Road to nowhere: dealing with traffic

From soaring fuel costs to lost work hours to increased greenhouse gases, transportation gridlock is like slow-drip torture on the economy, gradually sapping its productivity. Canada's traffic snarl is costing us billions every year. So why doesn't somebody fix it?

Damn this traffic jam
How I hate to be late
It hurts my motor to go so slow
Damn this traffic jam

Time I get home my supper'll be cold
Damn this traffic jam
?James Taylor

For truck driver Carlos Dias, the trip across Port Mann Bridge, spanning the Fraser River, is his quiet time. “I'm on the phone to my girlfriend, maybe I'll read the paper. Sometimes I just sit and think,” Dias says of the endless hours he spends every week sitting in his cab. “You do what you can to occupy yourself. There's no point getting frustrated because it's always like this.”

Heading west toward the coast, Port Mann squeezes four lanes of traffic into two. This funnelling effect, combined with the sheer volume of vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, produces lineups of three kilometres or more every day. According to the provincial government, Port Mann Bridge is congested nearly 14 hours per day. “You are pretty much guaranteed to come to a complete stop,” says Dias, whose daily route takes him from Burnaby to Chilliwack and back, hauling radiators from the manufacturer to his employer, Argus Carriers Ltd., for reshipment to the United States. “In fact, I'm shocked when there is no lineup.” On rare congestion-free days, he can make the trip back to the office in half an hour. But on most days, it takes an hour or two.

Dias, who is paid an hourly wage, appears to have achieved an appropriately Zen-like attitude toward his daily period of enforced contemplation. Such is not the case for Argus's operations manager, Brent Goodrich. “Those radiators have to make it to the U.S. every night?we've got a schedule to meet in Seattle,” Goodrich frets, in the way bosses do. “We are always under the gun because of traffic.” Goodrich can cast his mind back to a happier time, when it was him in the truck: “Back in the mid-1980s, I was doing parcel deliveries in Richmond for Argus. I could do 45 to 50 deliveries in a morning. My goal was to average 15 stops an hour, and I could fly around town. Man, those were the days.”

Today, Goodrich isn't doing the driving himself. And those routes don't seem like so much fun anymore. “It's gridlock out there now. I can only give my parcel guys maybe 18 to 20 calls in a morning,” he complains. “You can't get around. You can't find a place to park. It's a constant battle out there.”

No one enjoys traffic congestion. Like the Canadian weather, it's a subject of eternal complaint. Like the weather, everyone has a personal story of hardship. Also like the weather, it seems to be getting worse. Today, an Argus driver can deliver only half the number of packages he could 20 years ago. A half-hour trip takes two hours. And it's not just Vancouver being crippled by traffic. Every large city in the country is feeling it. Across Canada, congestion is acting like a slow-drip torture on the economy, gradually sapping its productivity.

So how much is traffic congestion really costing us? And what can we do about it?

In March, federal Transportation Minister Lawrence Cannon released the first comprehensive attempt to put a price tag on congestion in Canada. The top-line figure: gridlock costs the nine largest urban centres in Canada $3.7 billion per year.

The figure represents the sum of the time lost sitting in traffic (at an average rate of $28 per hour during working hours), plus the extra gas wasted and the greenhouse gases emitted. And while $3.7 billion might seem a big number, the Transport Canada method was deliberately conservative. For the purposes of the study, traffic was considered to be uncongested if it moved at 70% of the posted speed. In other words, there is no recorded loss in time, fuel or greenhouse gases as long as you are going 70 km/h on a 100 km/h expressway.

The United States takes a more stringent view of congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University has annually calculated the cost of traffic delays for 85 urban centres in the States, using a similar approach to Transport Canada's. However, the TTI starts the bill the moment traffic is no longer able to travel the posted speed. The latest figure is about US$63 billion in congestion costs?a much larger figure than Canada's on a relative basis. Since 1982, when the TTI began measuring congestion, the average delay per rush-hour traveller has increased from 16 hours to 47 hours per year. In other words, American commuters spend more than a full workweek every year sitting in their cars, going slow.

