Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities
U.S. streets have been filled with traffic since the country’s founding — first with wagons and livestock and now with more than 250 million autos and trucks. Building more and wider roads can reduce congestion, but the benefits are generally temporary: Vehicles soon fill new lanes, and the cycle starts all over again. The massive highway boom after World War II did speed cross-country travel, but it also added suburban congestion to the list of pressing national problems.
The possibility of a link between road capacity and traffic volume was first proposed in 1962, and research continues on the subject. A 2011 study published in The American Economic Review, “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities,” looks at city-level traffic in the continental United States to explore the relationship between road capacity and congestion.
The researchers, from the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics, analyzed data from the federal Highway Performance and Monitoring System for 1983, 1993 and 2003, as well as other sources. Public transit, employment, population, geography and political factors were also examined, to get a broader and deeper view into the relationship between infrastructure and congestion.
The study’s findings include:
- The number of vehicle-kilometers traveled (VKT) increases in direct proportion to the available lane-kilometers of roadways. The additional VKT traveled come from increased driving by current residents and businesses, and migration.
- Building new roads and widening existing ones only results in additional traffic that continues to rise until congestion returns to the previous level. Such attempts to “cure” congestion are thus both expensive and ineffective.
- Increasing the lane kilometers for one type of road does not significantly reduce congestion on others — for example, widening highways does little to reduce local congestion.
- Metropolitan areas appear to construct new lane-kilometers of roadway “with little or no regard for the prevailing level of traffic.”
- Because roadways have “natural” levels of congestion to which they always return, mass transit projects will not reduce traffic.
“Our results strongly support the hypothesis that roads cause traffic,” the researchers conclude. Consequently, expansions in road capacity are an ineffective tool for combating traffic congestion. The authors suggest that congestion pricing — currently used in cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore — is the best approach.
While mass transit projects do not directly reduce congestion, related research has found that they have the benefit of reducing the negative externalities of automobile use, such as pollution and accidents. In addition, because transit increases mobility without putting people in cars, it reduces pressure to further expand roads.
Tags: cars, infrastructure, mass transit
Read the issue-related Portland Oregonian article “Portland Area's Busy Road Construction Season Will Bring Fremont Bridge Closures.”
- If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
Read the full study “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities.”
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.