Saturday, July 19, 2014

Myths of the oppressed motorist: freeways and tolls

Freeways are a very crucial matter of transport and urbanism, I've spoken many times about how speed is, I think, the most important factor determining how we spread about urban developments, and about the unbeatable point-to-point speed of freeways. Freeways are extremely disruptive to any city that is burdened with them as they are high-speed, but at the same time, low-capacity. Their high speed makes them highly desirable, their low capacity makes them unable to deal with the demand. A subway track can carry 20 000 people per hour, some like in Tokyo carry up to 80 000 people per hour. A freeway lane carries about 2 000-2 500 people per hour.

Many urbanists have started little less than a war on urban freeways, the "highway to boulevard" movement. Others argue for a mitigating approach if removal is not feasible: tolling.

Tolling on freeways seems like a no-brainer:
  1. The limited access points make it easy to implement
  2. Freeways are extremely expensive, but all the taxes made to fund them result in them being funded by all car drivers (license fees, gas taxes, etc...), whether they use them or not, which makes freeways, for the individual car driver, extremely cheap to use while at the same time, for the government, extremely expensive to build and maintain (perverse incentive)
  3. Since freeways often suffer from congestion, tolling may help keep demand down and avoid the need to build new ones
Yet nothing irks more hardened motorists than any suggestion of tearing down freeways, tolling them or even not building projected freeways.

Note that by freeway I mean the limited access, high-speed, grade-separated roads, in some places. It seems they have different names in every country: freeway, expressway, highway, motorway, etc...

Myth 1: freeways are necessary for economic development

Like all myths, there is a degree of truth in this. freeways between cities do help the economy a lot by helping national and regional transport, even international transport. Freight truck companies are thus likely to want to settle near freeways, as are heavy industries that rely from a regular influx of heavy parts and materials. So, in other words, freeways are very useful for some freight and rapid movement from city to city, that's their major economic contribution. Trains can do the same thing, but trucks have the advantage of being able to go from point-to-point without the need to stop at stations along the way for modal shifts.

So tying in a region together with freeways is justifiable. However, the problem is freeway commuting. Commuting is by far the dominant reason that leads cars on urban and metropolitan freeways, not freight, nor long-distance trips.  And the reality is that this freeway commuting is absolutely economically inefficient, even useless. It allows people to live farther from their jobs, and that just means more waste, wasted gas, wasted land, wasted energy. And since freeways are low-capacity, it leads to congestion because all commuters in a region cannot all use the freeways.

So how many freeways do we actually require for economic efficiency? Well, let's take a region with urban areas in grey:
A region of a country, urban areas in gray, how many freeways are needed?
Here's the answer:
All the efficient freeways for the previous region
Note that no freeway penetrates any urban area, they all go around them, not through them. You have freeways surrounding cities, then branches connecting to other cities. That's all you need, any additional freeways to these are completely pointless on an economic level, wastes of money.

We have examples of this at work, for example in Europe, where many countries were reluctant to bulldoze their historic cities just to run freeways through. Even Germany, the country of the Autobahn, has largely rejected the concept of urban freeways:
Munich, Germany: freeways in orange, none inside the city itself

Kansas City, Missouri: a bit more freeways
But then, what about all these industrial parks and shopping malls that spring up whenever a freeway is built, aren't those proofs of economic developments?

No. They are economic displacement. Almost all suburban industrial parks near freeways are echoes of decaying industrial areas closer to the center of the region, areas that have been abandoned as commuters jammed up roads and made these areas harder to get to, leading industries to move away to ensure more reliable and speedy transport. Likewise, all suburban freeway malls leave in their wake dead strip malls or even older malls who empty out as stores seek better locations to keep up with sprawl.

Myth 2: we must build more freeways to reduce pollution from stop-and-go traffic

This is one we often see when freeways are congested to try to greenwash building new roads. Cars idling in traffic do burn more fuel than if they had free flow all the way, and the concentration of many cars all idling in the same spot does create a greater impression of pollution than if they were all spread around. However, we have to understand induced demand... building new freeways incites a lot of sprawl, increasing travel distances, so what is "saved" by getting rid of congestion is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of fuel you incite people to burn when they start living further and further away from jobs, retail and services.

In fact, one of the things we can notice is that most people tend to define distances in term of travel time, not travel distance, and make their decisions based on that. So someone who wants to spend 30 minutes maximum on commuting will choose a place to live that offers him a 30-minute commute. or less. Whether that 30 minutes is 30 minutes of free-flowing freeway or stop-and-go traffic is irrelevant.

