Is urban congestion completely out of control? Will our highways soon face 24-hour gridlock? A two-day September conference on urban growth issues, sponsored by the Reason Foundation addressed these questions and more. The participants challenged a number of myths about traffic congestion and the role of government planning in alleviating the mess.
Peter Gordon, a professor of planning and economics at the University of Southern California, noted that the national median travel distance from home to office is six miles—a figure that has not changed since the 1960s. And from 1980 to 1985, in the top 20 U.S. metropolitan areas, average drive time remained constant or dropped. Gordon concluded that the marketplace has responded to commuters: Industry has followed the labor force into the suburbs.
Even as commute times remain constant, congestion has spread over larger areas. A major reason: Trips not involving home-to-office commutes increasingly clog traffic arteries at peak times. Reason Foundation President Robert W. Poole, Jr., cited studies showing that nonwork trips constitute half the driving during the morning rush hour and two-thirds of the trips during the afternoon rush. Poole made the case for congestion pricing—charging motorists for highway use during peak times. Rush-hour fees would encourage motorists to carpool or to take discretionary trips at less-congested times.
Demonstration projects in Dallas and Singapore show that peak-hour pricing indeed reduces traffic congestion, Poole noted. Two scheduled private toll road projects in Orange County, California, will base rates on congestion-pricing standards.
While conference attendees representing government agencies and environmental groups wouldn't uniformly endorse free-market policies, all agreed that incentives could replace more coercive measures and positively influence the behavior of motorists.