Sometimes, especially in the midst of economic meltdown and the death throes of a Republican presidential campaign, it’s important to remember that this is, at heart, a really big country, and there are a whole lot of issues which don’t get enough play in the news.
Traffic is a big one. Oh, we talk about it, and we rant and rave and rail about it. Sit in a car for more than, oh, 20 or 30 seconds with my Dad, and odds are you’ll hear some portion of his ongoing manifesto against civil engineers the world over, none of whom could design their way out of a 4-way stop sign intersection, to hear him tell it.
But there’s a big, fundamental problem with pretty much all our discussions of traffic, which Yglesias got into yesterday. And by fundamental, I’m talking ‘Econ 101’ kind of stuff. Demand and supply. There’s large demand for roads which go directly from here to there, with no stoplights, and flow freely during rush hour. And, so long as we want to keep ‘here’ and ‘there’ as separate places, instead of paving entire cities over with blacktop, there is going to be a severely limited supply of such roads. Limited supply and high demand means that the appropriate cost, from an Econ 101 standpoint, is pretty high, especially during those prime driving hours of morning and afternoon rush hour.
Instead, for the vast majority of our roads, the price is $0. Of course, this isn’t the real price – you pay for gas, you pay for the time spent sitting in traffic, and you do pay for the roads, through gas taxes, and also general fund expenditures such as the ginomahugetrosity known as T-REX a few years ago in Denver. But the apparent price is $0, which means that the rational thing for a consumer to do is to use as much of the road as he or she wants to do.
Which is great, right up until every other consumer starts to do the same thing, and you quickly realize that it’s pretty much impossible to build enough roads, enough lanes, to ensure that major highways in major cities flow freely 24 hours a day if every single person wants to drive to arrive at work at 9 and leaves work and drives home at 5.
In an intelligent world, one where government officials were not afraid to stand up and say to citizens “you will not always be able to drive anywhere you want to, at any time, free of cost”, we could enact some really simple, and really great policies. Congestion pricing, where driving in metro areas, and especially on highways in metro areas, costs something to do during the day. Take that money, and roll it right back into providing good, convenient, affordable alternatives to driving for people who don’t need to, or who can’t afford to.
Policy shifts in this direction will have such remarkable long-term effects on our economy. Less people driving during peak hours will mean less traffic, so those who do pay will really be buying something, the ability to get places faster than they can now. Less traffic means less time idling, so less gas burned, saving money and reducing carbon emissions. Added inconvenience to driving will change the incentive structure of where people live, making it more attractive to live near where you work, so you can get there quickly and cheaply, maybe even biking or walking instead of driving, which will further reduce carbon emissions, save more money, and make people healthier.
And, although conservative types will argue that we are taking away people’s liberties, I would argue that we are, instead, making the people who use a resource be the ones who actually pay for it. Obviously, this is the sort of thing which is going to start in a major liberal city (I believe that Bloomberg has talked about implementing congestion pricing in Manhattan), but if it works, hopefully other metro areas will see the utility, maybe come up with their own improvements on the idea, and see where we can go from there…