Though fuel economy measured on the distance traveled is much worse in stop-and-go traffic, idling engines, of course, use but a fraction of gas per hour as engines at freeway speeds. A fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km (around 30 mpg) means that the engine is burning 8 liters (around 2 gallons) every hour, meanwhile an idling engine will burn about 1,5 liter of fuel per hour (0,4 gallon per hour), if I go by the estimate that engines burn 0,6 liters per hour per liter of engine displacement (so a 2.4L engine would burn around 1,4 liters per hour). So for a threshold of 30 minutes for the commute, the 30-minute stop-and-go commute will burn up to 5 times less fuel than the 30-minute freeway commute without congestion. Likewise, a 30-minute 30 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 12 L/100 km (around 20 MPG) will burn 1,8 liter of fuel, while a 30-minute 70 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km will burn 2,8 liters of fuel, more than 50% more.

Myth 3: removing freeways would mean chaos and gridlock

As a traffic engineer I can tell you that freeways do have to be closed once in a while, or bridges (more frequently). Whenever this happens, or a capacity reduction on a major freeway, the first day is terrible and chaotic. The second day is a bit better. After 3 or 4 days, when people have understood that this isn't going to be resolved, people find alternatives to deal with the traffic and adapt their movement patterns. Though the situation is generally a bit worse than prior to the capacity reduction, most of the traffic effectively vanishes from the grid, especially in the long-term, people and development will adapt to the new situation. This adaptation occurs even faster if you have alternatives like transit ready to go.

This isn't merely theoretical, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Seoul have all removed freeways, some of this removal was intentional, some wasn't but resulted from damages from earthquake or from collapse. In all cases, traffic adjusted and life goes on.

Myth 4: roads are public goods that should be free to use (no toll), because everyone benefits from them

First of all, technically, they probably aren't, but I will discount that argument, because what is meant by "public good" is different from the technical term. It is meant simply that they are goods provided by the government, open to all and so can benefit anyone who can use them.

However, that it be true doesn't mean necessarily that it should be free to use. Roads have limited capacity, and though everyone may benefit from them at one point or another, the truth is that not everyone derives the same benefit from them. Why should someone who uses roads a lot not pay more for them than someone who uses them but little?

Let's make an analogy... electricity is in many places still a public good, with public electricity providers still being very common. In many ways, electricity is a public good just like roads. Yet, how would people react if someone proposed to get rid of metering and just charge a flat fee to all people connected to the electricity network? So someone who keeps the Christmas lights on until July and never turns off the lights in his house, with AC on full blast all summer (opening windows when it gets too cold) and the heater on max all winter would pay the same as someone who is careful with electricity and spent thousands to insulate his house better to lower energy consumption. Most people would find the proposal completely stupid and mock it.

Yet, that's basically how it works when roads are free to use. We reward vice and punish virtue. Expressways are a special case as they are extremely expensive and so would deserve tolls on them, since gas taxes are a very poor user fee when some roads are cheap (old, narrow roads in rural areas that follow the terrain's ups and downs and curves) and others are tremendously expensive (elevated or underground expressways). The case of freeways is the most evident, no road is as expensive to build as freeways, but for users, without tolls, no road is cheaper and faster to use than freeways. That's what I call a "perverse incentive", people are personally advantaged to make a choice that is the most expensive one, because the cost is assumed by everyone else.

Let's make another analogy why just charging people a flat fee (license fees) or gas taxes is a bad idea. Take a restaurant that serves hamburger steaks and lobsters (the owner is weird like that). They can sell their hamburger steaks for 10$ and make a profit off of them, or lobster for 30$ to have the same profit margin. Let's say 50% of their customers eat hamburger steaks and 50% eat lobsters. Now let's say that, to make it simpler, the owner decides: instead of charging people 10$ for hamburger steaks and 30$ for lobsters, I'll just charge everyone a flat price of 20$ when they enter the restaurant, then they can choose whichever platter they prefer, after all, 50% take the 10$ meal and 50% take the 30$ meal, so it should be fine. So now, the hamburger steak is insanely expensive at 20$ and the lobster is much cheaper at 20$. What happens? Well, people who want hamburger steaks go elsewhere, people who want lobsters flock the place, suddenly 90% of people take lobsters (some people are with friends and are allergic to seafood), the average cost of the meals should be 28$, but they charge only 20$, they're losing money on every meal, so they have to hike up the price to compensate.

That's what happens when you tax the cheap options to reduce the cost of expensive options, people start opting for what was expensive before and is now just as cheap as alternatives. In the end, everyone ends up paying more because the prices need to rise to compensate.

So though everyone benefits from roads, they don't do it at the same level, it would be fair for those who use them most to pay more for them. The argument against this is a non sequitur, it's not because they're provided by the government and everyone benefits at one degree or another that they necessarily should be free to use.

