North Carolina’s traffic congestion could double in the next couple of decades, with Charlotte drivers facing the same types of delays Chicago drivers face now. That was the conclusion of a 2007 John Locke Foundation report. It recommended $12 billion of spending to clear North Carolina’s congested urban roads and prepare for future traffic growth. Many traffic problems outlined three years ago continue to cause concerns today. Randal O’Toole, senior fellow with the Cato Institute, recently tackled the issue from a national perspective in the book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. O’Toole discussed the book in a presentation for the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society. He shared some of its themes in an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: First of all, why are we stuck in traffic?
O’Toole: An important reason why we’re stuck in traffic is because for the last 25 to 30 years, urban planners have decided that they should stop building highways. If they build highways, people are going to use them, and it’d be better to get people out of their cars and onto transit. So we’ve been spending billions of dollars on transit that people aren’t using and not building highways which have become more and more congested, and guess what? People are driving more and more even though there’s more congestion, and they’re just adjusting to that congestion in different ways.
Kokai: What should that tell us about what we should do going forward?
O’Toole: I think what it tells us is that the automobile is really a convenient form of travel, and any efforts to try to suppress auto driving are really suppressing personal freedom and economic freedom because the automobile is an important part of our economy. In fact, the automobile is not only more convenient than transit, it’s far less expensive than transit. Americans spend less than 25 cents a passenger mile getting around by car, whereas getting around on mass transit is closer to $1 a passenger mile. Four times as expensive, and rail transit is even much, much more expensive. For example, the light rail in Charlotte is $4 a passenger mile. So we’re talking about spending far more money to get people out of a convenient form of travel into an inconvenient and expensive form of travel.
Kokai: You mentioned that the planners are playing the biggest role in pushing this inconvenient, expensive form of travel. Why would they do that?
O’Toole: Planners just have this belief that cars are bad, and planners tend to follow fads. They don’t really understand urban economies very well, and so they follow fads, and one of the biggest fads has been started by my former hometown of Portland, Ore., which just spent $3 billion building rail transit, so far. Those rail lines carry less than 1 percent of all travel in the Portland area, and yet they crow to people all over the world that they’ve got a successful system. Well, it’s only successful in that they’ve successfully wasted a lot of money on it.
Kokai: Let’s get into some of the arguments that the planners seem to tend to make about this topic. One of them is that as we continue to grow, we can’t build our way out of the traffic jams by continuing to build more lanes. Are they right?
O’Toole: No, they’re absolutely wrong. Cities that have decided to build more roads have actually been able to relieve congestion, reduce the amount of time people waste sitting in traffic with those more roads. But what you have to understand is that an automobile-oriented society is not going to be a dense society. You’re not going to have high population densities. You’re not going to have a really dense downtown. You’re going to be spread out. Your densities are going to be rather even. A pre-automobile society will have a really dense downtown and then lower density residential areas around the downtown. A post-automobile society, the densities will be about the same everywhere. There won’t be a really dense downtown, but the densities will be much lower — less than 3,000 people per square mile.
So if we decide to try to maintain a really high-density downtown like some cities seem to want to do, then you’re going to have a difficult time serving that downtown with freeways. But if you realize that jobs are decentralizing, factories are decentralizing, offices are decentralizing, banks are decentralizing — everything in society is decentralizing — you don’t need to build a lot more roads to serve that. You just need to let the city be what it wants to be.
Kokai: One of the interesting arguments I’ve heard on this whole topic of the dense downtown versus the spread-out society is that one of the reasons so many older cities — European cities — are so dense is that when they were built, people were poor. They didn’t have these [transportation] options. Now that we are wealthier, we don’t need to have these dense downtowns.
O’Toole: Actually, I think people got that backward. The reason why people started driving is because driving was so much cheaper than other forms of travel. Once they started driving, then their incomes grew. Actually, we don’t drive because we’re rich; we’re rich because we drive. Automobiles give people access to more jobs. They give employers access to a more highly skilled work force. So [in] societies that have automobiles, people earn more money. They have more small business opportunities, more opportunities to go into business. They have access to lower-cost consumer goods. You couldn’t have things like Costcos and supercenters and supermarkets and so on without automobiles. The average supermarket today has more than 30,000 different products on its shelves, whereas the average grocery store 100 years ago had only 300 products on its shelves. So we have access to far more. We have access to much better and lower-cost things than we could get 100 years ago because of automobiles.
Kokai: Let’s tackle another argument. Some people may say, “OK, we admit that perhaps this type of living is more inconvenient, maybe it’s even more expensive, but because of the environmental challenges we face — global warming and other topics — we need to take these steps to reduce the emissions coming out of cars. We need to move more toward transit.” Is there any legitimacy to this argument?
O’Toole: Guess what? Buses burn foreign oil just like cars do. Trains use energy, too. Most of the energy from electric trains comes from burning coal, and that produces greenhouse gases and other pollutants. It turns out that transit uses about as much energy per passenger mile as driving a car. Most transit systems in this country, outside of the very big ones like New York City, actually use more energy and emit more pollution and more greenhouse gases for every passenger they carry than cars do — actually more than an SUV, for that matter. So if you want to save energy, if you want to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the better solution is to encourage people to drive more fuel-efficient cars, not to try to get people out of their cars and onto an expensive, inconvenient form of travel that few people are going to be attracted to.
Kokai: The economic arguments are bogus. The environmental arguments are bogus. Are there any good reasons not to build more highways and [instead] divert more money to transit?
O’Toole: The only good reason is that Congress has given cities incentives to waste a lot of money on useless transit projects, and so the cities are scrambling to respond to those incentives to get some of those federal dollars. I don’t know if you could call that a good reason, but that’s why cities are doing it. The reality is that we need to look forward, not backward, and there are transportation solutions in the near future that are going to solve a lot of our congestion problems, pollution problems, and energy problems that we could adapt without any problem at all, and do far more to protect the environment, and save people money, and increase mobility than building 1930s-era light rail, 1890s-era street cars, or other obsolete forms of transportation.
Kokai: What’s one really promising example of this new type of technology?
O’Toole: One simple example is something called adaptive cruise control, which is now available on a lot of cars. That’s where, instead of setting your car to a fixed rate of speed, you set your car to a fixed distance behind the car in front of you, and as that car speeds up or slows down, your car will speed up and slow down to mimic that car. Because the computer’s reflexes are faster than your reflexes, you will reduce the amount of congestion. Once 20 percent of cars on the road are using adaptive cruise control, about half the congestion that our cities have is going to go away. So this simple thing that is being adapted without any government planning or any central direction is coming anyway. It is going to relieve a lot of congestion.