Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

How to "Build Our Way Out of Congestion"

Innovative Approaches to Expanding Urban Highway Capacity

Peter Samuel
January 1, 1999

Executive Summary

Transportation planners project unbearable gridlock on urban freeways over the next two decades. The planners’ conventional wisdom maintains that “we cannot build our way out of congestion.” Yet the best they can offer is a menu of costly and ineffective alternatives—spend billions more on transit that hardly anyone can or will use, and try to force people into carpools that do not match their actual ways of living and working. All over the world people are increasingly choosing to travel by automobile, because this flexible mode best meets their needs. But a gridlocked expressway system threatens automobility —and the conventional wisdom offers no good solutions.

The good news is that we can make significant improvements that will expand mobility for autos and trucks alike. To be sure, pushing new freeways through dense and expensive urban landscapes will seldom be economically or politically feasible. But we can make far more creative use of existing freeway rights of way to increase capacity and ease congestion. One key to doing this is to provide separate lanes for cars and for trucks. The former need much smaller dimensions; hence, cars-only lanes can be done as double decks, either above the surface or in tunnels beneath high-value real estate. Overseas, Paris, Melbourne, and Sydney are developing new urban expressways using some of these new concepts. Special-purpose truck lanes could permit larger, heavier trucks than are now legal in most states, and would allow trucks to bypass congested all-purpose lanes, thereby facilitating just-in-time deliveries valued by shippers and receivers.

Reconstructing freeways with some double decks and new tunnels will be costly—and could never be done as long as we rely only on today’s federal and state fuel taxes. But charging tolls for such expensive new capacity is both technologically and economically feasible. New electronics technology (already in use on Toronto’s Highway 407) makes it possible to charge users automatically, using sophisticated time-of-day pricing, without using any toll booths or toll plazas. Electronic tolling costs far less than labor-intensive toll booths, is far more flexible, and is more user-friendly. Demand-responsive market pricing has been found highly effective in keeping toll lanes from becoming congested in two Southern California projects.

In short, the combination of innovative highway redesign, separation of types of traffic, toll financing, variable pricing, and electronic toll collection will allow us to offer auto drivers and truckers real alternatives to gridlocked freeways. Using these methods in combination, we CAN build our way out of congestion.

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