Auto Mobility


Stuck in Traffic, by Anthony Downs, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 210 pages, $10.95 paper

In 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 86 percent of us drove to work, nearly all at rush hour. Only 5.3 percent used any form of mass transit, a 17-percent decline from 1980. A smaller fraction of us car-pooled, walked, rode bikes, or worked at home in 1990 than in 1980. Despite billions of dollars in federal, state, and local subsidies for mass transit, the automobile—and especially the single-occupant auto—has increased its role as the overwhelming mode of choice for getting to and from work.

One result, of course, is heavy rush-hour congestion. In Los Angeles, the nation's congestion capital, some freeways are congested not just at rush hours but for 10 or 12 hours a day. Congestion costs Angelenos some $6.9 billion a year in extra gasoline, wasted time, and higher insurance costs, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. For the largest 39 urban areas, TTI estimates total congestion costs of $34 billion a year.

Coping with peak-hour traffic congestion is the focus of Anthony Downs's new book. Downs is a senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution and a longtime analyst of housing, land-use, and urban transportation problems. Among other things, he is known as the author of what is sometimes called the iron law of freeway congestion, or simply Downs's Law: that on urban commuter expressways, peak traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity. In other words, every time you improve things—by adding extra lanes, getting some people to car-pool, or shifting others to mass transit—the decreased congestion attracts new traffic: drivers who formerly used alternative routes, drivers who used to avoid peak hours, and people who used to ride-share or use mass transit. (Downs now calls this "triple convergence.")

In Stuck in Traffic, Downs carefully and systematically explains why congestion has gotten so bad and what we might be able to do about it. Congestion is especially bad where population has increased rapidly and road building has not kept pace; in addition, the ratios of cars to people and of miles driven per car keep rising. But underlying these immediate causes are some basics of land use and lifestyle: Most Americans prefer to live in low-density suburbs and (increasingly) to work in campus-like surroundings, not downtown highrises. Getting from tens of thousands of origins to tens of thousands of destinations (rather than to one or several urban cores) is vastly more convenient with personal vehicles, rather than with any form of shared transportation.

So what can we do? Since congestion, at its most basic, is an imbalance of supply and demand, we can attack it by increasing the supply of transportation or decreasing the demand. Downs shows that large-scale expansion of public transit systems, especially rail transit, is subject to the same limitations as adding more freeway lanes (because of the "iron law" noted above). And attempting to build our way out is also horrendously expensive.

So he devotes a lot more space to demand-side remedies. Peak-hour road pricing (the new buzzword is "congestion pricing") gets well-deserved attention as the one measure that can defeat the iron law. All the latent demand will be attracted back to a reduced-congestion freeway if the price to get on is zero. But at a serious price (say 15-20 cents a mile), many freeways could be kept free-running at rush hour.

Conventional wisdom says that road pricing is politically unrealistic, so Downs proceeds to examine a host of other demand-side possibilities: eliminating free parking, increasing gasoline taxes, promoting ride-sharing, etc. And he goes beyond these conventional measures to examine some of the planners' latest dreams: increasing residential densities, forcing greater "jobs-housing balance," creating dense job clusters, and imposing local growth-management regimes. Calmly and analytically, Downs proceeds to demolish these putative remedies, either as unable to make much of a dent in congestion or as politically untenable.

The pièce de résistance is a summary table evaluating 23 possible congestion remedies on the basis of effectiveness, cost, implementation, and political acceptability. The potentially most comprehensive and effective remedy is, of course, pricing of both roads and parking. Some other measures—such as roving response teams to clean up accidents and fostering transportation management associations—are of moderate cost and could make marginal improvements. But the big losers are also clearly identified: costly rail transit, local growth controls, and jobs-housing balance.

Fortunately, the political infeasibility of congestion pricing seems to be changing. The latest federal highway act encourages large cities to create congestion pricing pilot projects. The private sector has begun developing congestion-priced toll roads in urban areas; the first one will be in Orange County, California. And environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Resources Institute have endorsed the idea as better than paving over America.

Unfortunately, rail transit boondoggles, growth controls, and jobs-housing balance are still the remedies of choice for most urban planners. If left unchecked, those planners will waste billions of dollars, erode our liberties—and we'll still be stuck with monumental traffic congestion.

So buy this book and give copies to your local elected officials. With this kind of intellectual ammunition (from no less a source than the Brookings Institution), you'll have a fighting chance to stop the boondoggles and get the ball rolling for market-based remedies.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is president of the Reason Foundation and publisher of REASON. He is the author of numerous studies on transportation and congestion pricing.