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The Traffic Apocalypse, the False Messiahs, and the Muncie Plan
What to do when everyone wants to be in exactly the same place
Photo cred: my dad
Traffic is really annoying. In 2019, the average person spent 54 hours stuck in traffic, up from 20 hours in 1982. That’s 3.5 billion gallons of fuel wasted, part of an estimated total economic cost of nearly $200 billion. And that doesn’t capture the psychological toll of millions of people missing appointments and dates and birthday parties, nor the frustration of not knowing when to leave because your trip across town could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, nor the premature deaths from people inhaling the stuff that comes out of tailpipes.
Traffic has gotten worse almost every year for the past forty years. There was a dip during the 2008 recession and people stayed home for a lot of 2020, but otherwise it’s been up and up and up. The Federal Highway Administration predicts that road travel will increase 0.7% every year through 2049, which means more traffic unless something miraculous happens.
Something miraculous can happen. But before we get to that, we must dispense with some false messiahs.
I. The false messiahs
There are a few things that might seem like they’re going to save us from the traffic apocalypse, but they won’t.
Biden just signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill; shouldn’t that help people get to where they want to go faster? It’s complicated. It’s definitely good for bridges to not collapse. But building and improving roads doesn’t tend to reduce traffic and might even make traffic worse for all kinds of reasons with ominous names: Braess’s paradox, Downs-Thompson paradox, Marchetti’s constant. Perhaps the most important of these is the Lewis-Mogridge position, which claims that any gains in traffic efficiency are immediately gobbled up––when you make driving more attractive, more people drive, and you’re right back where you started.
That is, unfortunately, why you can’t build your way out of traffic, or tinker it to death with gizmos and doodads that help shunt traffic one way or the other. If you’re really good, you might be able to increase the number of cars that move through a road system every day, but you won’t succeed in reducing the amount of time those cars spend inside the system. And if you’re not really good, you could spend billions of dollars to make traffic worse. So while dropping a hot trillion on infrastructure might do lots of good things, it probably won’t reduce traffic.
In theory, if people don’t have to drive to work, there should be less traffic and everybody should be better off. In practice, it doesn't happen like this. Even in 2020, when the country spent months locked down and lots of people were hiding at home, traffic was as bad as it was in 1989. And we’ve pretty much rebounded: Americans traveled almost as many total miles in September 2021 as they did in September 2019.
This happens for two reasons. One is that lots of jobs can’t actually be done remotely, and lots of companies don’t want their workers remote even if they could be. The other is that when people don’t have to travel for work, they travel for other things––people seem to have a budget of time they’re willing to spend traveling every day. Plus, the people who no longer drive to work in the morning get replaced by people who wanted to drive but used to be discouraged by traffic (see all paradoxes and positions above), so the highways tend to stay just as full. Just like infrastructure spending, remote work can be good for all kinds of reasons, but it’s not going to mean people get across town faster.
Will self-driving cars reduce traffic congestion? One simulation says yes! Another, more complicated simulation says unclear! This model says no! A review says we don’t know yet! It’s just hard to know how humans and self-driving cars will coexist.
It’s also hard to know when self-driving cars will exist at all––as in, when a regular person can walk into a dealership, buy one, and get home without touching the wheel. The timeline keeps getting pushed back because perfecting the tech is harder than expected. And there are a lot of hurdles left to clear. Self-driving cars are inevitably going to run people over or drive off cliffs, spawning huge lawsuits, slowing the whole project down. Plus, the average car on the road is 12 years old because people tend to use them for a while. So even if you could buy a self-driving car tomorrow, it would be years before they were a major proportion of all vehicles, and maybe decades before they were a majority.
II. The real messiah
There is one thing that everybody agrees will save us from the scourge of traffic: congestion pricing.
The big idea is that roads get overused because they’re free, so you should make them not free. This has a few upsides. First, people who use roads less don’t have to subsidize people who use roads more, since right now only about half of the money the US spends on roads comes from gas taxes and usage fees, meaning the rest comes from the kinds of taxes that people pay whether they drive or not. Second, you can use the money raised from congestion pricing to do all sorts of good things, like fix the roads or buy more buses. And third, fewer people drive when they have to pay for it, reducing traffic and all of the bad stuff that comes with it, like accidents and air pollution.
