Cartoon: Thought Congestion


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Another collaboration with Becky Hawkins! This one was written by me, and drawn by Becky.

In hindsight, “the way cities are addicted to widening roads, even though it never helps in the long term” is sort of an odd topic to do in a comic strip. But it’s nice to do an out-of-the-box subject now and then.

And this is a serious issue – traffic engineers are pretty convinced that widening roads doesn’t work. And widening roads is really, REALLY expensive (“half a billion” is actually a realistic price tag for some road-widening projects).

But it’s also very intuitive. “There are too many traffic jams, so let’s widen the roads” might be a wrong narrative, but it’s also a very clear narrative that voters tend to agree with. Not unlike “let’s lock more criminals in prison.” It’s a clear narrative and sounds like an active solution, all things politicians like.

In contrast, congestion pricing – that is, charging cars for driving during peak hours – actually does work to reduce traffic jams. And it’s much less expensive to implement than either new roads, or widening old roads.

But it’s also unpopular with voters – no one likes a brand-new form of tax. And it does raise some fairness issues, too – what about working-class workers who don’t have any control over what time they’re required to be at work?


TRANSCRIPT OF COMIC

The comic has four panels.

PANEL 1

The panel shows backed-up traffic on an overpass in the foreground. In the background, we can see more backed-up highways, and behind that the buildings of a small city, including a white building with a big dome on top and a US flag – i.e., a government building. Two word balloons come from that building. The balloons belong to characters I will call MAYOR and NERD.

MAYOR: The city just spent half a billion widening roads. But we still have traffic congestion!

NERD: Well, Mr. Mayor, studies show that adding lanes doesn’t fix traffic.

PANEL 2

Inside the mayor’s office. There is a big curtained window and a fancy executive desk with a big leather chair. In front of the desk is the Mayor – a man in a suit with gray hair – and a woman who is a nerd, by which I mean she’s wearing glasses, has her hair in a bun, and is carrying a stack of three-ring binders.

The Mayor is making a “stop talking” gesture, holding up a hand flat in front of the nerd’s face. The mayor looks angry, and his eyes are bloodshot.

NERD: People’s capacity to drive is greater than our capacity to build roads, so-

MAYOR: Blah blah blah! We’ve got to do something!

PANEL 3

The mayor, now looking happy, makes a big sweeping gesture with his hand, causing the surprised nerd to drop her binders.

NERD: Um…

MAYOR: I’ve got it!

PANEL 4

The mayor and the nerd are now on stage, the mayor behind the podium and the nerd to one side and behind him. There is a cheering crowd watching the mayor speak.

The Mayor is waving a hand grandly as he speaks. The nerd is face-palming.

MAYOR: Good news, citizens! We’re widening the roads again!

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34 Responses to Cartoon: Thought Congestion

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    People don’t like to be socially engineered. They don’t like to be forced into particular behaviors by governmental assessment of taxes on behavior that it doesn’t like. And they don’t like to be told they can’t drive anywhere the hell they want. I’m not arguing the merits of those attitudes, I’m just noting their existence.

    There’s also the issue of practicality. You’ve noted the lack of control that working people often have over their schedule. Add to that the kind of scenario where you might have to take a train and two buses to get to where you want to go and the time factor (don’t forget to add in the transfers) gets to be an issue. I was just reading an article about Copenhagen planning to attempt to eliminate car traffic as much as possible. The kinds of things they’re talking about – adding more public transport, creating self-contained neighborhoods – would work for people in a very dense urban core, but for people who work but not live in the urban core it’s not all that helpful. There’s a lot of people who work in an urban core but do NOT want to live in one; at least, in the U.S. there is. They’re not about to be forced to move into the city.

    None of which should be taken as an endorsement of smoke and mirrors from politicians, or for their application of costly and ineffective solutions to a problem because it makes it easier to get re-elected.

  2. 2
    J. Squid says:

    There’s a lot of people who work in an urban core but do NOT want to live in one; at least, in the U.S. there is. They’re not about to be forced to move into the city.

