Transportation Progress Is at Hand If We’re Willing To Use It

John Quiggin observes that technological progress has been remarkably uneven, with huge advances in computer power and digitial communications but stagnation in many fields. Indeed in transportation in some ways things are getting worse: “The average American spends more time in the car, just to cover the basic tasks of shopping and getting to work, than was needed a generation ago, and in many cases, travels more slowly.”

Something I always want to urge people to consider, however, is that this slow progress in transportation quality isn’t really a technological issue. The reason we have traffic jams is that road access isn’t priced properly.

Everyone understands that if we had a system of price controls for cans of tuna fish and then we set the price too low, we’d have shortages of tuna. And that’s true at basically any level of tuna technology (note that ancient Rome had a traffic congestion problem). This is essentially the problem with vehicle traffic. Road access to crowded urban areas and congested highways ought to be made sufficiently expensive to ameliorate the congestion problem, and the revenue would allow us to support public services with less in the way of taxation of productive labor. A related issue exists with persistent underpricing of on-street parking in cities, where people engage in pervasive block-circling in response to poorly managed price controls. It’s very plausible that the 1962 level of technology was not compatible with sensible systems of road tolling and demand-responsive street parking, but here 50 years later precisely because of advances in IT we have the ability to comprehensively solve the traffic congestion problem.

The problem isn’t the technology, but that outside of a handful of places we don’t use the technology. But Singapore does and Beijing will soon and maybe other places too.