Revolution on the road: Part 1

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
June 1, 1996

User pay is the best route to free-flowing highways and byways

So you’re late again! Stuck on this stupid freeway for the third day this week, traffic’s backed up for who knows how many miles, you’ve got company coming and you haven’t even picked up the wine, as you promised. At this rate, you won’t be home for another hour . . . But, wait a minute! This is 1996, and you’re on the Riverside Freeway. There’s the sign — Express Lanes 2 miles ahead. Good thing you have your transponder, this thingy on your windshield. Can you believe how many people showed up at their store for the privilege of plunking down a $40 deposit for this gizmo? And now you know why you did — so you could have freedom today! There’s the second sign coming up — 1 mile to the Express Lanes $2.50. Better get into the fast lane — fast lane! hah! Sure you’ll have to crawl to get to it, but soon you’ll be sailing. You can almost taste the freedom, can’t you? Okay, veer left. You’re on the — beep beep — Express Lanes now. Those soft beeps are music to your ears. Don’t you just love the way the gizmo notes your entry? Don’t you just love this smooth asphalt, easier on your nerves than that concrete you’ve left behind? You know, they sweep it clean every week. Breathe easy, you’re home free now. You’re leaving the traffic behind. Feel that blood pressure subside. You’re doing 65 miles an hour, passing everyone on the freeway doing 15. Say, at this rate maybe you’ll have time to put your feet up with a beer before everyone shows up.

IN THE MEDIAN OF LOS ANGELES’ RIVERSIDE FREEWAY, one of the continent’s most congested highways, runs a stretch of road where the traffic never stops. Unlike the freeway, whose stop-and-go traffic often adds an hour a day to rush-hour commuting, the free-flowing road is a tollway whose rates start at 25 cents for a one-way trip and, as traffic increases, rise to as much as $2.50 to honor the toll road’s money-back guarantee of a delay-free cruise at the legal speed limit. Since these Express Lanes opened in late December, 30,000 commuters — one in nine of the freeway’s 270,000 users — have signed up as road customers by putting down a $40 deposit for a transponder, a portable, wallet-sized electronic billing device. Commuters don’t suffer the irritation and inefficiency of stopping at toll gates to toss coins into wire baskets, or to press crumpled bills into the hands of attendants.

Though California Private Transportation, the private company that runs the Express Lanes, is justifiably proud of its accomplishment — the 10-mile, $126-million venture is the world’s first fully automated toll road and the first U.S. example of congestion pricing — it knows motorists haven’t seen anything yet. To protect them from road shock, and get them as used to variable road pricing as they are to variable long-distance charges, the company is keeping its customers in the slow lane for now: It mails them schedules showing tolls at different times of the day, and posts big signs by the side of the road as reminders. Someday soon, it plans to discard the rigid schedules to allow prices to change whenever road conditions do. Travel unusually light today? Slash that price to encourage more people to get on. Severe rainstorm slowing everything down? Boost the price enough to let desperate drivers get to their destinations on time.

Soon, transponders and other communications devices will be as common as car radios. Soon, dashboard displays will provide voice-synthesized information, not just for the Express Lanes but for all roads, letting motorists know the cost of travelling this road or that, letting road owners change prices to meet prevailing conditions. Soon, motorists will have a plethora of billing options. Customers of the Express Lanes prepay for their use. They then receive a statement of their account, showing their travels on the Express Lanes (and various public sector toll roads in the vicinity that also use transponders), itemized the way telephone companies show the date and time of each call. The Express Lanes account is then replenished by cheque, credit card or bank account debit, depending on the driver’s preference. Elsewhere, motorists who don’t need a statement, and view their travels as nobody’s business but their own, will be able to prepay their trips through smart cards that can be purchased at convenience stores, the way prepaid phone cards operate.

Soon, through the use of electronic monitoring technologies, roads will become as efficient as the communications technologies they’ll be using, eliminating traffic jams everywhere, shrinking insurance premiums, making long commutes the exception rather than the rule and making opposition to new expressways and street widenings a thing of the past because road builders, public and private, will have recognized that the existing road system is already too extensive, even for the most extravagant of purposes.

