Tuesday, October 13

The three responses to congestion

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).

  1. 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 …

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
Contrary to O'Toole's characterization, most advocates for livable streets support congestion pricing (and similar policies, such as performance parking). Letting congestion increase is not some nefarious plan that urbanists whisper to each other behind closed doors, I can assure you. Frankly, it's mostly the journalists who are drawn to these kinds shocking idiosyncrasies ("Chocolate is actually good for you!"). Most of us really mean it when we aspire to enhance transportation options for everyone.


LH said...

Thank you for framing the discussion the way you did. As an economist, my perspective is that when you allow for a price to be set and for individuals to then determine how much of something they want to consume, you reach a supply/demand equilibrium that is socially optimal.

Of course, as with paying the airlines for an extra bag or paying extra for plastic bags at the grocery store, once we're used to something being free, we get cranky about being charged for it. Hence, the resistance to what is otherwise a sensible solution to congestion. Alas, we forget that life is all about trade-offs.

chipdouglas said...

(1) It is a gross mischaracterization of O'Toole's position to say he is for building roads "in perpetuity." This is a debate fallacy called begging the question. You have assumed the induced-demand myth and taken it ad absurdum to the point where building roads means we must pave every natural inch of the planet's surface, then claimed that's O'Toole's plan.

(2) O'Toole is for congestion-pricing -- he said this in the article you LINKED to. You give him no credit for this. However, NOWHERE in the article did he endorse building more roads, as you claim. This is lazy research at best; dishonest at worst. Needless to say, the "strange for a libertarian" jab is a scold YOU contrived.

(3)Why do you put "anti-auto" in quotations, as if to question the very existence of such a view? As an associate to local P&D bureaucrats, I don't have enough fingers and toes to count all the car-haters with whom I am on a first-name basis.

(4) "Most of us really mean it when we aspire to enhance transportation options for everyone." I know a mob of people who think of themselves as righteous for supporting coercion of the masses into conditions supported by "experts." Between the two of us, I don't consider these people -- all of whom would make the same claim you did -- to be righteous in any capacity.

LH said...

I will also note that when Mayor Bloomberg was unsuccessful in getting Albany to enable congestion pricing (#3), he simply took back some streets from cars and gave them to pedestrians (#2).

On a related note, I'm not sure if you are aware of plans by Montgomery County (PA) to toll Route 422 to pay for rail service from Reading to Philadelphia. Talk about leveling the playing (funding) field!

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks, LH, I wasn't aware that Montgomery County was doing this.

Chip, thanks for commenting. Here are my responses:

1. I'd challenge you to find a current transportation engineer who does not believe in at least a certain degree of induced demand based on roadway improvements. (40% of all new capacity is a pretty standard number). Also, given population growth rates and an even higher VMT growth rate, I think it's fair to say that one would have to pave "in perpetuity" to meet 100% of demand for roadways. When would you be able to stop and say the job is now done?

2. O'Toole does not endorse congestion pricing in the post I link to. He has opposed the congestion pricing proposal in NY and opposes current congestion pricing in London. As a libertarian, he has to say that pricing roads is a positive thing in theory, but for some reason he has not supported any efforts to implement it in practice. Please, correct me if you find him giving a positive account of pricing automobile travel. I don't read every word he writes.

3. "Anti-auto" is a loaded term like calling the opponent in an abortion debate "anti-choice" or "pro-death." I like to refer to groups by the names they use to refer to themselves. Otherwise, I put the name in quotes.

4. I can't speak for the people you know who want to impose "expert" opinions onto other people through coercion. I'll only say that this happens on both sides. It's probably best to evaluate ideas on their own merits, rather than trying to discern the sinister motives of the speaker.

chipdouglas said...

Daniel -- thanks for being civil in response to my decidedly vindictive rebuke. That's how I usually come out of the box.

(1) You're right that demand can be induced to the degree that some who time or alternate their routes could be encouraged to change their schedules to use new roads. But to call this "in perpetuity," which basically means it would continue forever, is an absurdist escalation and cop-out. How much is enough? We'll literally never know, because there is no chance we'll experiment with it to the degree that we have in the past, as auto transit does not provide enough turf-grabs and patronage opportunities for power-seekers and backscratchers. The conspiratorial nature of such a claim is unavoidable after years of peripheral association with DOT and P&D make-workers.

(2) O'Toole generally supports congestion pricing. I don't want to come down too hard but this should have been obvious from the fact that his post was spent attacking the people against congestion-pricing. As you know, he is an author and CATO wonk and does consulting and misc. work for other institutions, so he has made many recommendations for real congestion pricing applications.

(3) If "anti-auto" were instead "anti-individual liberty," I would agree it rings hollow. But there is no question among the initiated that there exists a significant group of people who show up to work everyday (or who support their efforts) and draft up happy-sounding euphemisms for suppression of POV transit. People within the transportation discussion who actively attempt to circumvent any new infrastructure development for use by automobiles -- many of whom I know and are open about this -- can safely and responsibly be called "anti-auto."

(4) I meritoriously evaluate their ideas on a continuous, case-by-case basis, and after evaluating what are probably hundreds of cases by now, I can safely conclude that those particular people want "experts'" ideas forced on people, with or without the people's support. I also reject the moral equivalence that "they're on both sides." This may literally be true, but it is intellectual bankruptcy to claim that the minority of libertarians -- who are interested in realizing NEGATIVE RIGHTS in the style of Bastiat, Hayek et al. -- are no different in form and function than people like Smart Growthers who believe coercion and contrived charrettes for "community participation" as a first resort.

Daniel Nairn said...

Chip, I wonder what you would have thought of all of the social engineering that went into planning the original U.S. Interstate system. Take the Futurama exhibit from the 1939 World's Fair. The "experts" were very explicit at the time that, in the future, private motorcars would be the primary means of transportation and cities would have to be retrofitted to meet their needs. The idealism was palpable.

What do you make of urban renewal, including the massive amounts of eminent domain and displacement? Was it inappropriate? Or did to serve the greater good of maximizing personal mobility?

chipdouglas said...

Daniel --

No offense, but nice try.

The interstate system was an example of government intervention whose outcomes, like everything in economics, were a tradeoff. In that case, it promoted personal mobility and grew economies -- at the cost of requiring new tax monies and property forfeitures to support.

I appreciate a planner who can apply this both to theory and to real life: too often, to win votes or public support, urban & transportation plans are presented as a a perfect solution and a utopian panacea for which no significant tradeoffs must be made.

We (most of us) now look upon the interstates as a success. As a libertarian, 70 years ago I would have gladly accepted NO government involvement in such a capacity, preferring instead to let the market develop them privately. This sounds unthinkable; even ridiculous today because we never saw that alternate universe. Because the market develops according to demand, I am confident it would have been built to meet it rather than according to a long-range plan.

Obvious questions arise (e.g., domain issues), and I think they would have been solved. There is an obvious 20/20 hindsight thing here, and I attribute a great deal of our lack of confidence in non-governmental solutions to the fact that we rarely allow a private alternative to compete under equal conditions, and we eventually nationalize the ones who do.