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Posted over 1 year ago

Solving Traffic Congestion

A report published in 2021 listed New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston as the US cities with the worst traffic congestion (in that order). While it shouldn’t be a surprise to see any of these cities among the top ten, there are some interesting nuances between the cities, especially when you compare the east coast to the west coast.

Cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston are known for having very dense urban cores that are surrounded by suburbs. Once you leave the downtown gridlock, traffic tends to thin out. This is because these cities were built before the automobile was invented. By contrast, cities like Los Angeles and Houston were built specifically with automobile traffic in mind. Instead of having a super dense city center, cities like Los Angeles have more moderate density that stretches over a greater distance.

In a typical northeastern city, you might sit in stop and go traffic for an hour, accelerating to 10-15 mph briefly, before hitting the brakes and coming to a standstill. But after an hour or so you’ll have traveled far enough to leave the urban core and be able to start traveling full speed again.

Compare that to a place like Los Angeles, or other cities built around the automobile. When these, typically western cities, were built, nobody imagined just how prevalent automobile travel would become. Homes and businesses were spread out because driving made it easy to travel larger distances. Today, after decades of growth and expansion, you could leave downtown LA and inch along at 20-30 mph for the next three hours. The fact that you have to drive around mountains and can’t always take the most direct route, only exacerbates the problem. So, while you may be able to travel a little more quickly in LA traffic than in NY traffic, you’ll be at that slow pace for a longer period of time. Lacking a truly dense urban core, drivers in Los Angeles have a greater distance to travel before traffic really starts to thin out.

Building More Roads as a Solution

When we think about what causes congestion, we picture lots of cars on the road and nowhere for them to go. So, it sounds logical then to assume that if we reduce the number of cars on a given road or given lane that traffic should ease up. In theory, if we had double the number of roadways, we could all drive twice as fast because there would be half as many cars on each road/lane.

Unfortunately, time and time again, we’ve seen that adding more lanes and more roads does not solve the problem. In fact, it actually makes the problem worse. When driving is easier, such as when there’s less traffic, more people are encouraged to do it.

Think of your GPS. If there are three ways to get from Point A to Point B, your GPS will direct you to take the fastest path. As more people use the same GPS system, that once quiet street eventually fills up with traffic until it’s no longer the fastest option.

The same is true with different forms of transportation. If we could walk faster than we drive, we likely would. If we could teleport instead of commuting by car, we probably would. But we can’t, and so when we compare a poorly run public transportation system, riding a bicycle or scooter, and driving a car, the car usually wins. If we make driving easier still, such as by adding new roads, more people, including those that today are taking public transportation, will be encouraged to start driving.

This concept is called induced demand. Simply put, more roads lead to more drivers. It’s not unlike how more Americans started drinking coffee as coffee shops started popping up on every corner or how when you see other people enjoying something you want to do it as well. This is why the solution cannot be making it easier to drive, but as we’ll discuss briefly, the solution may actually lie in making driving more frustrating and cumbersome.

As a real world example, consider The Katy Freeway in Houston, TX, which was once ranked the second-worst bottleneck in the country. Seeking to fix the problem, the road was expanded. At its widest point, the Katy Freeway is 26 lanes. But adding more capacity hasn’t made traffic lighter. In fact, just the opposite happened. Travel times have increased year after year. One article states that without traffic, the trip should take 30 minutes, but during peak rush hour the drive takes an hour and 50 minutes.

Other Approaches

One of side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that more people have been staying home. During the earliest part of the pandemic, many roads were empty allowing drivers to speed along normally jammed routes, regardless of the time of day.

This seemed to prove that if we can simply get more cars off the roads, that the roadways and traffic will improve. But it’s not enough to simply provide alternatives to drivers, as we’ve begun to get back to our lives. In New York City, the public transportation systems is among the best in the nation. Yet, even though New Yorkers have the option of taking public transportation, the City’s roadways are still congested.

The idea of carpooling is hardly a new concept. But even if it means fewer cars on the road at once, it hasn’t solved the congestion problem. Today, we also have ride sharing. Ride sharing services are a form of public transportation, but has the added convenience of taking you from door to door.

