Traffic Congestion Is Here to Stay

By Downs, Anthony | Nation's Cities Weekly, July 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Traffic Congestion Is Here to Stay


Downs, Anthony, Nation's Cities Weekly


You Might as Well Learn to Enjoy It

OPINION

The automobile is, and will remain, a better form of movement for most people in spite of congestion. It's faster, safer, more comfortable, more flexible ... and often cheaper, especially if you get free parking.

The most important thing to understand about traffic congestion is that it is a problem that cannot be solved.

There is no remedy for traffic congestion. Here's why.

Population Will Continue to Grow

A crucial consideration for the future of ground transportation is the expected growth of the United States population over the next 20 years. From 1995 until 2020, the Census Bureau estimates that the population of the United States will go up by 60 million people--about 12 million every 5 years. So somewhere between 60 and 77 million more automotive vehicles will be added to our roads by 2020. That is a rise of 30 to 38 percent over the number that was here in 1995.

Thus, the sentiments of many existing residents who want to limit future growth in order to reduce congestion are total delusions. There is no way to limit growth at the regional level because no region can stop immigration from somewhere else. True, growth at the local community level can be limited by simply pushing it into two other places--peripheral sprawl and in-city overcrowded slums for low-income households, as in much of southern California.

Automobiles Will Remain Dominant

My second point is that privately owned automotive vehicles will remain the dominant form of ground transportation for the foreseeable future in the United States. Attempts to cope with rising traffic congestion by shifting more people to public transit are not going to work.

The automobile is, and will remain, a better form of movement for most people in spite of congestion. It's faster, safer, more comfortable, more flexible in timing and in linking scattered origins and destinations, and often cheaper, especially if you get free parking.

It will not be possible to lure any significant portion of auto-driving persons into using public transit by improving the quality, quantity, or service frequency of public transit--only 3.5 percent of work trips in 1995 compared with 90.7 percent for private vehicles. ,Therefore, even if we could triple the percentage of total commuters using public transit--which is extremely unlikely--that would reduce the percentage of commuting by automotive vehicles by only 11.6 percent. That reduction would be offset by the increase in population, which is going to be much larger than 11.6 percent.

The only way to substantially increase the percentage of trips made on public transit would be to make the use of automotive vehicles far less convenient or far more costly such as by quadrupling the cost of gasoline or placing heavy taxes on automobiles, as in such countries as Denmark and Singapore. But these steps will be so strongly opposed by a majority of Americans that there is absolutely zero chance that they will happen.

Apologists for public transit say transit is necessary to cope with all this, and we need more subsidies for transit, because the automobile is so heavily subsidized. They should look at one number that I think is very impressive. Transit now gets 25 percent of the public spending on transportation in the United States at all levels and provides between one and two percent of the trips. That's a fairly impressive subsidy.

Forms of Ground Transportation Will Not Change

Nor will changing the land-use patterns embodied in future metropolitan growth and development substantially alter the basic forms of ground transportation now in use. After all, 85 percent of the developed portions of the country that will exist in 2020 already exist now. Even if radical changes in the form of the to-be-added 15 percent could be achieved, which I don't think is the case, that would not substantially change the patterns already in place today. …

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