housing imbalance, with most of the new jobs assumed to be centrally located while most new residential development occurs in the region's periphery—exactly contrary to recent patterns. As antidotes to the doomsday scenario, local planners propose:

• A Regional Mobility Plan, including a $43.7 billion program to build and improve public transit. The plan includes projections that transit's share of local trips will rise from the current 5 percent to 19 percent—a ludicrously high prediction that runs counter to all recent experience in all American cities. In addition to building a subway line at an estimated cost of $250 million per mile, the plan calls for construction of a light-rail, or trolley, line between Los Angeles and Long Beach. Travel on the 22-mile trolley line, which will cost between $600 million and $1 billion, will actually take longer than an express bus already in operation. (And the bus carries only about 1,000 passengers a day, compared to wildly optimistic projections of 54,700 trolley riders.)

• A Growth Management Plan built around the proposal that SCAG become the official regional jobs-housing "balancer," usurping local governments' treasured land-use—planning role and ignoring the automatic balancing that takes place as individuals and businesses relocate to reduce commuting times.

• An Air Quality Management Plan that includes draconian mitigation schemes, some relying on nonexistent technologies. For example, the plan calls for 40 percent of all cars and light trucks and 70 percent of heavy trucks and all buses to run on alternative fuels by 1998. It would ban drive-through establishments, deodorants, gasoline-powered lawnmowers, and barbecue lighter fluid. And it would require employers to put some of their work force on nine-day, 80-hour shifts and some on four-day, 40-hour shifts; some other employees would have to work at home. The whole program is rationalized by assertions that total costs exceed total benefits. Research at the University of Southern California suggests, however, that two-thirds of the target reductions of pollutants could be achieved in other ways for one-quarter of the plan's costs.

We can only speculate on the various motivations that prompt these plans. But the thinking behind the alarming forecasts—the models and the theories on which the plans are based and much of the associated discussion about cities—is simply wrong. The jobs-housing imbalance story does not square with the facts; it merely provides justification for spending large sums of public money and expanding bureaucratic authority.

Such plans not only misread urban development trends, they also ignore the widely documented performance of rail transit in U.S. cities. The new subways placed in American cities in recent years are across-the-board failures. Peter Hall's well-known book, Great Planning Disasters, rightly cites San Francisco's BART, whose ridership stands at less than 80 percent of that forecast for 1975—a number that was predicted to rise over time. Fares cover only about half of BART's operating costs; the cost per passenger trip exceeds those for taking the bus or driving. Washington, D.C.'s Metro racks up costs of $8.00 per passenger, according to leading urban economists Edwin Mills and Bruce Hamilton. Miami's new subway carries about 30,000 passengers per day, not the 200,000 forecast by its planners.

Their sorry performances are not surprising. There simply are not markets for new rail transit systems in decentralized modern American cities. Development is too dispersed; the auto is too convenient and flexible and its use is underpriced. Fixed-rail systems cannot be rerouted as people move. Taking the subway increases commuting time for riders who don't live and work close to subway stations, and many people must still drive to the station. As both jobs and housing continue to relocate to the suburbs, the markets for downtown-feeding transit diminish. Yet planners continue to rely on models that assume continued downtown growth, worsening congestion, and metropolitan catastrophe.

In part, these models stem from nostalgia for old-fashioned downtowns, preautomobile modes of transportation, and a host of imagined premodern virtues. "Livable city" romantics have little use for Los Angeles's freeway-connected form. And the romanticized view of cities has a powerful hold on political leaders, media pundits, and too many planners. But the overwhelming and universal success of automobiles as the travel mode of choice means that preautomobile forms cannot be recreated.

If urban sprawl hasn't caused Los Angeles's traffic congestion, congestion nevertheless exists. And our argument does not mean that cities can afford to sit back and wait for the traffic "crisis" to resolve itself via decentralization. But innovative, efficient solutions have been crowded out by all the attention (and money) devoted to rail transit projects. And planners have been reluctant to work with, rather than against, individual choice.

Economists know that highway management cries for highways to levy time-of-day "congestion charges," so that drivers will have a financial incentive to travel less during rush hours. Yet this idea has been ignored by planners. Instead, congestion itself is the only thing that deters people from driving at any particular time—what The Economist calls "rationing-by-purgatory." This form of rationing leaves the roads to people who value their time least rather than those who value their travel most.

Imagine the problems, and resource misallocations, that would follow fixed rates on long-distance calls at all times of the day. We face waste of this kind on our major roads every day. Experience confirms the fact that we cannot build our way out of the problem, because new highways attract back all those who had been rationed off the network by congestion. In the absence of prices, supply and demand are balanced by congestion. Congestion delays mean economic inefficiency, not merely hot tempers.

Most people assume that increased rush-hour traffic is caused by more people commuting to and from work—hence the planners' concern with jobs-housing balance and staggered work hours. But our research has shown that it is nonwork travel that is booming. From 1977 to 1983, commuters made about the same number of trips to and from work during peak hours; off-peak work trips increased substantially. One reason for the shift: commuters were crowded out by other drivers. Non work travel grew by 30 percent in the morning peak, by 18 percent in the afternoon peak, and by 19 percent in off-peak hours. For the first time, both peaks had a majority of trips that were not work trips. This burst in activity pushed many work trips into the off-peak hours and is most responsible for the observed rush-hour jams.

