A Preface to Urban Economics

By Wilbur R. Thompson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Traffic Congestion: Price Rationing and Capital Planning

The urban traffic problem, like most problems, arises out of the frustration of trying to reconcile a number of partly incompatible goals. Urbanites would like to move about their area (1) quickly, (2) comfortably, (3) cheaply, (4) mostly at the same time, and (5) mostly to or from the same places. Since the typical journeys are to work and shop, time spent in transit is time lost from a productive activity. The fact that the route is boringly repetitive and usually ugly further burdens urban movement. Urban movement, then, is largely an experience to be done with as quickly as possible; speed becomes a prime objective and traffic congestion, which slows movement, the main problem. But congestion is too seldom seen as a direct, if harsh, form of economizing; we economize on urban transportation plant and equipment (social capital) by crowding many vehicles on a narrow street or by carrying standing passengers in packed buses. Through congestion, the commuter trades his time for lower fares, fees, or taxes; the lost time may be regained only at the cost of additional investment in transportation plant and equipment.

The private automobile offers unparalleled quality of movement-- flexibility, comfort, privacy--except in the worst of traffic jams where irritation and tension may tip the balance the other way. The quality advantage of the automobile may be gained, of course, only at the expense of economy, as personalized automobile movement is both the most capital using and land using form of transportation. But the use of the automobile would not be nearly so expensive if it were not for the sharp peaking in the demand for street and parking space, caused by the congruence of working hours. The quick remedy of staggering working hours has its own costs, as the number of business hours in common are reduced--an eight-hour day becomes a seven-

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