Myth 5: if freeways were tolled, all goods in stores would be extremely expensive!

Not so. For one thing, just because roads are not tolled doesn't mean that their costs vanish, we just pay for them in other ways. So overall, since tolls simply replace other funding methods, the end result for society is nil.

But even so, let's just consider an example of a reasonable toll to use freeways, 10 cents per kilometer (16 cents per mile) and see how it affects prices if we consider that trucks pay 3 times as much as cars, so 30 cents per kilometer (48 cents per mile). Let's say a beer truck, that carries 900 24-bottle cases of beer, travels 2 000 kilometers (1 300 miles), or half the distance from Los Angeles to New York. The toll for the trip would be 600$, the truck is carrying 21 600 bottles of beers, that's an average of less than 3 cents per bottle, a bit less than 70 cents per case. And this is an extreme example with a very, very long distance trip, and it amounts to less than 3% of the cost.

So that's not extremely expensive at all. It may add a 2-3 percents to costs, but no more than that, and that's not considering the savings from reduced congestion or reduction in gas taxes if they are reduced once there are tolls.

Myth 6: cars are tools of social equality

I actually had someone pull me that argument on me in a debate on parking. The gist of it is that cars allow people to move around wherever there are roads, so they allow the poor as great an ease of movement as the rich and make rich neighborhoods accessible to the poor too.

The absurdity is that he assumed that everyone can afford cars. The problem with cars is that though their operating cost may seem small, they have a huge threshold cost: you must be willing and able to pay thousands to buy a car and maintain it in order to be able to use roads. On the other hand, transit's marginal cost may sometimes seem high, yet it has no threshold cost. If you can pay the ticket, you can use it.

Cars and, before them, carriages have always been tools of socio-economic segregation. The rich who were willing and able to live apart from the "riff raff" in the country have always had manors far from cities (while often maintaining "townhomes"). This was extremely expensive as transport was very expensive back in the day, but cars and carriages allowed it by making transport first less physically demanding, then faster. If the popularization of cars has made this strategy less successful, it says nothing about cars being a tool of social equality, but more about how rich as a society we have become.

Myth 7: if you don't build a freeway to my home, you're treating me like a second class citizen, I have a right to a freeway!

Actually, I had an old high school friend of mine pull that on me recently when I told him I was against the project of converting a road to his new city into a freeway. I don't think I need to explain the ridicule of it, yet this is a common mentality because of the way we have funded roads. Since freeways have no higher cost than any other road and everything is funded by everyone, there is a mentality that spread that since everyone pays for them, everyone should be entitled to them. And, well, that reasoning actually makes some sense... otherwise, you have everyone paying for things that only some people get to benefit from. It does seem unfair. Which again provides an argument for tolling freeways, then it's the people who use them who have to pay for them.

But still, no one forced anyone (in general) to go live where they live, so going to a faraway suburb without freeway connect, then pleading for freeways as if they were your due, is quite galling behavior.


  1. What are your thoughts on Ontario's highway network? Much of the highways were originally intended to go around and between cities. The QEW, 400, 401, 402, 403, 427, Conestoga, Lincoln M Alexander, 405, 406, 115, Hanlon, EC Row, freeway parts of 11 and 17, 416 and sort 417 (connects cities but goes through rather than around Ottawa) apply. However, many of these, especially in the Toronto area, but to a lesser degree K-W and Hamilton later got surrounded by sprawl.

    The freeways that were intended to go through cities are basically just Allen Rd, Black Creek Dr and Gardiner-DVP. The Gardiner when built would have connected downtown industries to the freeway network, although it was also intended to be a commuter freeway. It doesn't really go through the city though, since it's on the waterfront. It was originally meant to be tolled but those plans were scrapped (probably in part due to objections from Ontario). Now that the downtown industries are mostly gone, it's mainly a commuter highway.

    You also have 427 north of the 401, 404 and 410 which were arguably intended mainly to serve suburbs although they were I think mostly built after the suburbs rather than before.

    As the sprawl caused congestion, the Ontario government decided to build bypasses to these highways, the 403 and 407 as well as massively expanding the 401 and 427. There are now plans for additional bypasses like the Mid-Peninsula and Halton-Peel freeways, plus 407 extensions to the 401 in Durham Region.

    Do you think the problem was to allow Toronto to sprawl so much? The area inside the 401/427 is about 375 km2. The current density of this area is about 5000 people /km2, but even at a density of 10,000/km2 that would be 3.75 million, which means you'd still have about 2 million people living in the GTA outside this area.