HIGHWAY 401, STRETCHING FROM THE ONTARIO-QUEBEC BORDER NEAR Ottawa and Montreal through Toronto to the automotive complex at Windsor-Detroit, is the world’s busiest freeway. It is also Canada’s, and perhaps the world’s, most valuable expressway, carrying one million vehicles daily across the Greater Toronto Area. Unlike California’s Express Lanes, the far more valuable Highway 401 has no balance sheet and no budget, aside from an old maintenance budget which its owner, the Ontario government, discarded when the maintenance crews fell behind. No one really knows its worth, its costs and benefits, and whether it’s being run efficiently.

But its government owners do know that phenomenal growth in traffic along the 401 — more than tripling between 1966 and 1991 — has led to its congestion, far ahead of plan. The government’s answer, now as then, is another highway to relieve the congestion. The new highway 407 — a 70-kilometre stretch designed to allow commercial vehicles, in particular, to bypass the congested Toronto area — does differ in one respect. Because the Ontario government is strapped for cash, Highway 407 will be a toll road. Built by a private consortium at great expense — more than $1 billion, excluding the cost of prime agricultural and industrial land just north of Toronto — this public-private partnership has drawn criticism from those whose land was expropriated to build it, from neighbors who will now suffer its fumes and noise, from archeologists who would have liked to excavate the Indian village it runs over, from urban planners who deplore more suburban sprawl and from environmentalists who deplore another subsidy to the car. Yet this toll road megaproject would not have been needed at all had tolls instead been installed on the 401 and other existing roads, saving all these parties grief, and society the $1 billion.

A typical expressway’s capacity of 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles per hour per lane drops to 500 in rush hour when the crush of traffic slows everyone to a crawl. If a three-lane highway loses one of its lanes to an obstruction, it loses not one-third but half of its capacity, because traffic must slow to squeeze into the remaining lanes. Even a flat tire on the side of the road cuts capacity by one-sixth because rubberneckers slow down to have a look.

Maintaining smooth traffic flows is tricky business — because of the phenomenon of traffic backing up that we’ve all experienced, even a minor interruption in traffic flow can cause major delays. Upset the traffic equilibrium by adding just a few too many cars and a free-flowing road jerks with stop-and-start traffic. Each minute a lane is blocked by, say a stalled car, translates into five to 10 minutes of congestion. If a car sits on the highway for 15 to 20 minutes because no one has called for help, the result is often a 90-minute or more delay.

To public works officials in the Toronto area, that’s all in a day’s work, the fate meted out by God to drivers that day. But officials of privately run roads such as California’s Express Lanes don’t take these delays in stride, because losing half their capacity for a two-hour period would hit their companies’ pocketbooks. In the three-lane example above, the loss of one lane could translate into a loss of revenue of $15,000 for a private firm. Losing three-quarters of its business to rush-hour congestion could cost a three-lane operation $200,000 every week.

Because Express Lanes has a financial reason to care that traffic runs smoothly, 33 video cameras monitor its road, all equipped with pan/zoom/tilt features, all sending signals to 16 video monitors at its Traffic Operations Center. When its computer sensors spot traffic bogging down at any point, cameras zoom in to find the trouble. If it’s an accident, Express Lanes dispatches the police by radio; if it’s a flat tire, it dispatches a tow truck, also by radio, from its own corporate fleet. Flat tires are fixed for free, the cars sent off in minutes. Cars that run out of gas get a free gallon to get them to the next service station. Express Lanes’s obsession with keeping its highways free of obstructions has led to an unbeatable traffic accident record — only three since the road opened December 27, compared to dozens over the same period in the free lanes parallel to the Express Lanes, and 18 a day on one busy stretch of the 401 outside Toronto. This obsession has also allowed rush-hour traffic to move at 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles per lane instead of 500 — an effective tripling or quadrupling of capacity, an effective way to eliminate the need for two or three other such roads.

Because congestion hits Express Lanes’ bottom line, the company has become superb at minimizing it. Because congestion costs the 401’s managers and owners nothing, they have remained hapless operators. The costs are borne by drivers in the frustration they’re forced to endure and in higher insurance premiums due to senseless accidents; by industry in late deliveries that throw production lines off schedule; by the environment in smog-causing exhaust; and by the health system from the carnage on the highway — by just about everyone except the operators of the road.