Yet even that must be considered an underestimate of the pervasive costs of congestion. For instance, the TTI approach includes none of the productivity losses experienced by Carlos Dias and his employer. Using two sample cities, however, the U.S. government has attempted to calculate the traffic costs to businesses that rely on just-in-time delivery or are otherwise dependent on roads for their productivity. In Chicago, for instance (the other sample city is Philadelphia), researchers found that a mere 2.5% reduction in delivery-truck travel costs could produce savings of US$980 million per year.

There are other ways traffic can affect business productivity. Few employees are willing to spend more than two hours commuting each day; most expect to put up with much less. But this time barrier means employers are limited in their recruiting efforts. So one reason employers locate in big cities?a larger labour pool?can be negated by traffic. Employers must either pay higher wages or hire less desirable workers. Either way, productivity suffers. The U.S. researchers estimated that this aspect of congestion amounts to US$350 million a year for Chicago.

Add these hidden costs of lost productivity (Chicago: US$1.3 billion) to the figures of wasted gas and time (Chicago: US$4.3 billion), and the city totals get very large, very fast. Using this sort of approach for Canada would also yield astronomical figures.

Beyond the obvious engineering and economic costs, congested traffic also produces many other undesirable consequences. The environmental toll of all the extra pollution and waste caused by gridlock are obvious, though hard to measure reliably. There is the hidden stress and psychological aggravation wreaked by traffic delays. Commuting has also been implicated in high blood pressure, lower-back pain and heart disease. Congestion alters land-use decisions and makes downtown office buildings less desirable than suburban locations. In myriad ways, congestion exacts its toll on Canadian life.

So it's not surprising that congestion is well on its way to becoming a political issue. In Ontario, the opposition Progressive Conservatives clearly think there are gains to be made by validating the complaints of aggrieved commuters in the vote-rich suburban swath around Toronto. Last year, John Tory, leader of the Ontario PCs, set up a website? allow Ontarians to complain about traffic. Congestion is also a federal issue. Ottawa will hand out $5 billion in gas tax revenue over five years to municipalities across the country, primarily to build public transit. During the election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that Transport Canada will monitor congestion in the same manner as the TTI does in the United States. And the most recent federal budget included tax breaks for transit passes, another Conservative election promise.

But is validating commuter gripes and spending more on public transit the best answer? What would a comprehensive solution to congestion look like?

As complicated as toting up the costs and implications of congestion can be, it is surprisingly simple to list the quartet of potential solutions. In its essence, congestion is a classic economic puzzle of supply and demand. How do we solve the fact that there are too many drivers on too little road? On one side, you can either increase the supply of roads by laying more pavement, or use technology to squeeze more capacity out of the existing road system. On the demand side, you can try to remove people from their cars, by pulling them out with public transit or pushing them out using road tolls.

So what works best?

Building more roads is the obvious solution. Yet this potential fix has surprisingly few advocates, and a great many opponents. It is certainly very expensive. In 2005, the federal and provincial governments estimated that the country required $24 billion in maintenance on existing roads and bridges, plus another $37 billion for expansion, by 2013. But would building all these extra roads give every driver the room he or she needs? Few people, it seems, are convinced it would.

The chief criticism is that giving drivers more road to use may be a mug's game. The theory of induced demand holds that the pent-up demand for driving is so great that most new roads become clogged almost the instant they open. Some studies claim that for every 10% increase in capacity, there is a 9% increase in vehicle miles travelled four years after expansion, as drivers who previously parked their cars take to the roads. If you build it, they will come?and they will drive their cars.

In January, B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced a massive $3-billion road-building agenda called the Gateway Program. Included in that plan is an $800-million budget for twinning Port Mann Bridge, potentially giving truck driver Carlos Dias something do to other than talk to his girlfriend and read the paper. “Without strategic investments, we will not be able to capitalize on our position as a gateway to the Pacific,” said Falcon in an interview.

