Hoping to retire the myth of widening roads to reduce traffic

Eric Jaffe provides a reminder that traffic is not lessened if there were just wider roads:

“Wider Roads = Less Traffic”—The most enduring popular traffic myth holds that building more roads always leads to less congestion. This belief is a perfectly logical one: if there are 100 cars packed into one highway lane, then building a second should mean there’s 50 cars in each. The problem, as transportation researchers have found again and again, is that when this new lane gets added the number of cars doesn’t stay the same. On the contrary, people who stopped driving out of frustration with traffic now attack the road with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

While residents of heavily congested metro areas have a suite of four-letter words to describe this effect, experts call it “induced demand.” What this means, simply put, is that building more road eventually (if not always immediately) leads to more traffic, not less. Fortunately, local leaders are starting to distinguish reality from myth when it comes to induced demand. Unfortunately, the best way to address it—congestion pricing—remains all-but politically impossible in the U.S. That pretty much leaves one thing to do: deal with it.

A congestion tax is one way to deal with the issue: make people think twice about driving into heavily trafficked areas. At the same time, broader solutions could be employed: planning communities and regions that don’t rely so much on solo driver trips (such as through denser development); increasing funding to mass transit and providing more regular service and/or more options; and finding other ways to cut incentives on driving such as increasing gasoline taxes or paying per mile for driving. Of course, these broader approaches may be asking too much as Americans still like the option of driving. But, it may take some bold politicians and municipalities to try congestion pricing and show that it can work before it is widely adopted.

In other words, you may be able to show studies that demonstrate how this myth isn’t true but perhaps Americans dislike the truth – and the solutions that go with – even more.

A Chicago congestion tax reveals regional issues in addressing traffic

Looking for revenue and to reduce traffic, a congestion tax may be on the table in Chicago:

According to Michael Sneed in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke recently persuaded Mayor Rahm Emanuel “to study the feasibility and logistics of collecting a congestion fee from suburbanites who drive into the city.” The move could raise millions for the city and keep cars off city streets, easing congestion.

A panel has since been tasked with determining how such a fee would be collected, where it could be collected, and the costs of operating such a program…

In the Sun-Times, Burke was quoted as saying a congestion tax has been “extremely successful” in European cities such as London. There, drivers pay a charge for being able to enter certain zones from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Cameras monitor the zones and drivers who don’t pay are fined.

About 194,000 vehicles drive to Chicago’s main business district each day from elsewhere in the city and the suburbs, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning study conducted before Feb. 2010.

Traffic is a major problem in the Chicago region; see a recent report as to how many hours are lost each year. A congestion tax could be part of a comprehensive answer to this. However, it would be silly to expect this tax on its own to solve all the problems. Having effective mass transit across the region would help. If you want people to drive less, they need to have viable train and bus options. Having denser development near job centers throughout the region would help. Promoting Chicago’s core may be good but it also means concentrating more people from throughout the region on a single place. Promoting more bicycling and walking would help. Simply adding more lanes and roads does not necessarily help.

The other interesting part of this story from the Daily Herald are the predictable negative reactions from suburban leaders. They don’t want suburbanites to be penalized for going into Chicago. Yet, solutions to these issues have to be at the regional level. If suburban leaders don’t want a congestion tax, what are they willing to give to improve transit throughout the region? Can everyone contribute some money to help all residents of the region? The efforts of individual communities – even Chicago if it is just acting alone – won’t be enough.