Traffic Congestion case study: Increase supply or limit demand?

Troy Senik of Center for Individual Freedom points to this interesting case study from Los Angeles.

Basically LA is supposedly always suffering from traffic problems. The average Angeleno loses 80 hours a year to gridlock. It is a huge area and greater LA area has around 18 million people. There is no realy culture of public transport and people love their cars. Despite wide road network, it is always congested (Any city in India would love to trade traffic with LA; they would then know what traffic is all about). They have massive freeways but are always chocked and is ranked as city with worst traffic in US.

Now, there was this nice case. The city authority decided to close a road to tear down a bridge over the road. The road was very important link in the whole grid and people called it a disaster:

So when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it would close a ten-mile stretch of Interstate 405 to tear down a bridge over the freeway, local pundits dubbed the weekend of July 15–17 “Carmageddon.” A ten-mile shutdown may seem like small change in less car-conscious markets, but in Los Angeles it’s potentially crippling. Especially when the artery in question is the Sepulveda Pass, linking the suburban communities of the San Fernando Valley (where summer temperatures routinely break triple digits) with the posh, substantially cooler neighborhoods of West Los Angeles and their adjacent beaches. On an average summer weekend, this stretch of road accommodates roughly half a million vehicles. Closing it represented an automotive amputation.

People would say it was a weekend so what was the big deal. Well Americans travel quite a bit for leisure and hobbies on weekends.  This led to chaos and people made interesting choices:

Jeremiads ensued from the local news media. Radio and TV stations promised around-the-clock coverage. Travelers were warned that traffic could back up for nearly 65 miles and that it would take triple the normal time to get to Los Angeles International Airport. Civic officials took to the airwaves to tell locals to stay off the roads. In three hours, JetBlue Airways sold 600 seats on flights between Burbank and Long Beach—two airports approximately 35 miles from one another.

What was the outcome? People were so worked up with all that negative activity, they decided to stayoff the roads. They did not travel at all. Hence all roads were empty and work was done:

And then . . . nothing happened. The public deterrence campaign was so effective that most locals either stayed off the road or left town for the weekend. Local television personality Sam Rubin cited the event as proof that Los Angeles would be better off with fewer cars. “This weekend . . . proved something that I hope transportation planners, city leaders, and local citizens will keep in mind,” Rubin blogged. “It is as simple as it is true. Fewer cars on the road equal less traffic. Less traffic means better quality of life. So what is the real way to put fewer cars on the road, wider freeways and more HOV lanes? Of course not. We keep trying that solution and it fails again and again. . . . We should select one weekend a month . . . and give people the exact same message. Stay home.”

Senik says this is the wrong lesson. The real lesson is people respond to market incentives:

Rubin learned the wrong lesson from Carmageddon. The solution to Southern California’s traffic woes isn’t to take a region that’s already reeling economically and to close it for business on a monthly basis. Rather, it’s to embrace market principles like those that averted catastrophe last weekend. While most media coverage focused on the absence of the predicted traffic jams, another fact went underreported. The demolition—scheduled to last through Monday morning—actually wrapped up by noon the day before, 17 hours ahead of schedule. Financial incentives for a timely completion made the project’s engineers an extra $300,000, while taxpayers saved an estimated $400,000.

So the real lesson is not to curb demand but increase supply:

As Southern California officials consider future efforts to combat the region’s gridlock, they should take these examples to heart. Rubin and others think that the area’s transportation crisis can be remedied by suppressing demand through some combination of moral suasion, manufactured inconvenience, and increased reliance on mass transit. There’s a better way: stop treating Californians’ car fetish as pernicious and respond to the demand with increased supply. That would mean not only constructing more freeway capacity via performance incentives, but also better managing existing space through proven market mechanisms like toll roads. Such an approach could ease the crushing burden that the current traffic morass imposes in terms of both money and time (the average Angeleno loses 80 hours a year to gridlock).

I am not sure about this. I think a bit of demand curtailment is needed. It is a typical US reponse to traffic issues as Gulzar pointed. Increasing supply is always much costlier than curbing some demand. It is environment friendlier as well.

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