This week, I've been reviewing the literature on transport infrastructure policy. If there is one, big, wicked problem in transport infrastructure, it is traffic congestion. Nobody likes sitting in a car capable of travelling in excess of 100km/h only to crawl along at a snail's pace for a substantial portion of one's waking day.
But respected American economist Andrew Downs (1992: 6, see Holden 2010) suggests that "traffic congestion is the balancing mechanism that allows [people] to pursue certain goals they strongly desire - goals other than rapid movement during peak hours."
Traffic congestion is the balancing mechanism that allows [people] to pursue certain goals they strongly desire - goals other than rapid movement during peak hours (Downs 1992).
The fundamental problem is the "resulting disparity between the high demand for traveling during [peak] periods and the limited supply of roads." Downs (1992: 7) outlines four theoretical solutions to this fundamental problem:
- Ration the use of roads through user charges when demand exceeds supply,
- Increase the capacity of roads,
- Increase public transport, or
- Put up with traffic congestion.
In effect, whether by default or design, congestion is the preferred solution to the current problem.
Realistic solutions to transport problems tend to focus on what Dr Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology suggests is unsustainable: "You just increase transport, you don't reduce congestion."
You just increase transport, you don't reduce congestion (Dr Dinesh Mohan).
The biggest problem with any of the solutions proposed by Downs is that people do not want to have road use rationed, whether through tolls or other user-pays methods, and until public transport is reliably faster than travel by car (such as Hong Kong's MTR, for example), then increasing road capacity is the only logical solution. Unless, of course, governments stop funding ever-increasing road capacity that, despite the best of intentions, ultimately ends in traffic congestion closer to the CBD. Clearly this is not sustainable.
As Downs stated two decades ago, the only way to reduce peak capacity is to reorganise the times we go to work and school. Until then, traffic congestion, which is effectively making people line up to use the road system, is the optimal solution to this wicked problem.
Dearnaley, M. (2014, September 17). Metro rail won’t fix congestion - expert. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/mathew-dearnaley/news/article.cfm?a_id=111&objectid=11326500.
Downs, A. (2005). Still Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Holden, M. (2010). The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy? Sustainability, 2(2), 645–659.