Thinking Beyond "Don’t Block the Box" — Why Traffic Congestion Doesn't Need to be Fixed

I've long been a fan of Parkinson's Law which states that "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" and its corollary "The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource". Nowhere in our daily lives is this more apparent than when it comes to getting stuck in traffic. In an article discussing the implications of "Jay H. Walder [having been] appointed ... chairman and chief executive officer of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority", this past Weekend Journal states that "Time lost to traffic delays has an obvious cost ... [but] reducing congestion increases the productivity of solo driving, and that increases the incentive to drive -- a bad result for the environment."

We've known for some time by empirical evidence that widening highways and building new ones fully substantiates Parkinson's wise observation and ultimately does nothing to reduce congestion, its CO2 footprint, and immeasurable loss of productivity. But The Journal contends that "Congestion isn't an environmental problem; it's a driving problem. If reducing it merely makes life easier for those who drive, then the improved traffic flow can actually increase the environmental damage done by cars, by raising overall traffic volume, encouraging sprawl and long car commutes". Additionally, according to the article, "popular effort[s] to curb rush hour traffic [by means of congestion pricing] ... significantly decrease peak travel times ... and lead to increases in overall volume".

So this may be a fascinating example of where the best solution for a perceived problem is to maintain the status quo and simply allow the frustration and personal cost factor of traffic congestion to incent drivers to take public transportation and to stop public spending on solutions that don't work. Wouldn't it be great if the answer to some of our other problems is to do nothing?

William Busch

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