WILL ROGERS PROPOSED ONE ANSWER TO CONGESTION. “There’s a simple solution to this traffic problem,” he said. “We’ll have business build the roads. And government build the cars.” Because his advice wasn’t taken, the road system is still a mess, while cars are becoming ever more efficient. Despite vast sums spent on North American roadways, traffic still crawls for much of the day, the lost time representing over $100 billion a year. In a recent study of 50 cities conducted for the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, congestion on the freeways and arterial roads caused 4.6 billion gallons of fuel to be wasted, 10.2 million hours of delay each day, at an overall cost of $44 billion. Almost 70 per cent of urban freeways are congested during rush hour, up from 55 per cent in 1983. Once an inner-city problem, the study notes congestion has crept “into the suburbs, with street systems designed for service to residential areas [now] overburdened with traffic headed to large shopping malls and business parks.”

And it isn’t getting better. Although three of these cities, due to massive road building, have temporarily stemmed the problem, congestion in 47 has become worse each year from 1982 to 1991, the last year for which figures are available; in L.A., it’s now 28 per cent worse; in Chicago, 25 per cent, in New York City, 13 per cent. Even areas that today do not suffer from congestion expect that to change with an apparently relentless growth in auto traffic. By the end of the decade, Wisconsin state authorities predict, 40 per cent of Milwaukee County’s freeway system, now congestion-free, will be congested more that five hours a day. From the mid-1970s to 1990, while the U.S. population increased by 16 per cent, employment increased by 37 per cent, the number of licensed drivers by 29 per cent, the number of cars by 42 per cent and the number of vehicle-miles travelled by 62 per cent. Though Cincinnati’s population in the 1980s has remained static, its urban freeways logged a 37 per cent increase in miles. While Chicago’s population declined by six per cent, traffic on its freeways increased 53 per cent.

More people are commuting by car more often than ever before, and they’re travelling farther — an average 10.7 miles in 1990 compared to 9.9 miles in 1983. Yet travel times over that period also decreased, to just under 20 minutes, because fed-up commuters make a move — they change jobs or change homes to places that reduce their congestion frustration, generally to the metropolitan fringes, where highway speeds are faster. Even in Los Angeles, the home of freeway frustration, L.A.’s average commuting times have remained stable despite a population increase of three million during the 1980s. In fact, they’ve remained stable, at 24 to 25 minutes, for the last 20 years.

To stop the spread of the automobile, environmentalists and other groups have fought street widenings and new expressways, in attempts to ration automobile use through congestion. But although congestion may ration the use of particular roads, it doesn’t ration car driving. When people reach the limit of their patience, they simply move to outlying areas where the roads are not yet as congested, until these roads, too, get clogged.

Rationing roads through congestion only increases the area of suburban sprawl and, ironically, pollution as well. Emissions of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds are worst at low engine speeds. Car pollution plagues the young and the elderly with cancer deaths and respiratory ailments, it corrodes buildings and other structures, and cars also worsen water pollution through lead and petroleum products. And it will remain so as long as roads remain a free resource, a public commons that everyone can exploit, to the tragedy of all.

Increasing fuel costs — a common planning prescription — does little to curb congestion. For one thing, gasoline costs don’t discourage rush-hour use of the car. For another, as happened after the initial shock of increased gas prices, consumers adjust, often by switching to more efficient vehicles that get better mileage. Since the cost of gasoline at the pump, after adjusting for inflation, is lower than it’s been in two decades, the cost of travelling per mile has actually decreased. Though we’re driving more, we are buying 10 per cent fewer gallons of gas than in 1975.

Planners need to back up, and recognize that their policies — whether mindless road building to increase the supply or punitive taxes and blind opposition to the automobile to reduce demand — have gotten society nowhere. We need to replace the special treatment that the automobile has received by both its proponents and vilifiers with one that is rigorously even-handed. We need to discipline the automobile through the only mechanism able to balance supply and demand — the marketplace.

With a road transportation system charging users by the distance and by time of day, congestion will dramatically decrease, as it has on California’s Express Lanes. With the cost of the road at peak hours 10 times the cost at off-peak, drivers will avoid rush-hour travel whenever possible, and when rush-hour travel is unavoidable, people will tend to take public transit, share rides with friends and join car pools to minimize the expense. In contrast to the L.A. region’s average of just over one passenger per car, the Express Lanes boast a higher proportion of cars with two, three and four passengers, and at peak times average 1.9 passengers per car. Overall, the Express Lanes are expected to average 1.5 passengers per car, drawing blessings from environmentalists.

