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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Congestion, Growth and Public Choices


Within a fairly short period of time, traffic congestion has eclipsed virtually every other concern -- be it crime, unemployment, or air pollution -- as America's number one urban problem. Public opinion polls in San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and at least a dozen other urbanized areas show citizens are more fed up with congestion than with anything else. In the Bay Area, congestion has been pegged by areawide residents as the number one public menace for four years straight, outdistancing its closes rival -- air pollution -- by more than two-to-one.

Such widespread dissatisfaction reflects, in part, the fact that congestion now afflicts nearly all commuters to some degree, whether headed downtown, reverse-commuting, or traveling on a secondary road. While only a decade ago congestion was the scourge of downtown commuters, today it pervades the freeway networks of most large and medium-sized cities.

Within limits, congestion is desirable -- a sign that a region is socially and economically vibrant and has not overinvested in highways. Recent public outcries, however, suggest that congestion has exceeded acceptable limits and may be approaching the intolerable. Just how bad have things gotten? In 1975, 41 percent of rush-hour freeway traffic in the nation's urbanized areas flowed under 35 mpg, what traffic engineers define as congested; by 1984, the share had catapulted to over 56 percent. Houston had the worst congestion in 1984 when expressed in delay per mile of travel, followed by New Orleans, New York, Detroit, and San Francisco (see Table 1). Los Angeles experienced the most overall delay on its freeways, 78.3 million hours, which translates into roughly one-half billion dollars of lost time, or about $67 per capita per year. Statistics aside, perhaps as good a barometer of just how serious congestion has become has been the wide media attention it has received: one observer documented over a twofold increase in the amount of newspaper space devoted to traffic congestion just in the last three years. Citizens are also lashing out against congestion, underscored by this letter-to-the-editor of the Washington Post from a reader who no doubt had reached wit's end, warning others that "if they must travel to Tysons Corner (in Northern Virginia) in the near future, they should carry adequate food and water to last until rescue parties can reach them"

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