Sam Staley, co-author with Ted Balaker of the book, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” is the director of urban and land-use policy at the Reason Foundation. His book offers real-world solutions to problems city-dwellers know far too much about from daily experience — increasingly crowded, poorly designed and deteriorating highways. I talked to Staley by telephone on Thursday as he drove to his home in Dayton, Ohio:
You say that traffic congestion is yet another crisis in America that we need to address — why?
Sam Staley: Well, what congestion does is it slows down life — not only economic life but also social life. When we think about productivity and we think about the profitability of businesses, we need to remember that getting resources to market, as well as getting people to their jobs and getting people to their errands as quickly as possible is something that enhances efficiency and makes us more productive. It not only increases our standard of living, because we can produce things more cheaply, but it also enhances our quality of life because we can do more things with that time rather than being stuck in traffic.
Obviously you are a fan of the automobile.
Staley: There are two things: One is that we believe that congestion is a severe problem and it’s a growing problem. If we look at the data, it is really an unchecked trend toward all major metropolitan areas being faced with regional severe congestion by 2030. So this is not just about how we get to work or how we do our shopping; it’s the fact that everybody is going to find it more difficult in the next 20 or 30 years unless we do something about it.
In terms of the automobile, what we find is that consistently in metropolitan areas the automobile is the most efficient mode of transportation for the vast majority of people, because it allows us to customize our travel. It allows us to make that travel independent of other people. So we are fans of transportation modes that give people choices, and the reality in most metropolitan areas is the automobile is a very efficient way to meet those travel needs.
How did our roads get so congested?
Staley: There are several reasons. The most important reason roads are so congested is that we have not paid attention to the capacity needs of the road system. Travel demand has increased dramatically, but we have not increased our road capacity to meet that travel demand. That is the most important problem most metropolitan areas face.
The second reason our roads are congested is that our roads were designed in another century that had different economic needs and different travel patterns. Most metropolitan areas have a network designed to link cities in a regional economic system where everyone or the vast majority of travel is focused on a single downtown, and that is not longer the case.
In fact, in most metropolitan areas, suburb-to-suburb commutes are the dominant travel phenomenon, and we have the phenomenon of “trip-chaining,” which means we don’t just travel from home to work — we travel from home to school to shopping to work and we have all of these intermediate stops. That’s a very complex travel behavior, but our transportation network is designed for very simple travel behavior. So it’s a question of design and it’s a question of capacity.
Who is the "Congestion Coalition," as you call them?
Staley: The Congestion Coalition is a group of special-interest groups that really are hostile to automobile travel and want to promote public transit even though that means it will take longer for people to get where they want to go and they are going to waste more time stuck in traffic. What we have seen empirically in the United States is that in order for people to use public transit, they need to live in very congested urban environments. That is the most effective way that public transit can compete with the automobile. The result is, transit agencies are in favor of congestion because as long as it takes longer for us to drive our car to work, that means people are more likely to get on a bus or train. There also are environmental groups that are just hostile to the automobile and professional planning groups that are hostile to the automobile because they think it’s anti-social. They believe congestion is a good thing because it’s more likely to force people off the road.
Besides spending billions to widen roads or build new ones, what’s the most important step a city like Pittsburgh can take to cut congestion and gridlock?
Staley: Cities like Pittsburgh — which has more geographic challenges than many newer cities — and regions need to work at what are called “intelligent transportation systems.” You need to coordinate the existing traffic volume more efficiently and effectively. Part of that is going to be using pricing on roads, using tolls, to try to create lanes that can be managed at free-flow volume. This already exists in California, and there are more than 30 projects that are on the books across the nation. Pricing some lanes to manage free-flow can be very effective.
There are other things that can be done as well. Ensuring that accidents are removed quickly from throughways can dramatically increase travel speeds and reduce congestion. That has been used successfully in parts of Virginia and Los Angeles. On local roads, things like coordinating the signals among traffic lights have been able to increase traffic speeds by 25 percent. In terms of value-added-per-dollar spent, signal optimization is one of the most efficient and effective strategies that cities can adopt to improve circulation and traffic speeds on local roads.
Where are the success stories in other cities or other countries that have cut traffic congestion in smart, efficient ways?
Staley: The most effective and the most important example in the United States is Houston, Texas. Houston has had rapidly increasing congestion as a large result of its rising population growth. It has added new capacity (by widening freeways), but more importantly it has added new capacity by converting high-occupancy-vehicle lanes to tolled lanes that also allow single-occupant vehicles. So what they are able to do is begin to guarantee free flow on certain lanes and they can do that through the toll.
Houston is also an important example because in adding capacity and actually reducing congestion, they have also created a more competitive and viable environment for mass transit. It’s one of the few metropolitan areas where we have seen highway capacity has improved, congestion has declined but transit opportunities have increased as well. So the idea that road building has to be done at the expense of transit is not true and we see the proof of that in Houston.
Australia has done one of the most effective jobs in adding capacity to greatly improve circulation in its major cities. It’s also done it through tolls. The tolls have not only guaranteed free flow but have allowed the private sector to finance the construction of those facilities so that taxpayers don’t have to do it.
Would banning trucks on freeways or parkways in a city like Pittsburgh do any good?
Staley: The truck, freight and commercial truck traffic is the fastest source of travel demand and burden on our roads and it’s only getting worse. Addressing freight traffic is a critical part of solving the congestion problem. Some of the ideas have been to separate truck traffic from passenger traffic, not only for safety reasons but also because their needs as travelers are very different, so you want to develop facilities that meet those specific needs. Truck-only toll lanes have become more and more talked about as a way of building the capacity to re-route freight traffic away from passenger car traffic but also provide facilities that are faster, more efficient and more productive for the commercial sector. Those ideas are actively being pursued in Atlanta at this point, but in fact it is so lucrative in many areas that a private company would probably be willing to pitch to Pennsylvania DOT a project where they would finance it. As long as Pennsylvania has the enabling legislation that allows the private sector to come up with that solution.
Pennsylvania has been talking about privatizing the turnpike. Is that a good idea?
Staley: I believe that a well-structured concession agreement which would privatize the management operation and maintenance of the turnpike can be a great asset to the state of Pennsylvania. We have seen it work really, really well in Europe, as well as Australia and in China. In fact, all of France’s limited-access highways are now privately controlled. I think that is the wave of the future. I think the United States is behind the curve on this, and the experience in other countries has been that using private companies to manage and operate these facilities has not only been a fiscal boon to the governments but they have also been able to dramatically increase the quality of the facilities themselves, and so drivers benefit as well.
It’s pretty pathetic when France is showing us the way, huh?
Staley: Yeah. The French government divested itself of all of its last ownership stake in its limited-access highway system over a year ago and it netted $17 billion at the time. It’s really a very interesting story and surely not something we expect to come out of France. By the way, we talk about that in our book.
Given the fact that most roads have been designed, built and maintained by governments, is it safe to say that the more privatizing of highways, the better off we’ll be?
Staley: Given where we are with our facilities — and the challenges we have in adding new capacity — I think privatizing the roads and allowing the private sector to build the roads is a win-win. At this point we are so far behind the eight ball, there are very few downsides that I can see.