Traffic Engineering Just Got Sexier

It turns out that Bacon’s Rebellion isn’t the only media outlet enthralled with the minutiae of traffic planning in Virginia. According to Washington Post columnist John Kelly, Tom Cruise plays a traffic engineer in the upcoming movie, “Mission Impossible III.”

Actually, Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a member of the Mission Impossible team, whose cover story is that he’s a traffic engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Writes Kelly:

How do we know Tom/Ethan is a traffic engineer? Because in a party scene early in the movie, some civilian friend asks him, “How’s the Department of Transportation?” And then Tom delivers a moving little monologue about how fascinating traffic is, about how a single motorist tapping on the brakes can slow things for miles behind him.

“Booooooring,” says the friend.

No, NOT boring! The dynamics of transportation flow are fascinating stuff…. OK, OK, Maybe not as fascinating as saving the free world. But definitely less dangerous.


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5 responses to “Traffic Engineering Just Got Sexier”

  1. nova_middle_man Avatar
    nova_middle_man

    Question for you guys. Washington Post has an article about businesses developing in Frederick County MD because land is more affordable and people will have shorter commutes. On paper this seems to make alot of sense (ie build where the people can afford to live) The main problem is that people move to where housing is affordable and then have to commute. Once an area starts attracting interest the prices go up and people have to move even farther out. It seems in the long-run it just creates more sprawl. So how is this fixed without price controls Thoughts?

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Scientists, planners, and economists are still arguing over how to define and measure sprawl, let alone to decide whether it is good or bad, so the idea of “fixing” it with or without price controls is maybe a little premature.

    We can talk reasonably about up and down because we have a generally agreed framework for reference. With respect to sprawl and quality of life, we are barely scratching the surface on how to talk about them. When we have an agreed vocabulary and measurements, then we can decide what is desirable and how to work towards a better result.

    One thing the economists have measured, in multiple locations and times, is the relationship between home prices, commuting distance and other amenities, such as schools, open space, shopping, and second jobs. Consistently, they find that people are acting rationally with respect to the various costs they face in actual life.

    Higher fuel prices, and/or commuter taxes, and/or congestion charging and tolls will change the equation somewhat, but the forces involved will be the same. If these forces encourage people to try to live “closer in” (whatever that means) then home prices there will rise and the higher cost of fuel will seem less important, and you are right back to the situation you describe, but with bigger forces at work.

    As you note, once an area begins attracting interest the prices rise. Inevitably this causes some people to sell: they can no longer “afford” to stay where they are, or they need higher density (the have to accept less space) in order to do so. This is a perfectly natural part of the equation, yet we commonly hear such people/businesses being denigrated as “speculators”.

    Whether we use price controls or some other method, such as congestion charging, what we are really doing is messing with the economic equations people value things with. If this isn’t done in a way that affects people equally, then it amounts to stealing from some to benefit others. Price controls are a perfect example.

    If you can design a policy that compensates the losers and still improves conditions such that everyone gains, then you have a good policy. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. Once you accurately assess all of the costs, you discover that you might have been better off letting the market make the decisions: you have a lot more brainpower at work than if you delegate or concentrate the task to planners and legislators.

    I think we can agree that motorists do not pay their own full costs. But if we levy additional costs only against those that drive in certain areas, then what you have is price controls on access to that area. You will not have solved the problem that motorists who don’t use that area are still not paying their costs. You will have distorted the market in such a way as to contribute to more “sprawl”.

    Suppose we simply pass an ordinance that says you may not accept employment that is greater then 30 miles distant from where you work, and establish fees for each additional mile? This would affect everybody equally and place no value judgements other than it is better for the environment if we drive less. You would be free to live and work as you please, it would not directly affect any particualar land market, and it would raise money for transportation, and the market would either not be distorted or it would be distorted in such a way that it is free to correct without punishing anyone in particular.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    NoVa Middle Man,

    To the greatest extent possible, people should be free to live where they want, and businesses should be free to locate where they want. I would hate to think in terms of instituting price controls and regulations. The approach advocated here is to tackle the problem at the source by creating a level playing field, so to speak.

    First principle: People and businesses should be free to live and locate where they want as long as they are willing to pay the location-variable costs associated with those choices. If AOL moves out to Loudoun to build on cheap real estate, and it discovers that many potential employees consider it a burden to drive all the way out there, AOL has no right to expect the rest of society to pick up the tab for increasing transportation capacity to the AOL campus.

    Second principle: Local governments needs to reform antiquated zoning codes, subdivision ordinances and comprehensive plans that severely restrict the ability of developers to respond to design the kinds of communities they think will appeal to the marketplace. Many desirable architectural and planning styles -New Urbanism, for instance — are illegal. Developers must go through an expensive and risky rezoning process to build a New Urbanism community.

    If planners exercise any kind of influence on the marketplace, it should be to plan for the development of a balanced mix of residential, commercial, retail, amenity and other uses in close proximity to one another.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    This AOL thing has come up before. Does AOL have a transportation problem? I know they have business problems, but so far as I know, attracting employees isn’t one of them.

    If AOL had built in Rosslyn, then I could see how people would think that getting there was a burden.

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