Congestion pricing comes in lots of flavors. You can charge people for using an express lane, or a highway, or a whole zone of roads. You can even tax people for every mile they drive, or for parking. Electronic tolling systems allow you to charge more during peak hours and less during off times. I’m going to stick to talking about the classic form of congestion pricing, which is charging people to enter a congested area, typically a city center or major artery.
Congestion pricing: it really works
Congestion pricing is not very popular when people first hear about it because people famously do not like paying for things. But a few places have managed to explain it to people and get them on board, or just enact it by fiat. And it’s worked, mostly. There’s a good review here so I won’t go into exhaustive detail, but here are a few representative examples.
Singapore has been charging vehicles to enter the densest areas at peak times since 1975. Once they put the tolls in place, traffic in the tolls zone fell 44% and speeds rose 20%. The system brings in about 11 times as much as it costs, and some of that money has gone to expand public transportation, which is now more popular.
London started charging people for using any public road in an inner “Congestion Zone” in 2003. The toll is currently £15 (about $20) per day, except on Christmas (aww). Traffic is down, speeds are up.
Stockholm started a congestion pricing scheme in 2007. It cut traffic about 20%, and because alternative fuel vehicles were exempt, sales of hybrids jumped.
All of these programs have significantly reduced air pollution. And people like them more and more as time goes on, which is a pretty huge endorsement. If someone starts charging you for something that used to be free and at first you’re like “I hate this!” and then they keep raising the prices and five years later you’re like “I dunno this seems okay,” maybe it means people benefit from these policies more than they expect.
Congestion pricing does create winners and losers. Some of that is purposeful because governments get to pick who gets tolled and how much. While all businesses benefit from shorter and more predictable delivery times, some depend on lots of cars driving to their doorsteps––you’re probably not too happy if you run a midtown car wash, for example. And if you don’t design the zones right, traffic can get displaced to non-tolled areas.
But there’s pretty darn good evidence that these programs produce substantial benefits overall. Most economists agree that congestion pricing is a good idea, and some of them even think it’s the only thing that will work. If you’re still skeptical, wait until the next time you’re stuck in traffic and then ask yourself: would you pay $20 to delete the cars around you? If your answer is yes, then congestion pricing is the plan for you.
(Oh and New Yorkers guess what, congestion pricing is coming for you too.)
Doesn’t congestion pricing hurt the poor?
It’s a great question, and one that Michael Manville and Emily Goldman, two urban planning experts, explicitly ask in this paper. Their answer is no. First, they tell us, you have to remember that lots of the costs associated with driving––buying a car, insurance, and gas––are already regressive. Poor people drive less than rich people, and most drivers are not poor, so free roads actually benefit the rich more than the poor. Congestion pricing can reverse that. Plus, poor people disproportionately live near highways and have to breathe in toxic car fumes, so keeping cars off the road means poor people live longer.
We can also use the revenue from congestion pricing to reimburse poor drivers, and even give cash to poor non-drivers. For example, Manville and Goldman estimate that if Los Angeles implemented a congestion pricing scheme, it could send $150 to its 1.2 million poor residents every month. They could use that for transportation if they wanted to, or just pocket it.
That sounds great in theory, but of course redistributive programs like these never work perfectly and often place additional burdens on the poor. How do you get your $150? Do you have to go to the DMV? Show some bank statements? Prove you’re not on heroin? The people who need that extra cash the most are often the people with the least time and bureaucratic know-how.
Still, that’s a problem with implementation, not the solution itself. Overall, congestion pricing seems great. I think we should do it.
But it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is only going to get worse.
III. The density of desire
Congestion pricing solves congestion, but congestion is a symptom, not the disease.
The underlying problem is that everybody wants to be in exactly the same place. That causes not just traffic, but overall unhappiness. In developed countries, as population density rises, happiness falls. It looks like this:
Notice that in developing countries, moving to the city tends to be a pretty good move. In developed countries, however, people tend to be happier in less dense places. The effect looks small right now, and it is. But populations are getting denser, so we may continue to move rightward on that X-axis and downward on that Y-axis. There are several things confounded with urban vs. rural that do explain a chunk of this happiness difference––race, politics, etc.––but the relationship remains after accounting for them. Importantly, the effect seems to be biggest for poor people. Rich people can buy themselves out of everything that sucks about city living, but poor people can't.