    Then why shouldn’t they pay for that privilege. I mean they already do pay for that privilege via their property taxes, but that’s a-okay by them. I wonder what could be at the root of that strange, inexplicable dichotomy of emotions about paying taxes.

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    I mean they already do pay for that privilege via their property taxes, but that’s a-okay by them.

    Is it? I’m used to thinking of people as angry about those. See also: prop 13.

  4. 4
    J. Squid says:

    With the exception of one man, not at all where I grew up. People consistently voted to raise property taxes (to the point where my parents property taxes approached $25k/yr) in order to maintain and improve the (insanely well provisioned and competitive) school system.

    I mean, I can only speak of whence I came. Although conservatives have been complaining about property taxes in Oregon for decades, that seems to me not representative of suburbanites in the state, in general.

  5. 5
    Harlequin says:

    RonF:

    People don’t like to be socially engineered. They don’t like to be forced into particular behaviors by governmental assessment of taxes on behavior that it doesn’t like.

    In fact, many laws, regulations, and economic policies socially engineer people to use cars more.

  6. 6
    Saurs says:

    “People don’t like to be socially engineered” in a post that references precisely how the US government engineered our car culture and created the American car consumer, fundamentally changing the architecture of our cities and ushering in the creation of our suburbs connected by a new system of highways, is really something else.

  7. 7
    Kate says:

    I love driving. But, in dense urban areas, the nightmares and/or expense of parking are far more constrictive than those of adequately designed public transit systems (like New York City).
    I have free parking where I work, but I take the bus sometimes. The problem is lack of frequency at off-peak times. The bus to where I work only takes about ten minutes longer than driving. However, because of the schedule, I generally arrive a full half hour before my shift if I’m opening (7 am). If I’m closing (9:30 p.m.), it is even worse and I would need to wait a full hour for a bus to come. I usually take a taxi when I don’t have the car on those nights. Still, on the rare occasion that I do work a 9-5, I often take the bus because they are frequent enough and I know street parking in my neighborhood will take so long that the bus will be quicker.
    People I know with long commutes (some over two hours each way – housing is really really expensive here and people want to own their own homes) almost always take the train most of the way. Some of them have the sorts of jobs that allow them to work on the train. Others read, knit or watch TV on their phones. That sort of commute would take a terrible toll if one had to drive the whole thing.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    I have some problems that make cars deeply important to me. They give me a way of extending my personal space and a controlled area into public space. If I’m feeling deeply socially anxious, being in a context with a lot of close-crammed people could be enough of a problem for me that I would decline to leave the house instead. If I’m not, a car means I can avoid or leave a triggering situation, and easily access the time and space I need to recover if I have to try to medicate a migraine or a panic attack or something else. People with the kinds of sicknesses I have sometimes get housebound, not because they’re afraid of the outside, but because the clamorousness of the normal world contains potential triggers, and they are difficult to prevent or deal with in public. Walking away from the ability to cope easily if something goes wrong is rough. It’s recursive as well – the knowledge things may go wrong fuels the need to prepare in case they do which fuels increased anxiety which causes things to go wrong.

    I can get on a bus, though. For others of our physically disabled friends, that’s not an option. The alternative transports provided by the city are – first of all, cars – and second of all, really expensive. When my friend can’t afford $35 to replace the back brace that allows them to sit up, paying 30% of that for a ride somewhere and back is not a viable option. Besides, even when everything is going right, those need to be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance. So, you can’t just decide to go down to the grocery store; you have to know you’re going to want to do it tomorrow. Not everyone in this group of people can afford a car or has people who are wiling to drive them around, but some do, and it’s important to them.

    Whatever, I manage. I would either adapt or just be housebound again. Probably a mixture. And public transportation has huge benefits and one of the reasons we live where we do is so that we have access to it, although it’s been harder for me to use it than I was hoping. (With luck, that’ll change.) It should be increased and favored.

    I just… feel like “cars suck, down with cars, what’s the point of cars” becomes a sort of background truism in progressive discussion of the topic sometimes. And a lot of that is because the “cars rule” people have most of the power and the “but bikes!” and “but buses!” people are fighting for scraps.

