First in the nation for gridlock, Washington, D.C. has a #1 award that no one wants. During 2014, D.C.’s average rush hour driver lost 82 hours in congestion. Think 10 years and you’ve used up a month.
While traffic jams create a cost that might include more time at work, a family breakfast, that morning run. and extra emissions, still we resist the best solutions.
Traffic Congestion Solutions
On the demand side, a higher price can create diminished use but is costly to implement and initially unpopular. Alternatives include HOV (high occupancy vehicles) lanes and HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes that are HOV with the tweak of letting us pay for the faster lane if we don’t have the extra passengers. And finally, the ETLs (express toll lanes) use variable pricing sensors that charge drivers for using faster moving lanes.
Moving to the supply side, some have suggested diminishing congestion with new roads and lanes. Inevitably though, the extra supply attracts more drivers. One study concluded that in 10 years you wind up back where you started. Furthermore, those extra lanes cost dollars that could have been used elsewhere–maybe $10-$15 million a mile.
Our Bottom Line: Conflicting Incentives
Solving congestion is tough because of the conflicting incentives we have created.
We say we want less congestion but our urban areas encourage it. In a recent paper, parking guru Donald Shoup reminds us that, rather like peanut butter and jelly, urban design and cars need each other. Our cities “segregate land uses (housing here, jobs there, shopping somewhere else) to increase travel demand.” They also “limit density at every site to spread the city, further increasing travel demand” and “require ample off-street parking everywhere, making cars the default way to travel.”
We also have the politics of diminishing congestion. When the choice was between economic efficiency and the public preference, the decision in Virginia was a new $100 million plus Beltway lane that in 10 years will be wasted spending. But that takes us to public choice theory…a topic for another day.