David Owen, whom I referenced a few weeks ago, opened up a major can of worms with a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal: "How Traffic Jams Help the Environment." As the title suggests, he argues that congestion compels drivers to shift to alternative modes, and therefor there is no reason to attempt to alleviate it. Randal O'Toole, of the Cato Institute, jumped in right away, seeing confirmation of his long-held suspicion that the "anti-auto" crowd are really only interested in making life as miserable as possible for the greatest number of people. Finally, Ryan Advent also joined in criticizing Owen, only from an entirely different angle. He favors congestion pricing as a way to encourage efficient use of the existing roadways. To me, these three posts create a very instructive framework to view the issue.
Breaking the problem of congestion down into the most simplistic terms, I can only think of these three ways to deal with it. They strike at an age-old dilemma in political philosophy, concerning the distribution of any scarce resources (think health care, for example).
- Build more Supply – This is O’Toole’s preference, to keep paving until adequate automobile mobility is achieved, presumably in perpetuity. In dense cities, this would require large government expenditures and liberal use of eminent domain (a strange position for a self-professed libertarian to take). Of course, the more you pave the more demand you create, thus the more you pave …
- Manage Demand through Queuing – This is Owen’s preference, to distribute the scarce resource of urban roadways by requiring that users wait in line to use them. This has the advantage of egalitarianism. The BMW and rusty, old Ford Escort wait in the same line. But it's not very efficient, either economically or environmentally. The engine is still running while the driver sits in traffic, and she's late for work.
- Manage Demand through Monetizing - This is Ryan Advent's preference. As an economist, he sees a price point at which the use of the roadway can be optimized to carry enough traffic to justify its existence but not so much as to generate congestion. There are equity considerations that must be faced with essentially auctioning the resource to the highest bidder, but presumably transit expenditure or other safety net programs can help mitigate this problem.