    If push handed the topic over to shove, I’m sure that most of the public transport folks aren’t in favor of getting rid of every car. Probably most of them just want some say at the table. But then also the debate gets into arguing about limiting driving by making it expensive so that cars are rarefied, but that just means they’ll be rarefied to the rich, when the people who need them most are this other group and this other one and this other one…

    I just wanted to say. Cars are not only indulgent, decadent symbols of late stage capitalism. Like plastic straws, they serve some goods.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    Kate is completely correct that the commute into NYC would be awful for most people if they weren’t allowed to use the train. Car traffic is chokingly awful.

    In my situation, I just couldn’t hold a job with that commute.

  10. 10
    Mandolin says:

    With the exception of one man, not at all where I grew up. People consistently voted to raise property taxes (to the point where my parents property taxes approached $25k/yr) in order to maintain and improve the (insanely well provisioned and competitive) school system.

    Huh. Property tax increases almost always failed where I was growing up. The schools tended to lose their librarians first, and since my mom was a school librarian, we were well aware of those winds. But although I’m from an upper middle class background, our neighborhood was lower middle class, so.

  11. 11
    J. Squid says:

    Huh. Property tax increases almost always failed where I was growing up. The schools tended to lose their librarians first, and since my mom was a school librarian, we were well aware of those winds. But although I’m from an upper middle class background, our neighborhood was lower middle class, so.

    Yeah. So much depends on the subculture in which it happens. This is why anecdata can only take us so far.

  12. 12
    Jeremy says:

    I think as far as roads go there is also the work smarter not harder principal at play. Like better road design in my experience is way better at eliminating congestion then widening or adding lanes. Roundabouts and dedicated lanes on highways for people not simply getting on and off highways at the next exit can go a long way towards making driving a lot easier.

    I’m also not sure how a tax on people driving during peak times works though, like do mean a variable toll (where the toll increases during peak times) where you already have tolls? Like how do you determine who is driving during peak times in a way that wouldn’t be super duper intrusive?

  13. 13
    Charles S says:

    I’m also not sure how a tax on people driving during peak times works though, like do mean a variable toll (where the toll increases during peak times) where you already have tolls? Like how do you determine who is driving during peak times in a way that wouldn’t be super duper intrusive?

    The tax on people driving during peak times is congestion pricing. As to how it is done technically,you put RFID tags on cars, you use video monitoring of the license plates we already put on cars, or you use a mix of RFID tags and toll booths.

  14. 14
    Kate says:

    Also, funding public transportation isn’t just good for the people who take it. It also will actually get cars off the road so those who choose to continue driving have less traffic to contend with. Widening roads actually results in more people choosing to drive and therefore more cars on the road. That’s why it doesn’t work.

  15. 15
    RonF says:

    Property tax referenda generally pass where I live in the Chicago suburbs. They are almost always related to school improvements (or at least what’s cited as improvements). Although just recently a referendum in a wealthy suburb near me initially failed. It was then reproposed, and the school board warned that if it didn’t pass they would have to start cancelling some programs, varsity football being prominently named as one of them. It passed. I wonder if a threat to cancel arts programs or a new science lab would have helped it pass. I feel quite certain that it wouldn’t have caused as much public comment.

    Me:

    There’s a lot of people who work in an urban core but do NOT want to live in one; at least, in the U.S. there is. They’re not about to be forced to move into the city.

    J. Squid:

    Then why shouldn’t they pay for that privilege.

    I was unaware that choosing to live other than walking/biking distance of where you work was a “privilege”.

  16. 16
    J. Squid says:

    I was unaware that choosing to live other than walking/biking distance of where you work was a “privilege”.

    The ability to live in a homogeneous suburb with a better funded school system while earning your living in the city is certainly a privilege.

  17. 17
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    J Squid

    With the exception of one man, not at all where I grew up. People consistently voted to raise property taxes (to the point where my parents property taxes approached $25k/yr) in order to maintain and improve the (insanely well provisioned and competitive) school system.

