Monday, 5 February 2007

Stupid Stupid Traffic Jam – Stop Building Roads!

I read this piece of news on the Star last Saturday and it made me rather unhappy. Litrak is planning to build more roads to relieve congestion on the LDP.

Why am I unhappy?


Not less. Sigh.

It might appear as counter-intuitive, but bigger and more roads on existing ones do not solve the problem of road congestion, it only makes it worse. Everyone who knows anything about road/urban planning or transport economics should know this – it is one of those simple, well-accepted and proven facts that any one remotely interested in traffic issue should know about.

For example, this is what 16 year-olds student of economics are expected to know (from, online A-level resources):

“Increasing the supply of transport infrastructure may reduce congestion in the short run but simply generate additional traffic leaving no net gain in long term traffic flows. Moreover the environmental impact and further negative externalities are unsustainable.”

And this is from wikipedia:

“…Capacity expansion is also a potential mechanism to deal with traffic congestion, but is often undesirable (particularly in urban areas) and sometimes has questionable benefits (see induced demand).”

Do not believe these? Take a look at the excerpts from one of the many research papers written on this issue (Todd Litman (2006), "Smart Transportation Investments: Reevaluating the Role of Highway Expansion for Improving Urban Transportation", Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Canada):

“…claim that highway expansion provides congestion relief, a seductive term since congestion is stressful and imposes economic costs. People understandably want relief. But this may be an example of a misguided solution that exacerbates the problem it was intended to solve and has undesirable unintended consequences.

As an analogy, consider the role laxatives should play relieving constipation. Laxatives are sometimes appropriate, but it is generally best to address constipation by changing diet (more fiber and liquids) and exercise (take a walk), because laxatives’ effectiveness declines with frequent use, they can hide more severe diseases, and they can exacerbate other medical problems. A physician who prescribes laxatives without investigating why the patient is constipated or considering other solutions is guilty of malpractice.

Similarly, chronic traffic congestion is often a symptom of more fundamental community design problems, such as inadequate mobility options that force people to drive for every trip, and dispersed land use patterns that increase travel distances. Where this is true, expanding roads may reduce short term symptoms but exacerbate long term problems."

Here’s more from the same paper (page 7):

“…expanding roadways tends to generate traffic (increase peak-period vehicle travel, including shifts in time and route) and induce travel (increase total vehicle mileage) compared with what would otherwise occur…

So how do we solve congestion (page 15, 18)?

“Alternative strategies can reduce traffic congestion and provide other benefits. …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.”

Details might differ, but almost all studies agree that expanding capacity is not the way to go if you truly want to reduce traffic congestion. Chances are, traffic will worsen. Other alternatives are preferable.

In fact, ask yourself, has traffic ever improved for long every time they build a new road? Label me cynical, but the only one who seems to be benefiting from more roads are the dubious road builders, sucking in revenue from taxpayers’ money and guaranteed toll charges for decades.

Personally, to put things in the Malaysian perspective, there are five steps that need to be taken to improve the current transportation condition, in the order of urgency:

  1. Improve Public Transportation. No, merely throwing billion of ringgits of taxpayers’ money into the system wouldn’t improve public transportation. What we need is an integrated, coherent, efficient and well-planned system.

  1. Revamp Road Infrastructure Coordination. Basically, to have a more transparent and market-principled method of road privatisation which is consistent with overall and holistic urban planning. Not the current hodgepodge system with dodgy and secretive participants.

  1. Liberalise the Automotive Sector. Remove the already very damaging and insular protectionist automotive policy. It has already destroyed the competitiveness and regional potential of our automotive sector, nurtured a network of incompetent but politically connected vendors and companies and burdened almost 7 million Malaysian households. The current 60% increase in toll is nothing compared to the 100% increase in car prices for all 26 million Malaysians. Just to throw you an example, income adjusted, we pay more than 10 times for a Toyota Camry compared to an Australian. In fact, we have an internationally preposterous level of household debt of 18% of our entire GDP just for the purchase of vehicles. With an undistorted market, much of household income will be available for savings and consumption, including as buffer for the vagaries of the petrol prices and toll prices.

  1. Remove Petrol Subsidy. I know I make myself unpopular by proposing this, but with the above 3 steps done, the next step is to remove petrol subsidy and allow consumption of fuel be reflective of market conditions. Subsidising petrol is just not prudent, from the fiscal perspective, and it leads to inefficient traffic level (and all the externalities that follow). However, the subsidy should not be replaced entirely before good public transportation, road planning and reasonably priced cars (do we even know what this means anymore?) are in place.

  1. Introduction of Congestion Charges. After, and only after, all the distortions are removed, then we could have well-designed congestion charges akin to Singapore and London to reduce congestion on urban hotspots.

I know this is brief and sketchy, but if possible, I will elaborate on each of the five (especially 3). In any case, the point is this:



(All emphases are added)


Hi&Lo said...

No motivation to improve transit system cos automotive industry controlled by BN cronies.

Ministers more interested in enriching themselves than welfare of the people.

clueless govt. We deserve the govt we get.

nat said...

interesting! and very well researched, good stuff :D

calledyouguysamilliontimesonsaturday said...

Well, perhaps in Malaysia's LDP case one variable won't change - the number of cars.

1. Neighbourhoods around PJ and Damansara are reaching maturity, children leaving home, less new housing, less cars.

2. People in the expanding neighbourhoods in the outskirts (Puchong, ~ cough~ Putra Heights)can't afford petrol and toll, less cars.

So perhaps the more roads in this case will mean less traffic,errr.. still unlikely right?

Anonymous said...

wow... interesting and definitely a good read! keep up the good work...