Some cutting-edge transportation experts have startling news: Traffic congestion isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good sign.
For what is congestion, these experts ask, but crowds lining up -- whether shoulder to shoulder outside a movie theater or bumper to bumper on the road -- to pursue activities with economic or social value?
“Congestion is a sign that a lot of good things are happening,” said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
That outlook is echoed by other nationally prominent researchers who are writing papers and delivering speeches with such titles as “Learning to Love Congestion.”
Several of these contrarians also argue that officially touted costs of congestion have been overblown and that too much money has been squandered on expensive projects, such as the $4.5-billion Los Angeles subway, that offer little congestion relief.
Rather than endorsing such projects, a couple of experts suggest, a stressed-out motorist should take a deep breath, pop in a favorite CD and learn to tolerate -- even appreciate -- what sitting in traffic means.
“Congestion is inevitable. Get used to it,” said Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose soon-to-be-published book “Still Stuck in Traffic” will begin with a chapter titled: “The Benefits of Congestion.”
In a recent transportation journal article, Taylor said that traffic jams offer evidence of economic and social vitality and that empty roads are a sign of failure.
Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, found Taylor’s article so refreshing that he circulated copies among his board members.
“Too often, our public discussion is too simple-minded on issues like this,” Heminger said.
Tell that to a commuter.
“That’s like saying there are good things about arsenic!” said Arcadia accountant Richard Carey, who drives to see his various clients.
Some transportation experts agree, calling a rosy view of congestion downright ridiculous, if not subversive.
“It’s a dangerous argument to put out there, in my opinion,” said Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation planning for Southern California Assn. of Governments.
Others call the view defeatist.
“Those who say, ‘Get used to it’ ... they’re not being part of the solution. They’re part of the problem,” said Mary Peters, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. “It’s almost a denial of what the data tell us. Traffic jams cost people time and money .... It is detracting from our economy, detracting from our quality of life.”
For years, Martin Wachs felt the same.
But the longtime professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley became perplexed by why so many people complain about congestion but seem unwilling to do much about it.
It certainly isn’t for lack of solutions.
In fact, experts concur that there are ways to decrease congestion -- such as charging high tolls to discourage driving, or dramatically widening freeways. But such measures are unpopular -- plans to widen the Long Beach and Ventura freeways were quickly squashed this year -- because many people find them more unpalatable than congestion.
Wachs began pondering the possibility that sitting in traffic might not be so terrible. After all, gridlocked streets have been part of big-city life since ancient China and Rome.
“I would ask the people in Los Angeles if they would rather live in Duluth because it’s less congested, or learn to love Los Angeles for all those things that are wonderful and the congestion along with it,” said Wachs, who titled a speech to transportation professionals “Learning to Love Congestion.”
Wachs doesn’t suggest that public agencies stop trying to improve America’s transportation network. Neither does Taylor.
They generally believe that good programs for easing congestion -- such as ramp metering and toll lanes -- should be expanded.
But they question the accuracy of figures often used to justify expensive freeway or transit projects.
The Federal Housing Administration, citing research by the Texas Transportation Institute, estimates that congestion cost the 75 largest metropolitan areas of the United States $67.5 billion in 2000. That figure includes such factors as the value of passenger time (estimated at $12.85 per hour) and wasted fuel.
According to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, traffic jams drained the region of $6 billion in 2002 from lost productivity, higher health-related expenses and congestion-related accidents.
But Wachs and others contend that these numbers miss something.
Many workers would not earn more money -- or choose to stay longer at work -- if they spent less time in traffic, these experts say. The time devoted to driving isn’t all wasted. People do business over cell phones, listen to the radio, sit alone with their thoughts and reflect on life.
Living in congested areas typically means greater job opportunities, a wider range of cultural activities and higher wages. And if you live far from work because housing is cheaper, isn’t a tedious commute just part of the price you pay for a nice home?
Surveys of Bay Area residents by UC Davis researchers suggest that the “ideal” one-way commute for the average person is 16 minutes. Nearly half of those surveyed preferred work-to-home travel times of 20 minutes or more, and about 7% actually wished their trips could be longer.
For those still fantasizing about empty freeways, consider the last time that traffic improved in the Southland: during the recession of the early 1990s.
“Things were a lot better in Los Angeles when there was 8% unemployment,” said Alan Pisarski, author of “Commuting in America.” (The unemployment rate for L.A. County last month was 6.8%.) At a recent transportation conference in Washington, Pisarski joked that there’s one sure way to wipe out congestion: “Stamp out affluence.”
According to a federal survey, the increase in vehicular travel over the last decade was primarily caused not by extra commuting, but by a rise in such discretionary activities as shopping and running errands. In 1969, commuting accounted for 25% of the trips people make; today, it’s just 15%.
The greater number of autos squeezing onto roads also reflects an increasingly diverse driving population.
In 1990, 30% of black families did not have access to an automobile. By 2000, that number had declined to 24%, according to the U.S. census. From 1960 to 2000, the proportion of women who are in the workforce increased from 38% to 61%.
“So much of what we complain about is the product of a healthy economy and a healthy society,” Pisarski said. “It should make you feel good.”
“They’re crazy, is what I think,” said Rhonda McGruder, who spends 2 1/2 hours every day commuting between Compton and Woodland Hills. “They need to do more research.”