His plan, however, has proven controversial, as some fear that more roads will mean more car traffic in downtown Vancouver. Gordon Price, a city councillor in Vancouver from 1986 to 2002, is one of the country's most outspoken critics of building roads. “No government will ever be able to build enough lanes to keep up,” he argues. “The greater Vancouver area sees an average increase of about 25,000 registered vehicles every year. That's about 68 new cars every day. Think about it: whatever new road space you build, you will never be able to keep up with the rate of new cars.” As for Falcon's decision to double the capacity of Port Mann bridge, Price chuckles. “Almost from the day it opens, I can guarantee you will be right back to where you started,” he says. “Only, instead of two lanes of congestion heading west, you will have four.” Beyond the induced demand caused by commuters who change driving habits due to new roads, Price argues that road-building will lead to even greater demand over the long run by opening up formerly rural areas to new development and changing development patterns on existing serviced land.

Intriguingly, Falcon aligns himself with the induced demand crowd. “I'm one of those people that actually believes you cannot build yourself out of congestion,” he told the Vancouver Board of Trade last year. This despite his $3-billion building plan.

Yet laying down more blacktop has its supporters. “We clearly need more road infrastructure,” says Paul Landry, president and CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association. “There has not been a major investment in the road system in the Lower Mainland since 1986.” Since then, he points out, the population has grown by 800,000. “We are absolutely starved for infrastructure. I don't see how new capacity cannot be part of the solution.”

Kenneth Small is one of the world's foremost experts on traffic. A professor emeritus of economics at the University of California, Irvine, he has studied the notion of induced demand at length. “In large urban areas, I think it is true you can never solve congestion entirely through construction,” Small says. “But that doesn't mean that increased capacity has no benefit.”

In fact, newer research has lowered the estimate for induced demand effects. Small figures that much of what we call induced demand may be a good thing, since it reflects reduced demand on other, otherwise more congested parts of the system. It is also the case that the increased economic activity spurred by opening new areas to road travel (which Price decries) has a positive economic impact regardless of its effect on traffic. So despite its expense, the lack of vocal supporters and the spectre of induced demand, road-building may be something of a necessary evil.

Of greater appeal from a cost perspective is squeezing more capacity out of existing roads. Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS) is the application of technology such as cameras, message boards, road sensors and traffic lights to make our asphalt infrastructure more efficient. In this field, it turns out, Canada is a world leader.

Canada's best-known highway is the 401, which runs from the Quebec border to Windsor, Ont. The stretch that passes through Toronto is the world's busiest highway, with average daily traffic volume of 410,000 vehicles. (The next busiest is Los Angeles's Santa Monica Freeway, which sees 380,000 vehicles daily.) The secret to the 401's leadership is not necessarily a vast number of lanes?other highways are wider. But none can squeeze as many cars and trucks onto each lane as the 401.

Phil Masters is head of the Ontario government's Advanced Traffic Management Section, and he oversees one of the most technologically advanced highway systems in the world. Thousands of magnetic-loop detectors imbedded in the road tell a central computer when traffic is delayed on a specific stretch of the 401. With that data in hand, operators can confirm the obstruction via a network of more than 100 cameras. Repair or rescue crews can then be dispatched to deal with accidents. A series of overhead message boards keeps motorists informed about delays and suggests when to switch between express and collector lanes. “We have reduced what used to be an 86-minute response time for an accident to 30 minutes,” says Masters, from a command centre filled with 72 closed-circuit television screens and an air-traffic-control-style layout. “This allows us to make better use of our capacity.”

It is important to understand that congestion has two main causes. The common definition applies when demand from drivers exceeds the capacity of a road, as in the case of Port Mann Bridge. But congestion can also be caused by unpredictable events?accidents, breakdowns, bad weather. Such delays are estimated to account for 30% to 60% of all time lost due to congestion, so any attempt to reduce congestion must deal with unpredictable incidents. That is the specialty of ITS.

Since the entire system was unveiled in Ontario, Masters' data show that it has reduced the duration of accident cleanups by 65% and increased average speeds by 18%. This means the 401 can now handle as many as 2,300 vehicles per lane per hour, up from 2,000 a decade ago. And yet all these advances have occurred as congestion has increased. Can ITS actually make traffic better?

Baher Abdulhai, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre in the University of Toronto's civil engineering department, is a believer in the healing powers of traffic technology. “We can't afford to keep building more roads all the time,” he says. “We need a smarter way to squeeze more capacity out of our existing system.” Using a computer model of downtown Toronto, he has simulated various methods to speed traffic flow and reduce wait times. Abdulhai's research reveals two key applications for technology.

