How to Unclog the Nation’s Highways

Published February 1, 2007

The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It
By Ted Balaker and Sam Staley
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2006
208 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0742551121, $24.95
Available through

The Texas Transportation Institute, a department at Texas A&M University that does research on transportation issues, estimates traffic congestion costs American commuters at least $63 billion a year, and it probably costs businesses at least that much more.

Yet, like the weather, everyone talks about traffic, but no one seems to do anything about it.

“Imagine if our leaders decided that public schools were going to get worse,” and “that their plan was simply to slow the rate at which education got worse,” suggest Ted Balaker and Sam Staley in The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It.

No sensible American would accept such a plan, yet that is the approach almost every American city has for dealing with traffic congestion. Don’t fix it; simply slow its increase.

Transit No Answer

The book shows this happens because most transportation planners believe “we can’t build our way out of congestion.” The problem, they think, is too much driving, and their solution is to pour money into transit rather than roads. Yet transit accounts for only about 2 percent of urban travel, and its share continues to decline.

Balaker and Staley are a part of the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Project, which is promoting transportation policies and plans that can actually reduce urban congestion. The benefits of such policies would be enormous.

Among other things, Balaker and Staley cite research showing that increasing average commute speeds directly increases worker productivity because it gives employers access to a larger pool of more highly skilled workers.

Myths Debunked

Their book debunks numerous myths that infect transportation planning, including myths that transit can relieve congestion; that forcing people to drive less is the solution to air pollution; that roads are paving over America; and that we are running out of oil.

Most important is the myth that planners actually can reduce the amount of driving people do, when in fact per-capita driving is increasing everywhere in the country.

The authors show these myths are promoted by a congestion coalition (whoever thought up that name should receive a medal) that actively opposes any plan to relieve congestion.

This Baptists-and-bootleggers alliance includes groups that actually benefit from congestion: transit agencies, rail contractors, downtown property owners (the “bootleggers”), as well as environmental groups that simply oppose driving (the “Baptists”). This loose coalition dominates transportation planning in many American cities.

Americans have allowed this to happen, the book points out, because highways are a government monopoly. If a cell phone company repeatedly gave us an “all circuits busy” message, we would change to a different provider.

But virtually all U.S. highways are government-run, and this “near uniformity of road service … makes [American consumers] naive. When innovation fades, consumers’ imaginations atrophy. When it comes to roads, customers don’t matter.”

Innovation in Europe

Members of the congestion coalition often point to Europe as a place where governments have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in transit. So it is ironic that Balaker and Staley must go to Europe for examples of innovative solutions to the congestion problem.

Britain, France, and other nations are promoting private construction of roads that are paid for out of tolls. Such public-private partnerships are a key component of Reason’s Mobility Project.

Another component is to allow tolls to vary according to the amount of traffic. Airlines, hotels, and other businesses subject to cyclical demand have long charged more for peak-period usage. With the advent of electronic toll collection systems, such peak-period pricing on highways can guarantee an end to congestion.

Rather than propose that existing freeways be tolled, Balaker and Staley take the less-controversial step of advocating that cities build a new network of high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes parallel to existing freeways, an idea first proposed by Reason’s former executive director, Robert Poole.

Such HOT lanes would give free access to buses and other high-occupancy vehicles but would also be open to low-occupancy vehicles willing to pay a toll.

Tampa’s Success

A toll road authority in Tampa recently built three new lanes elevated above an existing highway, paid for exclusively with electronic tolls. The new lanes completely eliminated rush-hour congestion in the highway corridor.

In addition to suggesting expansion of limited-access roads with a HOT-lane network, the authors promote such ideas as improving traffic signal coordination (probably the most cost-effective way of relieving congestion) and converting more two-way streets to one-way couplets.

The congestion coalition is actually converting one-way streets back to two-way; and once in Boston I saw a road sign reading, “Signals Timed to Require Frequent Stops.”

Congestion is a problem that can be fixed, and this book shows how. It should be required reading for every transportation planner and urban activist in the country.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist at the Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Oregon.