There could be lots of reasons why big cities sap happiness for anyone who isn’t rich. I live in New York and am not rich, so I know tons of them. I pay nearly half my take-home pay to live in a crappy little apartment afflicted with bugs and mice and the occasional cold shower; my landlord won’t do anything unless I threaten legal action, and sometimes not even then. Outside, I see lots of poop on the ground, and sometimes it’s human poop. Sometimes I pass someone lying on the sidewalk who looks like they’re dead, but they’re not dead, apparently, or at least nobody is reacting like they’re dead, and we’re all just supposed to move on and pretend that’s fine. I spend lots of time standing on sweltering underground platforms, and when I hear a deafening screech that sounds like a banshee escaping hell it's actually a good thing, because it means my train is finally arriving. Then I get to press my body gently but firmly into a solid block of strangers and hope that none of them threaten me with bodily harm, like one did last week. And that’s just my commute to work.
I know it doesn’t have to be like this because I grew up in a tiny town in Ohio. Even though there are a lot of weird paeans to small town living that feel a little bit like yearning for a place where there’s only white people, my town has some good things going for it. Land was cheap, so even the poorest kids I knew growing up had houses with big backyards. There’s lots of green and a cute little cafe where there’s always a seat. There’s no traffic, the air is clear, and nothing smells. Even though the town is 60 miles from Cleveland, you can get to the airport in two-thirds of the time it takes me to get from the west side of Manhattan to any of New York’s airports.
I’d be happy to make less money and live in a less-dense place, but that’s not an option. If you want to do the most interesting work in tech, law, finance, entertainment, science, or almost anything else, you have to move to one of a handful of cities. Google doesn’t have a tiny little office in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. Small places tend to be white and conservative, so if you’re not, you might not fit in or even want to fit in.
So more and more people are living in cities, but not necessarily because they want to. They have to. That’s where the jobs, communities, and tolerance are. Many of them would like to leave, but where would they go? Rich people can just buy second homes elsewhere (notice second homes are always in low-density places; no rich New Yorker is ever like “ooh you know what would be a lovely complement to our Manhattan apartment? A townhouse in Chicago”). Poor people and people of color are stuck in ever-denser spots.
IV. Send them to Muncie
You can’t congestion price yourself out of this problem. But maybe we can get creative with the money we raise from congestion pricing. What we would really like to do is not simply make big cities less desirable places to drive, but make other places more desirable to live.
One way to do that is gather up a mere fraction of what we’d make from congestion pricing and turn it into incentives for motivated folks to move to small places. Get young entrepreneurs, artists, and public service-minded people to apply with their ideas, then fund them to move to preselected medium-sized towns (say, less than 300,000 people). Guarantee them the median income in their area for five years, plus health insurance, plus a bonus at the end if they stay for the whole time. Anyone who enters the program gets their student loans paused, and anyone who sticks around after the program gets those loans erased. They keep any additional money they make. They can move to the big city whenever they want, but the money stops flowing. Let people to apply in groups and group applications into cohorts so they can make friends. Pick places for their willingness and to welcome more people and support the influx of young entrepreneurial types, and send several successive cohorts to those places so that experienced cohorts can mentor newer ones.
Let’s call this the Muncie Plan, after Muncie, Indiana, exactly the kind of place that would benefit. Muncie is a town of about 70,000 people 50 miles from Indianapolis, and its biggest claim to fame is that Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, lives nearby. When I googled Muncie, the fifth result was an article called “Why Everybody Hates Muncie”. One of the reviews online optimistically writes that "The abandoned houses are slated for teardown and that will help the appearance.” (And that was a five-star review!) Having been a couple times, I can attest that Muncie’s not great now, but it’s got a lot of potential. Ball State University and its 20,000 students are in town. The Indianapolis airport makes it easy to get to. Houses are cheap and there’s lots of good nature. The Muncie Plan offers ambitious young people the possibility to achieve their dreams, so long as they do it in Muncie.
I would have been excited about this program when I graduated from college, and I’d still seriously consider it today. Imagine five years of guaranteed survival! You have the freedom to be creative and take risks, but the time limit keeps you honest, because you’ll eventually have to support yourself. Here are the kinds of stories I would imagine coming out of this program:
A group of aspiring actors, tired of waiting tables and hoping for the big break that never comes, instead start a little theater in Muncie. They mount their own shows, bring elementary schools in for acting classes, and field a local improv team that performs on the first Thursday of every month.
The program makes it attractive enough for a group of doctors right out of residency to move to the rural areas around Muncie that desperately need them––eliminating their med school debt plus paying them the median area salary on top of their normal wages is an awfully good deal. They end up liking it so much that they stick around and start families, and their skills raise the local hospital’s ranking.