On major highways, computer-controlled ramp metering can regulate the time between cars merging onto highways. Spacing cars out in this way can avoid the temporary occurrences of so-called traffic breakdown?in which tightly packed vehicles are forced to reduce speed, causing shock waves of braking that eventually bring entire highways to a standstill. While ramp metering is popular in Europe and the United States, it is something of a political hot potato in Canada. The only major Canadian highway to use ramp meters is the QEW, west of Toronto.

In downtown cores, Abdulhai dreams of synchronizing all traffic lights in a far more sophisticated manner than is now the case. He sees a system in which a central computer constantly measures traffic patterns and adjusts the timing and co-ordination of the lights to eliminate backlogs at intersections and distribute traffic evenly across different streets. “By playing with diversion and traffic lights,” he says, “improvements of 20% to 30% are possible.”

Other high-tech fixes target the car rather than the road. Among them is adaptive cruise control, a new feature found on high-end luxury cars such as the Cadillac. This next-generation cruise control uses radar to set the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you. In this way, it is possible for an on-board computer to get a car closer to the one in front at higher speeds than would be considered safe under human control. Less space between cars means more space for other cars, and less congestion?in theory, at any rate. Abdulhai would also like to see overhead message boards carry more detail, and he foresees a time when your cellphone will provide a personalized route-mapping service that takes into account both weather and traffic.

Technology may be the most appealing of supply-side solutions from a cost perspective, but it has certain limitations. While it can reduce time lost due to unpredictable incidents, it offers only marginal improvements to the steady increases in predictable demand for road space during rush hours. Some of the fixes suggested by Abdulhai depend on unproven technology. And in many cases, the biggest gains from ITS may have already been captured. The 401 is far more efficient than it was 15 years ago, but it is still more congested than ever.

The most commonly heard solution to the problem of too many cars on not enough road is to get people to stop driving. Rather than increase the supply of road per driver, public transit affects the demand for road space.

Politicians and business groups tend to back public transit for a variety of reasons. “I am a huge advocate of public transit,” notes Falcon dutifully. The Toronto Board of Trade is another supporter. “We need a continuing and increasing investment in public transportation,” says Angela Iannuzziello, chair of the Board's infrastructure committee and a private sector transportation planning consultant. “There has to be an attractive alternative to the automobile if we are going to deal with congestion.”

The most popular form of public transit in Canada is the humble bus. In a great many cities, it accounts for all mass transit trips; even in the biggest urban centres, buses carry about half of all transit passengers. But while buses are flexible in their routes, they must use the same clogged roads that cars and trucks do. In other words, they are as susceptible to the vagaries of traffic as the vehicles they are supposed to be replacing.

Fixed-track transit, such as light rail (LRT), subways or trains, remove commuters from roads. Dedicated rail routes typically run from suburbs to downtown cores and should leave more room on the asphalt for remaining drivers. Rail projects enjoy substantial political support and attract the bulk of new capital funding. For example, investments in rail from 2004 to 2008 will outweigh capital expenditures on buses by a factor of eight to one, according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

But despite all the political attention, there is considerable skepticism among economists about the scope for fixed rail to solve congestion. “The problem with rail public transit is that it operates well with a hub-and-spoke network, but those are the old days. It is no longer true that commuting follows that pattern,” says Robin Lindsey, an economics professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who has closely watched the progress of Edmonton's costly and underused LRT system.

Last year, Statistics Canada published a comprehensive review of commuting patterns in urban Canada. It was not good news for mass transit fans. The study found that between 1996 and 2001, the number of new jobs outside the downtown cores of major cities grew at more than four times the rate jobs in city centres did. StatsCan also broke commutes down into different categories. In Toronto, for instance, inter-suburb commuting grew at twice the rate of the traditional suburb-to-downtown route. Many cross-town commuters are poorly served by hub-and-spoke rail-based transit lines. Across the country, single car drivers represent 70% of all commuters, mainly because driving alone is far more convenient than taking a bus or LRT.

