Why Aren’t People More Agitated About Traffic Congestion?

Business and political elites in Virginia are far more agitated about traffic congestion than average voters are, and they are far more willing to pay higher taxes to address it. Why is that? This chart, excerpted from “Smart Transportation Investments,” published by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, provides important clues why.

This chart compares various costs, both personal and societal, of automobile travel. The report doesn’t say where this data comes from, so I don’t know how valid it is, but the larger point seems unassailable: Traffic congestion is a relatively small component of the total cost structure associated with automobile travel. When you compare the value of time, gasoline and engine wear-tear associated with congestion to the cost of buying a car, maintaining it, and paying for gasoline, insurance, crash damages and parking, congestion costs are almost trivial.

Of course, the chart provides average numbers. Congestion costs in places like Northern Virginia are significantly more acute than they are in, say, Roanoke. But even in Northern Virginia, the elites tend to be more upset than the Average Joe. Why is that?

Because the elites, by definition, have higher incomes and have more disposable income. They also tend to work harder, longer hours and place a higher value on their time. The Average Joe earning $25,000 to $50,000 a year has less money to spare to pay higher taxes but more spare time. While a member of the business/political elite might value his/her time at $100 to $200 per hour, Average Joe might value his time at $10 to $20 per hour. As a percentage of the total cost of car ownership/operation, the cost of congestion simply doesn’t loom as large for the little guy. But the cost of taxes does loom large because the little guy tends to be hard-pressed financially and less discretionary income to part with.

In sum, the little guy doesn’t like stewing in congestion. But he is more more likely to prefer paying the costs of congestion with his time rather than his taxes.

Of course, business elites are better organized than Average Joe — witness their recent proclamation in Northern Virginia in favor of more taxes for transportation — more vocal, more articulate and have more access to power. The voices of the elites carry much farther in Virginia’s political process than the voices of the little guys.

(Hat tip to Ray Hyde for bringing the VTPF study to my attention. Ray bears no responsibility whatsoever for the conclusions I have drawn in this post. But there’s more in the study to blog about, and I will make more posts in the future.)

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12 responses to “Why Aren’t People More Agitated About Traffic Congestion?”

  1. I’m not sure I agree with everything that is in the study for the same reasons I didn’t agree with everything that was in the recent Reason Foundation report: it is agenda driven.

    My take on this graph was simply that the individual auto traveler already pays a high percentage of his travel costs. According to this chart all of the ususal social issues are seen to be small potatoes in comparison: road costs, land used by roads, parking, environmental issues, etc.

    That is not to say that the costs can’t be contained, but considering what we voluntarily spend, it is hard to see where the will to do so will come from.

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    IMHO, Ray is probably right; drivers already pay most of the costs they cause.

    I wonder whether congestion costs truly decrease, and by what amount, after transportation taxes increase and roads are built. Or do we see transfered demand to the improved roads and more development that more than overwhelms the added capacity?

    I suspect that, if conversations among the so-called “business elite” had been secretly taped, the results would show that the latest push to improve transportation in NoVA and Hampton Roads has more to do with protecting large investments in commerical real estate and enabling more development than in obtaining measurable improvement in travel times or safety.

    Another thing I find quite telling is the fact that the “business elite” can never answer any hard questions about their proposals. For example, why would we give more money to VDOT when it still has no internal cost controls? Why would we spend at least $4 billion to build the Silver Line with no measurable reduction in traffic congestion?

    I stand to be corrected, but I submit that no one can provide any evidence that these important issues have ever been thoughtfully addressed by our political and business leaders. Probably, because they cannot be answered thoughtfully by those people. They see the same big holes that others see, but are not candid enough to admit that.

    Unfortunately, we are generally dealing with people who think that they can finesse their way through everything. I wonder how well their companies are really managed.

  3. “I wonder whether congestion costs truly decrease, and by what amount, after transportation taxes increase and roads are built. Or do we see transfered demand to the improved roads and more development that more than overwhelms the added capacity? “

    The study seems to tend to believe the (older and now suspect) data on induced traffic. The study includes another graph that purports to show that new road capacity in urban areas gets overwhelmed but new raod capacity in other areas shows a slight benefit.

