Traffic Jams: An Economic Perspective
You know the feeling.
The skies are grey, and fat drops of rain batter your windscreen: it’s almost as if the sky’s crying for you. You’re stuck in a sandwich of motorised vehicles – progress only comes a few inches at a time, slowly but not always surely. You curse as the faint hope you had of speeding ahead is dashed, falling away like droplets from the sky.
But then, after long hours of waiting, it happens. One car edges ahead, then another, then another. Finally, it’s your turn; your car moves forward, breaking the seemingly endless deadlock. It’s emotional catharsis the likes of which you can only experience after hours of frustration. Finally, you’re home, free from the scourge of traffic (until next morning, at least).
When the adrenaline rush wears off, though, you realise that you just wasted precious hours of your life that you’ll never get back. You could have spent that time watching television, playing chess, or even working more if you had to. In addition to the emotional outrage faced by many drivers across the planet, this congestion also has severe economic consequences for car-owning households. According to The Economist, traffic jams cost Los Angeles $23 billion a year, and that isn’t even when we take into account environmental impact. But why exactly do traffic jams happen, and what exactly can we do about them?
Well, part of the blame for traffic jams lies squarely on the shoulders of the people themselves. Public transport in the form of predominantly buses is a “key mode of public transport for those on low incomes”, according to Transport for London. As incomes go up, naturally the proportion of people using public transport in a particular country will decline. Don’t believe me? Hear me out. Public transport is an inferior service, which essentially means that demand for it decreases as consumer incomes go up. This is natural, as cars are inherently more prestigious than buses or trains; they grant you a degree of privacy and exclusivity, and they almost always look better. Therefore, you’d expect that as people become more affluent, more of them will ride in cars and other private forms of transport. Still don’t believe me? Look at the UK. According to the BBC, the number of cars on the streets of Britain rose by almost 600,000 in one year, with the average weekly wages in the United Kingdom also steadily rising. In this case, the correlation implies a heavy degree of causation. What can be done about this? In truth, not much; people’s opinions are not going to radically change. We could, however, simultaneously create more low-skilled jobs in the cleaning sector and clean up our public transport, which appears to be surprisingly dirty. Cleaning up and renovating some of our aged public transport, thereby making it somewhat more prestigious, could go some way to dampening the tradeoff between consumer income and public transport use, although, admittedly, the effect probably won’t be too drastic. It would help though, so why not try it?
It’s also important to consider that as of right now, roads are mostly free at the point of use across the world. Therefore, many people see the use of roads as a given: something for which there is no cost. Hence, the number of cars on the road are surging, as the only thing people actually have to pay for is the payments associated with the car itself and fuel. If governments around the world could somehow introduce a system whereby people are charged for the duration of time that they spend on the roads, demand for cars would fall due to increased price leading to a decrease in quantity demanded, as per the demand curve. This is because an increase in the cost of driving means that for more and more people, the marginal utility gained by using a car is offset by its substantial total cost (in layman’s terms, it costs more than it’s worth). Although this would lead to potential job losses in the auto manufacturing industry, it is necessary to carry out to offset both the economic loss of productivity and the severe environmental damage on air quality caused by traffic jams. In short, while painful for one industry, we need to do this for the greater economic and environmental good.
While campaigns encouraging walking, cycling and use of public transport are almost ubiquitous in today’s world, and have no doubt had their effects, more still needs to be done in order for the prevalence of cars on the roads to decrease dramatically. The difficulty of cycling is one factor why for many, the utility gained in terms of exercise and fitness is less than the cost, in terms of their commute becoming drastically longer and also the safety risk that it entails. What I am proposing to solve this is to build more cycle lanes next to roads, thereby increasing their supply. The increased ease by which many can now find an easy way to cycle to the workplace would decrease the costs of cycling, thereby making the utility/cost tradeoff more favourable, hence spurring demand for bicycles with which to cycle to work, potentially helping the cycling industry also. Given that these cycle lanes take up considerably less space than new roads would, they are both a quicker and more effective solution to the problem of traffic congestion (the increased supply of roads would simply spur demand for cars in the same way as demand for bicycles is spurred above).
Applying economics to the problem of traffic congestion may seem unorthodox at first, but I am convinced that inherently, many of the world’s problems are economic. After applying economics to this situation, it’s entirely possible that you may just spend less time stuck on the roads.
Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment below, whether you’ve been attracted or repulsed by my ideas.
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