A couple of coders with an app idea, instead of moving to San Francisco and blowing all their money on rent, move to Muncie. When their app finds a little success, they end up hiring additional folks from Ball State.
A group of restaurant workers in a big city are fed up with the old boys club preventing them from moving up. They get funding to start their own place in Muncie. They’re successful enough that they can start another restaurant up the road in Anderson.
These people are nothing to a megacity. But they’re a big boon to a small place. People want to live in places that have a fledging arts scene, good hospitals, jobs for skilled graduates, and nice places to eat. Just a handful of talented people could create those things for a place like Muncie.
There are a few schemes that are already trying to lure people to lower-density areas, but they don’t do what we’re trying to do here. Little towns all over flyover country will pay remote workers to move in, Tulsa will offer you $10,000 to help buy a house, and Northwest Arkansas offers a whole startup package. But $10k is not enough to entice someone with $200k in medical school debt. Nor do these programs give you a job––you’re supposed to bring that with you. (Perhaps that’s why only a few people are taking advantage of these moving incentives.) And a big advantage of sending cohorts of people is that they can rely on each other. Small places are often conservative and rarely diverse, and nobody wants to be the only person of color or the only liberal for 100 miles. Plus, the point of the program is not to just attract individuals, but initiatives, things that make the area a better place to live. Just helping someone buy a house doesn’t make the hospitals, restaurants, or job opportunities any better.
Some Muncie Plan projects would inevitably fail, and some of these bright young folks might realize they really do want to live in Los Angeles or Boston or wherever. Local communities may love their new restaurants and theaters and then find themselves contending with the changing politics of a growing place. Things could get complicated.
But having grown up in the kind of place that might be a candidate for this program, I get really excited imagining how much better life could be there. My cousin was diagnosed with leukemia when she was a kid, and if there had been good doctors around, she wouldn’t have had to go an hour away multiple times a week for treatment. My friends who got computer science degrees might be buying houses in town and starting families where their kids could see their grandparents every day––instead, they moved to Cleveland. And it would just be nice to have an actual restaurant in town, since our current food scene consists of a Subway, a 7/11, and a pizza joint.
And it wouldn’t take all that much money. The median individual income in Muncie is $20,386. Healthcare might cost another $9000 per person. Student loan debt will vary, but assume an average of $30,000. That comes to $176,930 for sending someone to Muncie for five years, wiping out their student debt, and giving them health insurance. Round that up to $200,000 to include a $25k incentive for sticking around afterward. Putting 20 people through the Muncie Plan would cost $4 million, or 0.03% of the $15 billion that the soon-to-come New York congestion pricing is supposed to raise. Send five cohorts over five years and you still haven’t spent more than a rounding error.
The Muncie Plan won’t singlehandedly undo the unhappiness that cities cause, but it does have a few things going for it. One is that it could open the opportunity of less-dense living beyond just the white folks who have always been able to enjoy it. Another is that it rewards people who want to make something that contributes to their community, which seems inherently desirable. Plus, it offers something directly to people, rather than awarding businesses big bonuses to move to certain places, which tends not to pay off. It would help meet a very popular and very unmet desire––over half of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area, a small town, or “a suburb of a small city”, including those who live in a big city right now. And in all my reading about congestion pricing, I haven’t yet encountered a plan that addresses the underlying inequality of desirable places that causes congestion, rather than the congestion itself.
V. Conclusion: sayonara to LA
Traffic is bad now and it’s only going to get worse. Maybe one day we’ll all live in gleaming, uncongested cities where we zip around in self-driving cars that somehow never make any traffic, but that future is not coming soon. And traffic is just the most obvious aspect of a deeper problem: everybody wants to live in the same place, but denser areas make people unhappy unless those people have a lot of money. The average city dweller can’t just pack up and move to a small town; there just aren’t enough opportunities and communities for them.
Congestion pricing can go a long way toward fixing both problems. Charging people for using roads is fair and, if done right, can actually leave everybody better off. Then we can use a tiny part of the money we raise to help solve the fundamental problem of everybody wanting to be in the same place. If we fund ambitious people to chase their ambitions in less-dense places, we could create more viable alternatives to big-city living. I dream of a world where a young couple, stuck in LA traffic, look at each other and say, “I hear Muncie’s nice!”