    I’m not sure that means that building roads in urban areas is a waste or just that the benefits are eagerly gobbled up.

  4. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    I’m not sure that means that building roads in urban areas is a waste or just that the benefits are eagerly gobbled up.

    Is there a difference? We are being sold higher taxes to improve the situation. I’d waive the taxes and road improvements if it’s not going to help.

  5. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    I had trouble with the link and title you provided. I found this:

    Smart Transportation Investments
    Reevaluating The Role Of Highway Expansion For Improving
    Urban Transportation
    By Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 16 September 2006


    It is a very interesting study. It include this quote in the conclusions:
    “Advanced modeling indicates that the most cost effective solution to traffic congestion reduction includes a combination of transit improvements, road pricing and smart growth land use policies. This is most efficient and equitable overall because it reflects market principles, including viable consumer options, cost-based pricing and more neutral public policies.”

    Another important conclusion is that congestion relief highway projects can’t be paid for by tolls.

    To quote “AMOS AND ANDY” by Correll & Gosden
    Andy—Boy, I been in a mess befo’ but I ain’t neveh been in one like dis.
    Amos—Well, de longer yo’ wait, de worse off yo’ goin’ be.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Some..advocate highway expansion to reduce congestion. Their analysis tends to:

    • Exaggerate highway expansion congestion reduction impacts and economic benefits.

    • Underestimate the true costs of expanding major urban highways.

    • Fail to compare highway expansion with other transportation improvement options.

    I cherry-picked 3 to demonstrate.

    The Springfield Interchange (originally estimated at 300 million) ended at close to 700 million dollars.

    1. – What exactly is the benefit to users of that 700 million dollars in quantifiable terms?

    2. – on a per driver basis – how much improvement will he see in time-delay?

    3. – Is it cost-effective? In other words – from a time-delay improvement measure, does it return MORE than other projects for equivalent money spent?

    If you cannot answer questions 1,2 and 3, then how could one justify the 700 million as a worthwhile investment?

    If you cannot justify the 700 million then how do you know that another 700 million is worth the money?

    If you do not know this, then how could you know how many more Springfields would be needed before net improvements in time-delay in NoVa are the actual result?

    Until you know what the Springfield Interchange actually DELIVERED how would anyone know how many more like it would be needed to bring congestion levels in the NoVa area down to some acceptable level?

    Difficult to figure this out? You BET! What are the consequences of NOT doing it?

    Blind Advocacy and wanton waste of limited financial resources come to mind. (but who cares when it’s someone elses money anyhow?)

    Even those that claim that the “improvements” will keep things from getting worse can’t tell you how much worse it would have been WITHOUT the “investment” – only that we need a lot more of it… ahem…

    So we end up with “you CAN build your way out of congestion” but we cannot tell you what the term itself means (how much improvement in time-delay) … NOR can we tell you how much it will cost you – but TRUST US.. it’s the only REASONable path.

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry – I think that you may have hit upon an issue that affects NoVA, but is not talked about in polite society. The argument goes: if we don’t spend something to build this, that or the other thing, things will only get worse.

    But that argument presumes that both businesses and individuals will continue to move to NoVA without regard to conditions here and in alternative locations. At what points along the curve do businesses and invididuals begin not to come or to leave or to expand elsewhere? By widening a road for three miles here or there, do we send out a “false” signal that things will improve when we truly cannot/will not pay the the price necessary for real improvement?

  8. What if the gain in delay turns out to be small, but the number of drivers double? Hasn’t the value of the small gain made doubled also?

    What if the gain in delay turns out to be zero or even negative? How is that any different from the situation with Metro, which after 30 years has provided no congestion relief?

    You can argue, and many do, that congestion would be much worse without Metro, so why wouldn’t the same argument apply to Springfield interchange?

    Then, of course, Metro gets credit for new development, but roads get denigrated for the same.

    We are not going to eliminate congestion, whether on Metro or the roads without making investments that can’t be justified, but simply reducing the time delay is a measure that is too narrow.

