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Paradox: Congestion May Signify Better Accessibility and Economic Productivity

Although transport planners consider traffic congestion economically harmful, economic productivity tends to increase with congestion and decline with increased road supply. This paradox can be explained by more nuanced analysis of accessibility.
June 24, 2014, 5am PDT | Todd Litman
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More roads or cheaper-to-use roads — ones without tolls, for example — can lead to less rather than more productivity, according to a recent study, The Mobility-Productivity Paradox: Exploring The Negative Relationships Between Mobility and Economic Productivity.

If you think this sounds paradoxical, so does the study’s author, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Institute. But he also offers several reasons why it’s so.

For one thing, decisions to build roads or subsidize them by not charging users tends to come at the expense of other access options, things such as densification so people need not travel so far, or transit that provides more bang for the buck. These kinds of decisions are often based on politics, thus defying efficient market principles and undermining productivity.

As well, car travel is expensive. This means it increases costs borne by industry, and also sucks plenty of money from household budgets. Much of this money goes to car manufacturers outside the region or the country.

Litman concedes motor vehicle travel is economically important. “It delivers raw materials to producers, goods to markets, employees to work, students to schools, and customers to markets. All else being equal, an increase in transport system efficiency should increase productivity.”

However, cars and trucks aren’t the only aspects of transport systems, only the most visible and costly.

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Published on Sunday, June 22, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun
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