    This was my neighborhood too. The taxes also payed for really nice parks that were everywhere, a perfectly maintained “main street” with historical buildings preserved and a few made public, and outstanding bike trails. Our high school was absurd and included a professional recording studio where school announcements were done newsroom-style by students in the journalism classes. The thing we skimped on was athletics, oddly enough. With only a couple exception, most of the away track meets I’d run were at better facilities than the ones we had at home.

    All of these amenities gave my town a sort of “gated community” feeling which doesn’t really suit me and a part of the reason I left. I think this feel is what your alluding to? I don’t doubt for a second that it made me town disproportionately rich, white, and Asian.

    Also, I 100% agree that roads are a privilege we should pay for, and have no idea how free market types, especially moderate ones, could oppose congestion taxing. These people (me being one of them) always oppose capital and wealth taxes for reasons, and then point out that tax revenues can be raised in more creative ways that are less destructive to the economy, and congestion taxes are one of those ways! Like, if you don’t like those taxes, which taxes do you like? This is one of those rare times when we can nudge behavior to make infrustructure work better while also raising revenue. It’s like cigarette taxes, it’s a no-brainer.

  18. 18
    Mandolin says:

    I imagine there must be data on how far people live from and work in cities ranging back over a fair amount of time (probably worldwide, but the information from cultures closer to our own in time and space is probably more useful). Starting with something like when London became a real cityish city by modern standards.

    What I’m wondering is whether we’ll find that as transportation technology improves, the time-to-move-between-spaces radius adjusts to stay the same. Obviously, this is happening to some extent because it is what allows the suburban sprawl to work. But we talk about the evolution of the suburbs as an important historical moment (which it is) — and I’m wondering whether the sprawl was, in fact, just as marked before. If it only grew to the same degree as it had previously been, then that means something different than if the willingness to take time on commutes suddenly went up. (Although of course one also much consider the effects of comfort and convenience, as well as speed, on willingness to commute.)

    If the results were to indicate that the radius of commute time has stayed relatively static, then I think we’re coming up against a much harder problem than if suburbia is a novel evolution. If the radius of commute time has proven durable over different circumstances*, then it’s likely to have a robust embedded component that will be difficult to alter.

    *The more different circumstances in which it is durable, the more consistently persuasive the evidence, of course. But in this case, I suspect that both the most salient and closest data will be those that are closer to our cultural context. It’s always possible that a persistent Western radius that doesn’t alter with technology could be, rather than a feature of human settlement patterns in general**, the effect of some other durable Western cultural feature.

    **I doubt it is, as conceptions of what constitutes acceptable personal space are fairly flexible, and it seems like the two might be related psychological phenomena. I wonder whether they correlate directly.

    I expect someone has probably done this research, actually. There are different ways to go about it, though, and different ways to parse the results. Seems like someone –or maybe a lot of someones, depending on how it was publicized — probably knows the answer.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    The ability to live in a homogeneous suburb with a better funded school system while earning your living in the city is certainly a privilege.

    Why? How is it a privilege? Is it something granted by an outside authority? Or is it something people earned, and are even willing to accept a lower standard of living for?

    If you think that all suburbs are racially homogeneous and/or have a well-funded school system you should do some research into Chicago suburbs.

    In my suburb the funding is hard to compare; Chicago is a unitary school district (containing both elementary schools and high schools) whereas our schools are divided into an elementary district and a separate high school district, each encompassing students from parts of surrounding suburbs. Our elementary district spends about ~$600 less/student than Chicago does, but the high school that my half of my suburb goes to spends about ~$3000 more/student (about 20%). Certainly there’s more K – 8 students in our school system than 9 – 12 students. Of course, the same could be said of Chicago. But the high school district encompasses 8 different elementary school districts. Very confusing, the way we do things in Illinois. Per capita income in my suburb is lower than the average across all Chicago suburbs.

    It’s interesting, too, what people pay for. In my suburb we have to pay for water, sewer and trash pickup. In Chicago sewer and trash pickup are free and water was free until recently. Maybe if people paid for their own sewer and trash pickup they’d have more money to put into the schools – although the Chicago Teachers’ Union is threatening to strike unless they get a 15% raise over the next 3 years, so that would probably get sucked up pretty quick.

