Why are our cities so congested? "It's the free roads, stupid!"

Toronto traffic congestion
CC BY 2.0 George Socka/ Flickr

Many cities are having debates about whether roads should be free. In Toronto, there is a desultory conversation about tolls on the two big city-owned highways, the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, that you know isn't going anywhere with Rob Ford having been elected on the promise of eliminating a tax on cars and lurking around, planning his return as Mayor in three years. And of course Denzil Minnan-Wong wants everyone to know that "tolling the DVP would be an onerous added cost for many users, arguing that they had paid for the highway already through their taxes."- even as he votes to increase transit fares for people who also paid for those highways through their taxes.

Meanwhile other city councillors want to emulate Seattle and bury the expressway, which would cost about ten billion dollars, which works out to about $27,000 per trip for the cars that actually use it. Because what Toronto needs is a way to get more cars into the downtown core faster, right?

Perhaps Toronto councillors should read Steven Miller in Streetsblog, asking Why Is There So Much Traffic in NYC? It’s the Free Roads, Stupid. It addresses the basic economic phenomenon in roads, parking spaces and buffet restaurants: If you give something away, people are going to take as much of it as they can. Why are New York Streets so crowded? Miller writes:

The fundamental issue is the limited amount of street space in the Manhattan core and the practically unlimited demand to use it. Unless New York puts a price on roads, traffic congestion is going to remain intense. “We can’t unsnarl our streets unless vehicles that take up the space on the street are charged a price. Otherwise, the space that we clear out today — by capping tour buses or Uber cars or 18-wheelers — will be filled tomorrow by other vehicle owners,” said transportation economist Charles Komanoff. “And the price needs to apply to all vehicles… based on the space that they take up. Because space is a finite resource.”

The Toronto Star makes the same point as I did about tolls on drivers, comparing it to tolls on transit users.

Drivers, of course, aren’t pleased at the prospect of a fee. But the old argument that people shouldn’t have to pay to use highways they’ve already funded through their taxes is readily countered by pointing out that taxes built the subway, too, but commuters must pay for every ride... .Motorists have enjoyed a free ride for decades but it has proved exceedingly expensive to society in the form of heightened urban sprawl, worsening pollution, and the ill health that results from too much sitting in a car and not enough walking.

But with Rob planning on giving John Tory a drumming in 2018, we can look forward to three more years of pandering to Ford Nation.

Why are our cities so congested? "It's the free roads, stupid!"
It's the same story in roads or in a buffet restaurant: If you don't pay as you go you use more of the resource.

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