While carpooling and ride sharing haven’t solved our congestion problems, they are a step in the right direction. The technology behind ride sharing also offers some encouragement. When you use a ride sharing app, you’re given the option of paying less and sharing the vehicle with others or paying a little more to be the only passenger. In the case of a shared ride, this demonstrates how technology can help reduce congestion by telling the ride sharing driver when to pick up and drop off different passengers. It does so in such as a way to not overload the vehicle and to keep the driver on the most efficient route. If a potential passenger is too far out of the way, they’ll be redirected to another driver.

The Role of Real Estate

Reading this article, you may be wondering what traffic has to do with real estate. If you think about it, it’s not hard to appreciate how decisions made by real estate developers and well as planners who control what developers can and cannot do, impact traffic patterns.

When we have suburban sprawl for example, we’ll naturally have more people driving greater distances. When we increase urban density such that the places where people live and work are closer together, they may still drive, but they won’t have to travel as far.

In addition to just increasing the density of our cities and putting homes, businesses, and entertainment closer together, cost plays a key role. When people can’t afford to live in central part of a city, they’re forced to live further away and commute. Thus, the high cost of housing moves people into suburbs, but since jobs are more prevalent in urban cores, they then end up driving greater distances to benefit from the combination of greater employment opportunities and less expensive housing.

There are movements such as New Urbanism and Smart Growth that aim to increase urban density and promote smaller, more pedestrian friendly, walkable cities where people can live, work, and play all in one place. Though these movement have often been met with resistance, in part because people like the idea of having a house that they own, with plenty of space to move around in.

An Undesirable Solution

If adding lanes, building more roads, and otherwise increasing capacity doesn’t solve the problem, then there must be another solution. Unfortunately, as alluded to earlier, the other solution isn’t necessarily a desirable one for the general public.

Part of making public transportation, walking, and biking more desirable may lie in making driving more frustrating, cumbersome, and expensive. All transportation options have their own pros and cons, and each of us have to make a decision about which option makes the most sense for our unique situation.

People continue to put up with traffic because currently the positives outweigh the negatives. But what if public transit was more convenient? What if there were stops closer to your home and place of employment? What if you never had to wait for more than two minutes for your bus or train to arrive? What if the buses and trains were cleaner? What if they were free, perhaps subsidized by the government?

But, where would the government get the money? Whether we like it or not, one place they could get it is from gasoline taxes and toll roads. This would also serve to further disincentivize driving. Imagine if every road, street, highway, and freeway except for the smallest neighborhood surface streets charged a toll. If you live on a cul-de-sac that road may be free, but the road that it connects to, primary roads and avenues such as Main Streets and those that intersect it, along with all major and minor highways and county roads would all be toll roads.

We already pay a lot for the luxury of driving between gas, insurance, auto repairs, and the cost of the actual vehicle. How much more would people accept? At some point, and especially when the alternatives are made more attractive, we would start to change our behavior.

In most US cities, public transportation isn’t very good and so people put up with the hassles of driving. But if we improved public transit and made driving worse, then people would start to give up their cars.

In places like Singapore and Stockholm a concept known as “congestion pricing” charges drivers to travel into certain parts of a city or charges them more during rush hour than during off-peak hours, and it’s actually had some rather positive results.

What we’re seeing is that in real world cases, building a 26-lane highway doesn’t decrease traffic congestion, but charging people more money to drive and concurrently offering them more attractive alternatives, actually can improve congestion. In Singapore for instance, if you’re willing to pay the rush hour tolls, your commute will be a much smoother one than any major city in the United States.

Naturally people will fight these changes. Nobody wants to intentionally make things more difficult or more expensive, and nobody wants to pay for something that had traditionally been free, like driving down Main Street.

Even though these approaches have been shown to be effective, they’re effective precisely because people don’t like them. Thus, the measures and changes would be difficult to get approval for and to enact.

As a result, and for the foreseeable future, we may not be paying to drive on every road with cash, but we are paying with our time. Congestion pricing aims to reverse things, so that we would pay with cash and save time. But in order for it to work, we would need public support.

Even without implementing congestion pricing, we can start to make an impact by improving public transportation, increasing ride sharing options, designing more walkable cities, and providing more affordable housing choices. Every little change helps and as the alternatives are made more attractive, people may begin to start to accept the idea of a future that involves less driving.