  20. 20
    J. Squid says:

    Is it something granted by an outside authority?

    Yes. Redlining is just one of the many outside authorities. There are a ton of others.

  21. 21
    RonF says:

    Redlining? That was insidious but no longer exists and no longer controls who can move where. Who are these “ton of others”?

  22. 22
    RonF says:

    Mandolin, one thing to consider is the effects that technology, especially I.T., has had on time-to-travel. I can think of two first-order effects. One is personal – I could easily do much of my job working from home, and many of my colleagues only come into work 2 days a week or fewer. The second is corporate – your company no longer needs to be IN the core urban area. I have a pretty good paying job and I commute from suburb to suburb, not coming with 25 miles of the Loop (what’s considered “downtown Chicago” from a business center perspective). The public transportation infrastructure that exists in the suburbs mainly serves to get people in and out of downtown Chicago. Suburb-to-suburb public transportation is relatively negligible and given the population density and distribution of people vs. employment centers there’s no practical way to put inter-suburban public transport in that a lot of people will use as an alternative to driving.

    And anyone who starts talking about bicycles hasn’t been through a Chicago winter ….

  23. 23
    RonF says:

    Jeffrey:

    It’s like cigarette taxes, it’s a no-brainer.

    The State of Illinois thought that increasing cigarette taxes was a no-brainer, so they did. Revenues went down. They neglected to figure into their calculations that a large percentage of Illinois residents live near a border with another State (e.g., the non-aqueous part of Chicago’s eastern border is the Illinois/Indiana State line) and would drive over said border to buy cigarettes.

    Cook County thought a penny an ounce tax on soda drinks was a no-brainer. In all my life I have never seen a public reaction to a tax like that one. There were large “don’t blame us” signs on the soda aisles in every store and the Cook County Commissioners were inundated with phone calls, e-mails, and people showing up at Cook County board meetings. It dominated the local news for weeks. People were absolutely livid. The commissioners repealed the tax because they’d have gotten tossed out of office if they hadn’t. There’s apparently a lot of soda addicts out there.

  24. 24
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    What’s weird about this discussion is that is describes the city I’m from, Columbus, with Worthington being the rich suberb, but it doesn’t describe the city I live in now quite as well. DC is itself super expensive, so many of the people that live on the outside and commute in for work are the working class people who can’t afford a home here. The truth is, people desperately want to live here to skip the horrible commutes, and this is jusr=t one more factor driving up prices. Every house within walking distance to a metro stop has a premium priced in, as a home remodeler myself, I don’t even try to play in those markets. They are crazy. That’s not to say we don’t also have uber rich suburbs- Bethesda and Chevy Chase are well known, but almost all of Northern Virginia is unaffordable now. The guys I used to work with at the Gallery mostly live in MD or had hour-long commutes from areas of Virginia South of our beltway. DC’s rush-hour traffic is much more blue-collar than columbus’s- you can tell because DC slows down around 3:30, the typical quitting time for construction/maintenance/housekeeping.

  25. 25
    J. Squid says:

    DC is itself super expensive, so many of the people that live on the outside and commute in for work are the working class people who can’t afford a home here.

    Portland is increasingly suffering from the same problem.

  26. 26
    J. Squid says:

    Redlining? That was insidious but no longer exists and no longer controls who can move where.

    Yes, yes. And just like slavery, there are no lasting effects from the practice. Gotcha.

  27. 27
    luekre23 says:

    alot of people want to drive and they cannot because the road has too many cars, so there are alot of people who take the bus even if they do not want to take the bus. or maybe they do not go at all even if they want to go, because the bus takes too long.

    when roads get bigger then a lot more people can do what they want to do and drive! so when you make roads bigger you are making alot of people happy because more people get to do what they want. i think that is good.

    if the only thing you like is no traffic then you can say widening road does not work but why would you not listen to what people want in their own life? it is more sense to think about trying to give alot of people what they like.

    of course nobody likes traffic, i know i do not like traffic, but the people who do not like it most do not drive . and if people like to drive in traffic more than they like to take the train then it makes no sense to pretend they will not be better if you give them what they think is good.

