The 2012 version of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute congestion report is out, and the news is basically that as the economy recovers from the great recession, traffic jams are getting worse again. The most congested metropolitan area in the United States is Washington D.C., followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. The good news is that some of those cities at least offer excellent nondriving commuting options to some of the population, (I’m about a 15 minute walk from my office) but as you can see in the chart above, this is one area of American life that’s clearly gotten worse over the past generation.
The top five list, however, is also a pointer in the direction of the correct solution. The striking thing about these cities is that despite serious congestion problems, they’re all big, exciting, prosperous, dynamic cities. Or rather, they have a lot of traffic congestion in part because they’re big exciting prosperous dynamic cities. Increasing the quantity of highways in these metropolitan areas might help them become even bigger and more dynamic (though there are also geographical constraints in play) but it’s the dynamism itself that leads to the congestion. Build a useful road and you’ll find that space on the road at peak times is a valuable commodity. And yet it’s also a commodity that’s generally either available for free or else available for a price that’s unrelated to the demand for space on the road. Naturally an underpriced valuable commodity leads to overconsumption. Traffic jams, in other words. Every once in a while Ben & Jerry’s holds a “Free Cone Day” that invariably leads to long lines. Roadways in dynamic metro areas are basically holding Free Cone Day five days a week. Charge people enough money to eliminate routine congestion and you’ll find yourself with fewer traffic jams and an enormous pool of revenue that can be used to maintain your basic infrastructure and upgrade your bus service.
These reports all end up attempting to quantify the large economic costs of traffic congestion, but this is another case where I think it’s helpful to look at quantities consumed rather than dollars. When you look at the past 40 years of American life, time itself is one of the key commodities that have become scarcer even as many other classes of goods have become more abundant. And the basic reality that there are only 24 hours in a day isn’t likely to change, so things that help free up wasted time are particularly valuable.