We Need to Embrace Traffic Congestion, Not Fight It

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Last year, the Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan, the president’s plan to make a generational investment in infrastructure. The one talking point for this plan that generated widespread consensus was that it was a huge number. Team Blue touted the bold commitment of a large price tag while Team Red attacked the recklessness and prolificacy of that same spending. Whatever your perspective, everyone thought it was a serious dollar amount.

The American Jobs Plan identified 173,000 total miles of highways and major roads already in poor condition. Over the next decade, this plan, with its unprecedented amount of spending, proposed to “modernize” 20,000 of those miles. That is just 12% of the roads currently in poor condition. Over the next decade.

Let’s be clear: Over the next decade, more than 20,000 miles of existing roads will go from “good” to “poor” condition, more than this unprecedented commitment to spending by the administration proposes to fix. In other words, the largest infrastructure investment in our lifetime doesn’t keep up with the rate of decline of the roads we’ve already built.

The same is true of the nation’s bridges. The American Jobs Plan identified 45,000 bridges in poor condition. It proposed to repair 10,000 of them over the next decade. Each one of these infrastructure investments requires some type of local match, ensuring that whatever theoretical capacity there might be to maintain just our existing infrastructure is tapped in service of this plan.

Under the president’s plan, our roads will crumble and our bridges fall apart faster than we can fix them. Yet, the smaller plan that was ultimately approved, the bipartisan compromise, does even less. 

If we’re not going to have a credible plan for maintaining our existing transportation infrastructure (and, rest assured, there is no credible plan), then how do we even ponder a strategy that adds capacity to the existing system? 

Illinois, one of the most insolvent states, carries a transportation backlog in the tens of billions of dollars, but that doesn’t stop their policy leaders from planning for additional expansion to, you guessed it, address congestion. 

“Expanding the system is a real possibility,” said one policy expert. The internal dissonance with reality necessary to make such a statement is stunning. Any public policy leader promoting expansion of our transportation systems should not be taken seriously.

We Need our Public Investments to be More Productive

If we can’t expand, and are actually likely to experience system decline or contraction, then what about making better use of our existing transportation investments? This is a great idea in theory, and in practice it might help at the margins, but it won’t get us anywhere close to where we need to be.

The classic case of squeezing more congestion-fighting capacity out of our existing system is the installation of ramp meters, a method of privileging the convenience of distant commuters over that of anyone living closer to the center of the city. By forcing core residents to wait at meters while commuters speed by on the highway, traffic engineers can theoretically accommodate more vehicles on the same roadway during peak hours. 

That relationship will remain true until the dynamic nature of traffic reveals itself. Humans respond to having additional capacity by doing human things, like driving more and choosing a larger house, further away, because the commute is not so bad anymore. When enough humans act like humans, the roadway fills back up, congestion returns—likely even more intensely—and whatever efficiency gains were made are given back.

Our fetish with automated vehicles comes from the same mindset. Just imagine if computers could drive our cars and we could cram more cars into the same space because we wouldn’t need all that distance between vehicles! Listening to Peter Norton will be a wakeup call to those of you who think that automated vehicles are about to save us, but simple geometry once again sets a limit for efficiency no computer can overcome. 

Transit expansions, especially large and very expensive projects, have the potential to dramatically increase efficiency on the corridor in which people are being transported, but commuter development patterns are diffuse by nature. Yes, we can create transit-oriented development along new or refreshed transit routes, but once again, we’re running into the money challenges, not to mention a cultural resistance to change. In most places, especially those where traffic congestion during commutes is the problem, there’s not enough pre-existing transit there to make it work. 

And that’s really the core problem commuting culture creates, a challenge that money spent fighting congestion only makes worse: the diffuse development pattern generates more public costs than it builds private wealth. These are low productivity environments, a financial imbalance that no transportation investment will overcome.

Most of our audience is aware of the work of Urban3, particularly the insightful productivity mapping approach they have pioneered. They have demonstrated over and over in cities around the world that financial productivity is the key to local creation, and there is nothing less productive than auto-oriented development on the edge of a city. When we spread everyone out, we drive up costs and dilute the tax base, creating long-term fiscal insolvency for local governments and the communities they serve.

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