Saturday, December 13, 2008

We want more congestion, not less

President-elect Obama has set forth an ambitious agenda to reshape our transportation priorities. The AP article provides some of the details. The story lays out Obama's reasoning that if we solve congestion we will put people to work. I have my doubts that this is what the President-elect said, but if he did he's got it backwards.

There are a few important points about congestion. First, it is a result of people driving around to go places. This means that when there is a lot of economic activity there is an increase in congestion. We should hope for a lot of congestion as that will signal that the economy is growing again. A second point is that we can build all the roads and light rail lines we want, but until drivers start paying the marginal costs of travel through user fees of some sort we won't see a meaningful drop in driving compared to transit. Since most of transportation money is spent on roads, that's what we are mostly prepared to build on short notice through an economic stimulus package.

On a related note, a bailout of the auto companies will further assert the primacy of autos for personal transportation for the foreseeable future. This outcome is at odds with Obama's stated goals of improving transportation choices and transit use, and may have lousy consequences for responsible urban growth. Auto use is already heavily subsidized through parking regulations and other financing tools such as sales taxes for transportation investment. Many people used mortgage products to buy cars over the past decade, representing a subsidy for the purchase of autos. Now we will subsidize the production of cars. This collection of policies favor autos as our primary mode of personal transportation, and in turn we will plan for more cars. As such, we should hope we end up with congested roads filled with all those cars we're supposed to buy.

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