Not only are geography and commuting patterns stacked against rail transit, but the economics of the undertaking often appear rather dodgy, as well. Research from the States suggests that the majority of new LRT riders are simply former bus riders. Shifting riders from buses to trains will have only a modest effect on congestion. It may reduce the number of buses on the roads, but does very little to affect car traffic. And it is very expensive. One economist's investigation into the St. Louis MetroLink in 2004 found that it would have been cheaper to provide every new mass transit rider on the MetroLink with a leased Toyota Prius, plus a US$6,000 per year grant for operating expenses, than to subsidize the LRT.

Certainly mass transit has had its successes. Almost 60% of Singapore residents, for instance, make all their daily vehicle trips by public transit. Yet that is mainly because public transit is the only option for most Singaporeans. Strict quotas on vehicle ownership mean there are a mere 390,000 private cars for the 4.2 million residents. Singapore is a compact city state that stretches only 40 km east to west. In Zurich, approximately 75% of all trips to the downtown are by public transit. But the density of the core areas and the expense of owning and driving cars in Old Europe cities such as Zurich have contributed to this success.

In North America, where the notion of the car as a sign of personal freedom is more entrenched, public transit is a tougher sell. The biggest obstacle is clearly the perception that buses and trains are slower and less convenient than driving. Iannuzziello holds out hope that gridlock itself may eventually shift commuter preferences. “As congestion increases in the cities, the predictability of the trip by car will be reduced and then the alternatives can become more competitive,” she says.

Belief in mass transit as a fix for congestion thus becomes something of a waiting game. Advocates hope traffic will get so bad that drivers will have no choice but to abandon cars. But this has not happened yet, even in the face of worsening congestion.

Even populous cities that seem logical candidates for successful LRT systems have a hard time when commuters aren't ready for them. Bangkok, for instance, is generally acknowledged as having the worst congestion in the world. But a US$1.7-billion LRT system has not been a success. Before it opened in 1999, daily ridership of 680,000 was predicted; the system currently boasts just 300,000 paying customers. Fares are expensive compared to travel by bus or car, and commuters have stayed away.

Without a similar change in commuter behaviour or the cost of driving in North America, it seems mass transit may be a solution too soon for Canada's congestion problem, as well.

The final possibility for altering road usage is to make people pay for the problems they create by driving their cars. For the most part, the only direct costs extracted from drivers for participating in congestion are the personal time and gas they waste sitting in traffic. The broader impacts of congestion?from higher business costs to environmental damage to wealth redistribution between regions?do not come out of drivers' pockets.

Tolls correct this situation by requiring drivers to pay for the right to an unencumbered drive. They appear to have a far more powerful effect on driver behaviour than providing a shiny new LRT system does. And tolls come as a net benefit to taxpayers.

London has become the world's most important petri dish for the potential of tolls. In 2003, London Mayor Ken Livingstone implemented a flat fee of £5 for any car entering a 22-square-kilometre section of downtown. (The fee has since been raised to £8.) The result was a 20% reduction in vehicles within the cordon and a 30% improvement in traffic speeds.

The fact that Livingstone was re-elected after implementing his toll scheme suggests that he was able to sell to his electorate the notion of paying to drive. But the most surprising result of London's experiment, according to Richard Arnott, a transportation expert at Boston College, is the manner in which public transit benefited from the reduction in car traffic. “The expectation was that commuters would switch to the Underground?they didn't,” says Arnott. “What did happen was that all of a sudden the buses could run on schedule, people found they could rely on them, and they switched over in a big way.” Bus use in London is now at a 20-year high; Underground usage has actually declined in the toll area. An important lesson for public transit advocates.

And yet tolling still faces substantial political problems in North America. “Drivers have become the new smokers,” bristles Wayne McVittie, a self-described “road warrior” who travels back and forth between the Toronto suburbs of Stouffville and Ajax each workday. “It is popular to blame them for everything and treat them like an endless source of revenue.” McVittie says he has no problem with paying a toll to use a new road or bridge, but bristles at the thought of a London-style toll for Toronto. “Why should I be pushed onto public transit so that there will be more room on the road for Mercedes and Lexus drivers? I have as much right to the roads as they do.” Tolling has proven to be politically dangerous in Canada because of such arguments. New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord won his first election in 1999 largely on a promise to remove tolls on a highway in his province.

