Congestion as an Economic—Not an Engineering—Problem

Thinking about congestion as an economic problem generates new solutions for the problem as well as a response to accusations of social engineering.

2 minute read

September 29, 2015, 2:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

A post on Urban Kchoze starts out by explaining traffic congestion using economic, rather than engineering, concepts. That discussion produces, however, a searing response to claims that transit investment, reduced parking requirements, and other progressive approaches to congestion are "social engineering."

First, the post describes some of the concepts of economics, like benefits and costs, which should be applied to the problem of congestion. Treating congestion as an economic problem allows new types of solutions, rather than the engineering approach of just creating more roadway capacity. Those solutions include "spatial and temporal redistribution of trips," "elimination of trips," and "favoring travel modes that are more space efficient."

The post also takes a moment to describe the resistance by two powerful players in the game of transportation planning to thinking about congestion on economic terms:

"One of the reasons why engineers don't like this vision, apart from the added complexity, is the "CHOOSE" part, and the availability of non-engineering policy solutions. Engineers are professionals taught to avoid partiality and who prefer to be neutral experts rather than militants for implementing given social policies, so considering non-engineering solutions makes them feel very ill at ease as they feel it exceeds their job mandate.

At the same time, politicians who don't have much vision may simply ask engineers to solve congestion issues, entrusting experts with solving their city's problems. This may create a situation where economic solutions are not considered as the experts asked to study the situation do not think they have been given the mandate to evaluate these policy solutions."

Then, helpfully to the political debates inspired by progressive transportation planning efforts, such as Mobility Plan 2035, recently approved (and sued) in Los Angeles:

"The idea of regulating or influencing individual behavior through policies based on economics often leads to accusations of social engineering. I just want to respond that neutrality in this case is essentially impossible. Streets and roads, by their very design, are public goods except for a few exceptions, as such, funding for them is determined by the public authority responsible for them. Therefore, that public authority is forced to make a choice, and the choice it makes will necessarily affect users' behavior and consumption of that good."

The article includes a closer examination of the implementation of several economics-based congestion strategies, including "letting congestion take care of it," a "congestion charge," "tolling high-speed roadways," "building low-cost, high-capacity, low-speed road networks," "limiting parking or increasing parking costs," and investing in rapid transit.

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