In a properly priced road system, trucks will have an even greater incentive to avoid rush hour, since they will not only be paying 10 times as much as during peak, but to compensate for their extra wear and tear on the road, they will be paying perhaps three times as much as a small vehicle. Facing hefty tolls like these, more and more truck traffic will be diverted to a suddenly more competitive rail system. Trucks will revert to their former role, when they were feeders to the railroads, which handled most of the long-distance traffic.

The changes to our society will be still more profound. With the cost of travel at rush hour so steep, suburban commuters, particularly those who moved far from their jobs in the city to obtain more house for less money, will start to see their move as less of a bargain. They will now revise their calculation of how much travel time to endure for the benefit of lower-cost housing, often discovering it pays to live much closer to work, perhaps right in the city. Often they will switch to a job closer to their suburban or rural home, if they can find one, or join the growing legions actually working from home. Whatever their choice, their road use will fall dramatically.

Industry will find itself making similar calculations, and moving from the outskirts of town closer to their markets to save on transportation costs. Through millions of these small decisions, people and industry will start to shorten travelling distances, leading to generally denser communities, less sprawl. Most people will be moving back to the cities, making them more dense, more vibrant, full of more taxpayers and customers of municipal services, and much, much more affordable.

All of this is happening faster than you might think. There’s a revolution on the road that’s accelerating at dizzying speeds. Driving these profound changes are the fiscal woes of governments, who see their existing roads in need of repair and new roads that need to be built, and — with taxpayer rebellions brewing — don’t know where else to turn.

Rough road ahead

IN ONTARIO, WHICH ONCE BOASTED ONE OF THE FINEST HIGHWAY SYSTEMS on the continent, the roads have become a laughing matter. A Pothole of the Year Contest made headlines earlier this year: Entries were classed under categories for deepest hole, widest hole, or most potholes in a one-kilometre stretch. In a display of generosity, Ontario’s transportation minister, Al Palladini, decided in 1995 to give Metro Toronto part of the Queen Elizabeth Way, a jewel in the provincial highway system opened in 1939 by His Majesty King George VI and his Queen, after whom it was named. The city looked this gift horse in the mouth and declined. “We’ve told Palladini to take his highway and stuff it,” replied Metro Toronto councillor Howard Moscoe, explaining that the QEW is crumbling, its retaining walls in danger of collapse and its surface pockmarked by potholes. “We don’t want it and we’re not taking it.”

The QEW is part of 1,800 kilometres of roads that the province, saying it’s in a spending crisis, is abandoning, leaving to the vicissitudes of local governments. But local governments are in a spending crisis of their own, one that’s driving some to desperation. To save $350,000 a year, Metro Toronto’s budget advisory team even recommended extinguishing the lights on three of the city’s major expressways. According to the Provincial Auditor, 60 per cent of Ontario’s roads are substandard and “steadily deteriorating,” because the province is spending only half the money needed to maintain them, a false economy since a neglected road costs more than three times as much to fix as maintaining one in good repair. Since the Provincial Auditor’s warning, the province has drastically cut road spending: Claims the Ontario Road Builders’ Association: “Since the election of this government, there’s been effectively no monies spent on the roads in this province.”

A road funding crisis looms around every bend. Quebec’s new government, desperate though it is for road revenues, shelved newly announced tolling plans when it realized its roads were too dilapidated to attend to anything but repairs. The empty-pocketed Nova Scotia government has just turned to the private sector to build a $120-million stretch of highway — the first stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway to toll motorists. In the U.S., a $20-billion gap is estimated between what it’s spending and what it needs to spend. Automobile travel in urban areas has been growing at four to five per cent a year, while new roads are being added at 1.5 per cent — about one-third of what would be needed just to maintain current highway loadings and congestion levels.

The U.S. is spending half as much on highways today, per vehicle mile travelled, as it did in the late 1960s. Thirty per cent of the country’s 54,000 intercity bridges are deficient, up from 27 per cent in 1984. Everywhere, the public sector fears a public backlash because failure of its most basic infrastructure; everywhere, the private sector smells opportunities in the public’s weariness of being taxed and its desire for mobility.

Go to part 2

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