    Or do you think the 401, 427 and QEW should just have been tolled. If toll revenues were sufficiently high to fund it, would it have been reasonable to use the funds for 401/427/QEW widenings or new bypass freeways?

    1. I can't speak too much about Ontario's highways for not being familiar with them. From a cursory look, I'd say only the 401, 403 and 400 seem to be justified for economic imperatives, but they would have to be heavily tolled to discourage commuter use. The point is that most bypass highways tend to be built because commuters have congested older through highways, and tolls could get people to instead opt for alternatives. This could avoid having to build bypass highways.

      I would be curious to know if shopping malls are sprouting up around the 407. In the case of most highways, it's only a matter of time before developers target interchanges and exits to build malls, as these malls can attract people from very far, but as the 407 is tolled, maybe it makes the highway undesirable for commercial developments.

      For commuting, highways are not all that useful, a grid of arterial streets can offer much more capacity, so even if they are much slower than free-flowing highways, they can carry more people per hour. One of the main problems we see in Québec is that cities tend to treat provincial roads and highways as little more than car sewers, they omit arterial streets in their plans and channel all their streets on provincial roads, knowing that the cost to maintain and upgrade those roads will be shouldered mainly if not entirely by the transport ministry. This is terrible for pedestrians and cyclists who see numerous detours on trips because cities won't build grids so as not to have to maintain streets with heavy traffic. That's a free rider problem if there ever was one. I don't know if you have the same problem in Ontario.

      One of the problems I see with Toronto is that the downtown area is on the shore of Lake Ontario, which means that Toronto can only grow to the North, not to the South. Ideally, I think Toronto should strive to extend the downtown north. Also, Toronto is at the size at which starting to grow secondary downtowns is quite necessary. It is naive to believe that one can concentrate offices, stores and cultural activities in one downtown when a metropolitan area grows above 2 or 3 million people. That would mean that, for instance, people who work in Scarborough would live in Scarborough, and have stores and activities in a Scarborough downtown area. This was already attempted somewhat with the Scarborough "city center", but the city center they have built is quite car-centric and seems mostly single-use, instead of mixing offices, shops and housing, offices are in one corner, stores are located in one gigantic mall isolated with an enormous parking lot and high-rise condos are set in their own corner.

  2. Yeah, I'm not sure if I'd go as far as removing highways but I'd certainly start tolling some to ensure they remain free flowing and use to proceeds to fund transit. I'm not entirely sure what the rationale is for the Halton-Peel freeway, probably a combination of trying to attract industrial jobs to Brampton and the 407 not being good enough (because it's quite heavily tolled).
    It’s true there haven’t been too many new shopping centres near the 407, mostly smaller ones that are also accessible from other roads (ex Yonge & Hwy 7).
    I would say that Toronto's arterial grid is pretty decent, with fewer gaps than Quebec's, although the relatively flat geography unbroken by major rivers helps. Quebec City seems to have a lot of highways for its size.
    I certainly think a lot of people are sticking to their corner of the GTA, definitely for shopping, and to a certain extend even work. Ontario's Places to Grow plan outlined 16 secondary nodes they want to urbanize significantly, and many suburbs have "tertiary" nodes they planned themselves for urbanization (ex Miliken).
    The way I’d break it down, in terms of urban core, inner ring suburbs (Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke) and outer ring suburbs in terms of potential for office development:
    -Transit and pedestrian oriented and high density
    -Good accessibility by transit
    -High commercial taxes
    -Working class to wealthy residents and gentrifying and significant population growth
    Inner ring suburbs:
    -Auto oriented and mixed (overall medium) density
    -Moderate quality of transit (frequent but often slow and delayed, bunching issues, etc)
    -High commercial taxes
    -Working class to middle class residents, often getting poorer, moderate population growth
    Outer ring suburbs:
    -Auto oriented and relatively low density
    -Poor transit accessibility
    -Low commercial taxes
    -Lower middle class to upper middle class, some areas getting poorer, some areas getting wealthier, rapid population growth

    So areas outside downtown have obstacles to overcome. North York Centre might have the most potential, although it needs infrastructure (transit and roads) to be upgraded as they are pretty much at capacity.

    The recent (last 15 yrs) suburban office development has largely been around 404&407 in Markham, Orbitor & Matheson in Mississauga and Mississauga Rd & 401, plus some along the QEW in Oakville and Burlington. Classic auto oriented office parks in other words. In the last 5 years, much of the office development has shifted towards downtown. I guess you can try to be optimistic about the suburbs though, there have been a couple smaller proposals near the Oakville GO station, Markham Centre (near Enterprise Blvd) and Vaughan Centre at the terminus of the Spadina subway extension (Jane & Hwy 7) and North York Centre.