  28. 28
    Mandolin says:

    Ron, I think those are good points.

    I grew up in a city that’s mostly made of suburbs, whatever your race. We do have a light rail that helps but obviously its scope is limited. The buses kinda sucked. But there are a lot of places people work other than the relatively anemic downtown.

  29. 29
    Ampersand says:

    alot of people want to drive and they cannot because the road has too many cars,

    A lot of people would prefer to bus and they cannot because the bus system is insufficient in some way (too infrequent, fares too high, not enough routes). When you improve public transit more people can do what they want to do. So when you improve public transit you are making a lot of people happy because more people get to do what they want.

  30. 30
    Ledasmom says:

    I would very much like to take public transit to work, but it would take an hour and a half – not entirely practical when I need to be at work by 7:00 a.m, and especially impractical when the entire commute would be in the dark. The train schedule does not line up with my work schedule at all, meaning a very long wait at work before I could start my day, and I’m not being paid for that time. I would much rather see more money being put into improving public transit than into expanding roads. I would also rather see energy being put into making congestion pricing work, rather than into deciding it’s impractical.

  31. From The New York Times: How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam:

    Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the United States. Drivers there average two hours each week mired in gridlock, hung up at countless spots, from the constantly clogged Georgia 400 to a complicated cluster of overpasses at Tom Moreland Interchange, better known as “Spaghetti Junction.” The Downtown Connector — a 12-to-14-lane megahighway that in theory connects the city’s north to its south — regularly has three-mile-long traffic jams that last four hours or more. Commuters might assume they’re stuck there because some city planner made a mistake, but the heavy congestion actually stems from a great success. In Atlanta, as in dozens of cities across America, daily congestion is a direct consequence of a century-long effort to segregate the races.

    For much of the nation’s history, the campaign to keep African-Americans “in their place” socially and politically manifested itself in an effort to keep them quite literally in one place or another. Before the Civil War, white masters kept enslaved African-Americans close at hand to coerce their labor and guard against revolts. But with the abolition of slavery, the spatial relationship was reversed. Once they had no need to keep constant watch over African-Americans, whites wanted them out of sight. Civic planners pushed them into ghettos, and the segregation we know today became the rule.

  32. 32
    Polaris says:

    That is because you guys don’t use them in a too coordinated fashion.
    Adding lanes does reduce traffic jams when the slower cars and trucks take the middle lane while buses, cabs and vehicles taking the next exit remain on the right lane, while faster cars remain on the left lane until their exit comes up.

  33. 33
    lurker23 says:

    Ampersand says:
    August 30, 2019 at 11:20 am

    alot of people want to drive and they cannot because the road has too many cars,

    A lot of people would prefer to bus and they cannot because the bus system is insufficient in some way (too infrequent, fares too high, not enough routes). When you improve public transit more people can do what they want to do. So when you improve public transit you are making a lot of people happy because more people get to do what they want.

    Yes, that is also true, we should also have more buses!

    still busing is usually more slow than a car even then because the car goes right between the two places you want to be and the bus usually does not do that. if you live near a bus station and want to go near another station it is fast, if you have to drive to station and park and then bus and then walk or drive or take another bus, then it is slow. when i lived in a city i would take the bus because parking was alot of money. but i would walk 13 blocks to the bus and walk 9 blocks after the bus. it was cheap but it was alot slower than a car. also the trade is that if you have a bus with alot of stopping then it can help more people but if you have a lot of stopping then it is also slower.

    mostly buses are better than trains though except in really really really crowded places because trains cannot change easily when people need different things.

  34. 34
    Doug S. says:

    0) At least road widening can fix local bottlenecks.

    1) The simplest model I can think of to describe the situation is that the number of people on a road keeps increasing until it becomes congested, regardless of the absolute level of road capacity. That would mean that adding more capacity won’t ease congestion, but it will allow more people to make the trip *at all* even if they have to sit in traffic to do so. This is a benefit.

    2) Congestion pricing fixes traffic by making some people not drive that otherwise would have. Like price gouging during a disaster, it can easily be seen as *not fair* to people with less money.

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