When Libertarians Support Highway Expansions

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Last week, a Reason Foundation newsletter by Robert Poole featured a critique of an article I wrote on induced demand (“Ignoring Induced Demand is Engineering Malpractice”). The newsletter author tied my piece to something called the “iron law of freeway congestion,” a law I’ve never heard of or cited and a phrase I’ve never used but actually find quite ridiculous.

The newsletter called my article “an anti-highway piece dressed up as an analysis of a highway widening study” and said that I tried to “make the traffic engineers look like idiots” (on that latter point I’ll admit some culpability but, in my defense, they really do it to themselves). The newsletter asserts that I am somehow de facto against highways and that my opposition to them is rooted in a desire for federal spending on other transportation options. That is a bad take.

I am categorically not against highways. In fact, I think the interstate highway system was a transformative public investment that, especially where it adhered to its original concept, provided tremendous public benefit. It still does.

My critique of highways has always been that we finished building the interstate system in the late 1960s and, since then, have demonstrated that we are hostage to a political and economic approach dependent on federally funded highway expansions of diminishing returns and dubious merit. We have literally expanded our federally funded, auto-based transportation system to a size that taxpayers are unwilling to pay to maintain. Full stop.

Anyone who reads my extensive writing about the Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal will recognize that I’m not making an argument for shifting federal funding to other priorities. My argument is for no federal funding—zero— until we have a credible plan for maintaining the highway infrastructure which we’ve already built. To the extent that I’m anti-highway, it actually aligns well with libertarian sensibilities regarding government excess.

Nonetheless, I often find myself in policy discussions about infrastructure with self-ascribed libertarians. As I write in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, I used to find these conversations very confusing, especially when it comes to highways. Why are highways the one exception to the kind of top-down government action that normally offends libertarian sensibilities? As I write in Confessions: “The key to understanding the incoherence of the auto-centric libertarian is to recognize that they equate the automobile with individual freedom. In that mindset, when the government spends money increasing the amount people drive, they are simultaneously increasing individual freedom, which in their eyes is the primary role of government.”

While there is no “iron law” of induced demand, and it is bizarre to see the lengths at which libertarian-leaning academics and researchers go to minimize or deny the impact of it at all. People who have no problem identifying how federal military spending creates a vast, military-industrial complex can still passionately defend the big boxes, fast food joints, strip mall franchises, and cookie-cutter suburban homes created by federal highway spending as somehow a manifestation of the free market

As I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic: “You don’t have a Cheesecake Factory in your town because the people in your community are in love with Cheesecake Factory.” You have a Cheesecake Factory because their business model is supported and subsidized by the government, particularly when it comes to highways. The project in Loudoun County, Virginia, I wrote about is but a small sliver of the overall infrastructure-industrial complex.

According to the Reason newsletter, my column on induced demand was discussed by “transportation colleagues” of Steven Polzin, a PhD professor at Arizona State University, along with a commentary that Polzin wrote. A January 2022 report by Polzin, titled “Induced Demand’s Effect on Freeway Expansion,” is also cited. 

There are some technical and nuanced points I could respond to there, but I don’t think that would be as helpful as pointing out the obvious: Nobody can calculate, with any degree of confidence, what the induced demand is from any specific highway project. It’s an absurdity to suggest there is none (I actually called such a suggestion “engineering malpractice”), just as it’s also an absurdity to suggest that there is some “iron law” of inducing congestion that makes all highway projects futile from conception.

The only reason we pretend we can calculate induced demand—or any future traffic flow—is because there are trillions of dollars at stake in doing so. Motivated reasoning is a powerful cognitive force for which libertarians seem just as susceptible to as progressives or conservatives.

I used to believe that we could overcome our inability to know the future by creating a transportation funding system that (inspired by the thinking of Black Swan author, Nassim Taleb) relied on feedback loops to collect money from users and then channel those funds back into expansions, where user behavior clearly demonstrated the need. I even wrote a short Kindle e-book detailing how we’d implement such a scheme. It was all quite libertarian, actually.

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