    Metro’s “value” is that it permits more people to travel with the same time delay as you might have without it, and the same goes for road improvements, hover road improvements support more commerce. Saying that a road improvement is used up by new traffic and there is no gain ignores the fact that additional people and additional commerce is served by the improvement, even if the delays stay the same.

    As a result, I come to nearly, but not quite, the same conclusion as Larry’s final paragraph. I would only add that neither do we have any idea what the alternatives cost, or what benefits will result, and we have no idea as to their reasonableness, either.

    What we do know is that not all our commerce will be carried by pedestrians, bicycles, or Metro, so whatever the benefits and costs of the “alternaives” they are really not alternatives at all, but rather additions to the costs that the most “reasonable” path will cost.

  9. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    Jim – Perhaps your reference to ‘elites’ isn’t the best term, but it’s fair enough.

    To follow through with the thought you started —the wealthy arguing for more taxes— there’s a proven effect you let pass. In your example, if taxes are raised to pay for better transportation, it has other non-transportation effects.

    Assuming (!) increased taxes for transportation make a difference in congestion, property located near the improved roads will become more desirable. This, of course, raises their worth, and ultimately raises the property taxes on those parcels relative to other properties.

    The result is that existing marginal and fixed-income residents —those on the fringe of affording their taxes— are driven out. The raised value puts the houses out of reach of lower-income people, who could afford the taxes but can’t afford the new higher prices. These original residents are replaced by upper incomes, your ‘elite’ classes, who can both afford the new higher prices and may financially benefit from reduced travel time.

    In turn, the cost of services provided by marginal and lower incomes is driven higher in the ‘improved area’. Like anyone, they’ll preferentially work near their new homes away from the improved transportation. Salaries must be raised to attract them away from equivalent employment or compensate for increased vehicle costs, raising costs in the ‘improved area’.

    Some of those salary-costs are governmental, so taxes are raised … again. Wash, rinse, and repeat. The end result is an artificial stratification of income classes —not necessarily an evil by itself, as in private communities— but doing it with taxes is despicable.

    Unlike the ‘rising tide’ of capitalism that profits most of society, tax-segregation is penalty driven, creates no wealth, and benefits only a narrow stratum of society. To repeat, and it bears repeating, accomplishing this with public money is repugnant.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Jim, You make some very interesting arguments. I suspect that there’s a lot of truth to your conjecture. It’s interesting to me how those who are so concerned about inequalities in our society seem to unwilling to pursue your line of logic. American liberals seem fixated on the income tax code and, in particular, “George Bush’s tax cuts,” as a supposed engine of equality — despite the fact that the wealthy pay a vastly disproportionate share of the income tax. These same liberals are totally disinterested in the political economy of local development, which, to my mind — and yours, too, apparently — is the real engine of inequality. Some day, someone will write a book demonstrating how local zoning policies perpetuated the greatest transfer of wealth in United States history from the poor to the rich: from the non-propertied classes (those who did not own their own houses) to the propertied classes (those who did).

  11. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Both Jims – fascinating discussion. Has anyone ever looked at the income effect in Houston, which has no zoning code per se? Is the spread between the top and the bottom less than in NoVA or Dallas for example?

  12. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    Jim – Like any trend involving people, it’s not perfectly ‘clean’. Some people with marginal or low fixed incomes hang on to their residences to their own detriment*; and some people with middle and upper incomes leave rather than pay penalty taxes for insignificant travel improvements.

    It’s not conjecture; it’s observable on the Valley. The growth pressure is mostly from lower income, (in comparison to NOVA) new or starting families, and retirees. A significant proportion of Hispanic population growth is from NOVA, not up the interstate corridor or the agricultural path of the southern Valley and Piedmont.

    Advocacy by social caste represents the worst of democracy. Our Founding Fathers —mostly wealthy and privileged themselves, but clearly not all elitists— selflessly created a democratic republic to prevent the abuses of mob rule.

    Toomanytaxes – The phenomenon I wrote about is straightforward economic pressure. Simply look at the flight from PW or eastern Loudoun County. JB’s extrapolation to zoning, though I think he’s largely right, is contingent on zoning’s effect on economics. Either through taxes, mandated amenities, building code, etc.

    * In significant blocs, these can degenerate into future ghettos.

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