Trips per person grew most in the "social and recreational" and "family and personal" (which includes shopping) categories. The absence of pricing explains the problem: travelers did not have adequate incentive to postpone trips to the off-peak hours. To remedy this situation, we would need a scheme to coax the "nonessential" trips into the off-peak hours, such as a system of time-of-day–specific tolls.

As The Economist noted in a recent cover story, entitled "Make Them Pay," road pricing can be implemented in ways that meet concerns about privacy: Drivers would be able to buy coupons in advance; electronic roadside monitors would be programmed not to trace paid-up peak-hour vehicles; only nonpaying passers would be identified and billed. Similarly, if people are afraid road pricing will be unfair to the needy, some of the revenue can be used to subsidize low-income drivers—leaving in place the incentives to take optional trips during off-peak hours.

Policymakers underestimate the extent to which market processes can help them relieve congestion through decentralization. They overestimate the capacity of expensive plans and bureaucratic intervention to make things better. Finally, they miss the opportunity to strengthen markets by imposing fees that reflect opportunity costs. The operators of private facilities subject to cyclical demand shifts—including theater, restaurant, and resort owners—need no lecture on the merits of peak-load pricing. It is time to exploit this opportunity and to jettison the mentality that applies 19th-century transit solutions to 21st-century traffic problems.

Peter Gordon is associate dean of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Harry Richardson is a professor of economics and of urban and regional planning at USC.

Who Framed General Motors?
Anyone who saw the movie The Man in the White Suit knows that British clothing manufacturers conspired to destroy a fabric that would never wear out or need cleaning. In The Formula, the oil companies put the kibosh on a chemical that would replace petroleum, probably stashing it wherever they're hiding that 150-mpg carburetor. But what about this "criminal conspiracy," as Harry Reasoner described it on "60 Minutes," in which General Motors shut down L.A.'s streetcar company so it could sell more autos?

In 1944, GM and other auto-related companies—Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Truck—did in fact purchase minority interests in the Los Angeles Railway company (LARY). Immediately, LARY began replacing L.A.'s "Red Cars" with motor bus service.

Thirty years went by, and in 1974, a Senate legislative analyst named Bradford Snell produced a widely relied-upon report suggesting that GM and its buddies had manipulated "ground transportation to serve corporate wants instead of social needs." Snell concluded that "the noisy, foul smelling buses turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail system away from public transit and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles."

But two years ago, historian Scott L. Bottles published Los Angeles and the Automobile, an in-depth analysis examining the complete historical record of transit in Los Angeles. His conclusion: Snell's report was "riddled with factual errors and poorly drawn conclusions."

By 1944, suggests Bottles, LARY was a lumbering, money-losing dinosaur. Ridership and service quality were declining, as streetcars simply could not meet the needs of a developing city.

"General Motors did not kill them," Bottles concludes. "Mismanagement, government actions restricting corporate investment in railways, the inflation following World War I, persistent financial problems, and the rise of the automobile all worked together to make streetcars obsolete."

Before the advent of buses and cars, the streetcars operated under monopoly-like conditions and earned the enmity of the public. With numerous examples from newspaper editorials and city council minutes, Bottles portrays the nasty and brutish life of a Red Car rider. Seats were scarce. During rush hour, riders were jammed together in the slow-moving cars. Some had to cling to the outside. Inside, reported the Los Angeles Record, "the air was a pestilence; it was heavy with disease and the emanations from many bodies."

Angelenos, writes Bottles, "constantly complained about the quality of rail transit. From their point of view, the railways sought to benefit at the public's expense. In seeking to operate their business profitably, railway officials, in the minds of many citizens, deliberately ran too few cars, refused to build necessary crosstown lines or tracks into lightly populated areas, ignored the safety of the public, and bribed elected officials for favors." When jitney operators began to lure passengers traveling short distances, for instance, LARY complained to the city council. It moved quickly to protect the rail system—and its transit-tax revenue—by regulating the jitneys out of business.

Facing a monopoly that was at best unmolested by the government and at worst supported by it, the public found a technological solution: the private automobile. From 1918 to 1923, the number of cars registered in Los Angeles increased fourfold.

So the legend that explains the introduction of the automobile as the result of a political/business conspiracy is exactly wrong. Long before the auto interests bought into the railway company, the automobile was smashing—not inspiring—such a conspiracy.

Mass-transit ridership fell constantly. The average person in Los Angeles rode the Red Cars about 200 times in 1915; by 1940, mass-transit ridership was down to around 50 times a year, including bus trips. When GM and the other auto interests bought into LARY, the new management turned to buses because they were much more flexible and mobile—able to change routes without laying new track. As a result, buses briefly attracted more riders, getting the average up to around 125 rides per person in 1945.

This is not to imply that the auto interests behaved like Boy Scouts. A few years after the oil, tire, and truck companies became shareholders of LARY's parent company, LARY was convicted of antitrust violations for buying supplies from these shareholders without competitive bidding.

Nevertheless, concludes Bottles, "General Motors did not attempt to destroy mass transportation. Rather, it wanted to save it in order to maintain a market for its buses. The fact that the conglomerate used unsavory and monopolistic business techniques is quite beside the point."

—Craig M. Collins