The Transit Referendum and Congestion

March 20th, 2015 § 2 comments

The yes side wants me to believe that supporting the Mayors’ Council Transit Plan will reduce congestion in Metro Vancouver. Their transit plan will increase bus, SeaBus, and Skytrain service, build a infuriatingly incomplete Broadway subway, increase bicycling infrastructure, and expand and improve our road infrastructure. But it will not reduce congestion.

Some simple economics explains why we have congestion. Before we take a trip, we weigh the cost of driving—fuel, parking fees, and our time, against its benefit. If the benefit of driving is higher than the cost, we drive. When benefits are higher, say from going to work, we tolerate more congestion. If the cost of driving is lower, from the opening of a new 6 lane freeway, we drive more.

On entering a road we also create a small delay to all other drivers already on it. As the number of cars increases this small delay becomes long waits at traffic lights, higher emissions, accidents and frustration. This is what one experiences when almost 2200 drivers pass through the Boundary intersection on Hastings in a single rush hour (from city data). As there are many drivers and we are anonymous, we never consider how we impact others on the road. Even if we do, and choose not to drive today—in an effort to make Hastings less congested—we only encourage someone else to drive tomorrow. This is the logic underlying the “Fundamental Law of Highway Congestion,” by Andrew Downs. If we double road capacity, we also double long run traffic. The net effect on congestion: zero. A corollary to this law implies that if investment in transit removes vehicles from the road, other vehicles fill in to take this space.

So unless the Mayors amend the transit plan to include more than just a discussion of congestion pricing, our vote has no influence on long run congestion.

Instead our vote influences the future of our region. Expanding road capacity, and transit, induces development and growth. More transit induces greater growth around transit corridors and higher density, which in turn encourages alternative transportation like bikes and car sharing. Expanding road capacity induces lower density development, suburban expansion, additional cars, and more driving and emissions overall. This is the choice you make as you fill in your ballots.

§ 2 Responses to The Transit Referendum and Congestion"

  • Isaac says:

    Thats true Prof Sumeet. The transit system will not necessarily solve congestion.That should be clear

  • Peter Morgan says:

    Congestion pricing may be a corollary of the vote’s outcome, and we can guess or speculate or reasonably discuss the costs and benefits of a complex future filled with variables that depends on the individual decisions of thousands of people.

    But it’s not what the the referendum is actually about.

    It’s about whether one is in favour, or not, of a simple and predictable source of funding for transit development. How that development occurs, and more interestingly, how it is financed if the vote is No, are different questions, and they’re not on the ballot.

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  • About Me

    I am an Associate Professor in Environmental and Resource Economics at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

    Through my research I try to gauge the efficacy of policy designed to help the environment. This research is usually joint with colleagues from the University of British Columbia---the real brains behind it. I recently studied automobile sales in Canadian provinces to determine if tax rebates for hybrid vehicles were cost-effective. Studying appliance sales in the US, I analyzed whether mail-in rebates for energy star appliances helped promote their adoption. I am currently studying whether British Columbia's vehicle retirement program, BC SCRAP-IT is cost-effective and am trying to understand what motivates someone to participate in it.

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