Robert Poole knows all about McVittie's anger. As founder of the Reason Foundation, a U.S. free market think-tank, Poole has been pushing the concept of road pricing since 1988. Now, after nearly 20 years of trying to sell the United States on tolls, he is finally sensing a shift in public acceptance. “The idea that roads are free is very deeply ingrained in the North American psyche as our birthright,” says Poole. “But lately I have witnessed a sea change.” Poole reels off a list of American cities implementing the next generation of toll roads, called high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes?Washington, Minneapolis, Houston, Seattle. Located down the centre strip of new freeways, these so-called Lexus lanes allow drivers to skip from the freeway to a tollway, depending on the traffic, for a fee. One of the most sophisticated, San Diego's I-15 highway, charges from 50¢US to US$4 for the eight-mile route. The toll can change every six minutes, depending on traffic. The more crowded the Lexus lanes become, the more expensive it is to drive on them.

The reason for the shift toward acceptance of Lexus lanes, according to Poole, is that Americans are slowly beginning to see the benefits of tolls to their daily lives. “Toll roads have become a ray of hope?proof that there is something you can do about being stuck in traffic,” says Poole. “If there is a plane you have to catch or a meeting you must attend, then the toll road makes sense.”

That change in behaviour is admittedly difficult to discern in Canada. But it suggests that tolls rather than public transit spending are the real key to altering commuter behaviour. And yet Poole cautions that tolling alone is not a panacea to congestion. “We can use toll lanes to provide express bus services, which can make public transit far more viable as a competitor to cars,” he says. “And the best thing is you get the car drivers to pay for it.”

All the net revenue from single-driver cars on the I-15 is spent on bus transit. Tolls can thus stimulate both demand and supply of mass transit. That feedback loop is necessary, Poole argues, because the objective behind tolling is not to stop people from travelling, but to make them face the true cost of their behaviour.

While public transit supporters such as Iannuzziello pin their hopes on a shift in commuter preferences toward public transit, it appears tolling may well be a necessary intermediate step.

So what can be learned from the four ways out of congestion? Road building is expensive and controversial, although clearly necessary if Carlos Dias is to make it over Port Mann bridge in under an hour. ITS is promising, but hardly a complete answer. Public transit is the tool of choice for politicians but struggles with acceptance in North America. What appear to be the most powerful congestion-battling weapons?road tolls?face stiff opposition from drivers and politicians. And putting tolls on roads is of little use if commuters have no attractive alternative. Discouraging people from getting from place to place is hardly the goal of any sensible transportation policy.

Alone, no one solution seems appropriate. Together, there are possibilities. Tolling creates demand for public transit. In most Canadian cities, the most efficient form of public transit is the bus, and buses run on roads. New road construction and ITS investments can thus make public transit even more attractive. And that, in turn, benefits those drivers who still prefer to use their own cars. In other words, the only practical solution to congestion may involve all four options at once. But building roads, implementing technology, imposing tolls and building public transit simultaneously creates its own problems. The most pressing of which: who decides what, where and how much?

Among Canadian cities, only Vancouver has a single transportation authority with the ability to co-ordinate between all four congestion solutions on a regional basis. TransLink, as the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority is known, has control over all public transit and roads in Vancouver and its surrounding cities. It raises its own revenue to carry out billion-dollar transportation plans that can include rail, bus, road-building, ITS and tolls.

The TransLink model has attracted the attention of business voices in other parts of the country, such as the Toronto Board of Trade. “Congestion creates huge problems for every business and citizen in the Greater Toronto Area,” says Glen Grunwald, president and CEO of the Board. He appreciates the fact that congestion-fighting must include a variety of solutions. “We need to make plans on a regional basis,” Grunwald says. “This is why we are in favour of a Greater Toronto Transportation Authority.” This past April, the Ontario government bowed to pressure from the Board of Trade and unveiled plans for a GTTA. The proposal has not yet been passed by the legislature.

That said, the record of TransLink in Vancouver has been controversial. And without any long-term data on congestion in Canada, it is impossible to say whether Vancouver has been more or less successful in fighting gridlock than any other Canadian city. In the U.S., however, TTI data go back to 1982, and it is possible to pinpoint which U.S. cities have been best able to restrain congestion. The evidence suggests that all at once works best.

Houston is often considered one of the worst examples of North American excess. The fourth-largest urban centre in the United States, Houston is a sprawling, auto-centric city of 4.8 million. It lacks zoning bylaws, which wreaks havoc on transportation planners who like to organize life in neat nodes and corridors. But according to the TTI report, over the past 20 years no American city has been more successful at curbing the growth of congestion. How is this possible? Because Houston is not afraid to use every tool at its disposal.

In 2004, mayor Bill White won his first election on a platform almost exclusively focused on battling gridlock. While there is no regional transportation authority in Houston along the lines of TransLink, White set up a unique “Mayor's Office of Mobility” specifically to come up with ways to reduce commute times for Houstonians. David Saperstein, chair of the Office of Mobility, unabashedly embraces controversial supply-side fixes.

Among large U.S. cities, Houston stands alone as the most aggressive builder of roads, funnelling US$1 billion annually into its asphalt infrastructure. The dictum of induced demand holds no water in this part of the Lone Star State: if roads are crowded, the Houston approach is to build more. “If I am going to worry about more cars coming because we are building more roads, then we should also stop building new sewage and water facilities, too,” snaps Saperstein. “They attract more people as well.”

Houston has also embraced ITS. Keeping all lanes open is the goal of a program called SAFEclear, which aims to reduce unanticipated congestion caused by accidents or stalls. SAFEclear uses cameras and loop detectors to spot problems and dispatch private tow trucks. Wreckers are expected to be on the scene within six minutes, and tows are free unless your vehicle is blocking a lane. “Your car is off of there!” exclaims Saperstein. Despite protests, in its first year SAFEclear reduced accidents by 10% and increased average lane speeds.

Not all methods of squeezing more capacity out of Houston's roads require high-tech fixes. “We discovered that the average car today is much smaller than the lanes on our roads,” says Saperstein. “So we took a piece out of each lane and for the cost of some paint we converted two-lane roads into three lanes.”

Houston also tolls its roads, and drivers pay for a faster trip largely without complaint. A new highway called Katy Freeway will incorporate Lexus lanes down the centre strip. Existing toll lanes on the highway system are reserved for buses, emergency vehicles and car-pooling vehicles with three or more passengers; cars with two passengers can pay to use the road during peak hours. The revenue goes to pay for road construction.

Public transit has also become a recent focus for Houstonians. In 2003, voters approved an expensive rapid-transit plan that includes both LRT and buses. It all helps. Even public transit skeptic Saperstein admits: “Any time you take drivers off the roads, it is a positive development.”

The success of Houston's four-pronged approach is perhaps best viewed in comparison to Portland, Ore. (population, two million), which has taken a far more narrow approach. Portland has invested heavily in rail-based public transit, and the city enacted strict urban planning rules to encourage greater residential density around transit nodes and workplaces. Instead of building new roads, Portland famously tore down an existing downtown freeway. The result? Congestion has got a lot worse.

Over 20 years, the annual time lost to traffic gridlock in Portland has increased by 32 hours. Thanks to Houston's “everything goes” attitude, congestion has grown by only 24 hours. Traffic in Houston has not got any better, but it is getting worse at a slower rate than in just about any other large city in the country. (Only Philadelphia matches its record on congestion abatement.) And getting-worse-more-slowly may be the best anyone in North America can hope for.

Finally, it is important to recognize that even if congestion is a massive problem for the economy, gridlock may well be better than the alternative. “There is only one way to really reduce congestion and cut down on traffic,” warns Tim Lomax, the author of the annual TTI study on U.S. congestion. “And that is a recession.”

Lomax says that there are two occasions after which his congestion indicators predictably show improvements: when a city invests significantly in transportation, and when the economy tanks. Texas during the oil crash of the 1980s and California during the high-tech bubble bust in 2000 are the clearest examples of the latter. Outside of economic collapse, however, congestion is simply the price we pay for having somewhere to go. “I tend to believe that when people get in their cars, they're not just going for a drive?they probably have a good reason for why they want to get where they're going,” reckons Lomax. “If they're not driving, it's probably because they don't have a job.”