In defence of freeways

Freeways, or their modern Australian urban equivalent the tollway, get a pretty bad rap from some quarters – environmentalists and urban planners particularly. Much of it is deserved, of course. But Professor Nicholas Low’s recent anti-freeway op-eds, the most recent of which appears in The Conversation show a deep misunderstanding of why we travel and a fundamental disbelief in the capacity of people to make decisions in their own interest. While it has been amply demonstrated that real people are not Homo Economicus, nor are we completely irrational, either!

Low starts with some good points about the pro-freeway, anti-PT bias of governments and the unhealthy association between Infrastructure Australia and likely providers of road infrastructure, but as soon as he starts discussing the economic benefits or otherwise of road projects he starts making some very silly assertions.

Firstly, he claims the following:

The major portion of the alleged benefit is invariably derived from the time which would be saved in each individual journey on the road network in question, expressed in money value…

There are three major problems with this calculation. First of all, no-one can tell if a couple of minutes saved on a journey are going to be used in any sort of productive activity of benefit to the economy or society.

Well, you could tell such things. Experimental economists and other social scientists study these things all the time, through all sorts of clever means. In fact, they have. Stutzer and Frey examined the relationship between commuting time and self-reported well-being, and found that they were inversely related – that is, the longer your commute, the less satisfied with life you claim to be. Now, correlation is not causation, one study, etc. etc., but, still, it’s empirical evidence to support the notion that one very important thing – well-being – would be enhanced by lower commuting times.

In any case, while I’m hesitant to appeal to common sense, it’s consistent with the common-sense notion that people, when freed up from essential but boring/unpleasant tasks, will use the time in ways that are utility-enhancing, whether that is working more, additional interaction with family and friends, or simply indulging in something they find enjoyable.

…Second building a new stretch of road brings more traffic on to the road system, so while some time may be saved in part of the road system in the short term no time at all will be saved in the longer run…

Low is on a bit firmer ground here. The phenomenon of Induced demand is well established, and does often indeed lead to travel times reverting back to where they were before road capacity was increased. However, just because travel times end up back where they were, it doesn’t necessarily mean that building the road was pointless! People don’t drive on urban roads for fun (in the main). People drive on urban roads because getting from their origin to the destination is worth the cost in terms of time and expenses. So, even if the travel speed is the same, if more journeys are being made, all other things being equal, that’s welfare-enhancing.

Third the evidence both in Australia and internationally is that if people think they can travel a little faster, they convert that advantage into travelling further in the same time, negating time saving as a valid measure of benefit. Building roads has the effect of both sprawling the city and increasing congestion.

“Sprawl”. It’s sprawl, so it must be bad!

If people are traveling further, it’s because they are choosing to live in larger houses closer to the urban fringe rather than smaller houses closer in, or choosing to spend less of their money on housing and more on other things. Now, it’s not a choice I’d make, or a choice Professor Low necessarily wants to make, but are all the people who make that choice morons?

I’m not a fan of massive freeway construction programs, particularly when all they do is shift bottlenecks, and when we haven’t solved the problem of the emissions from cars on he existing freeways, and when we make such incredibly poor use of the transport infrastructure we already have (more bike lanes, congestion charging, etc etc etc). But Low’s arguments strike me as somebody who is against the car for the sake of being against the car.

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4 Responses to In defence of freeways

  1. Alan Davies says:

    Excellent analysis, Robert. In relation to Lowe’s third point, I’d add that if people are travelling further because of higher speeds it means they have, for example, a wider choice of jobs. They can choose a job that pays better, is more family-friendly, or whatever. It’s more productive because it provides a better matching of jobs and workers skills. This is one way that “couple of minutes” saving (per working day, each way) can be productive, whether it’s the result of a time saving from a new freeway or a new railway.

    I’m non-plussed by the title though – is it meant ironically?

  2. BilB says:

    You’ve left off the comments on the Jill Meagher thread so I will put my thought here.

    The only thing that I can think that might have made an effect here is that if violent people on release were required to wear a GPS locator of some sort for a period after release then they would be able to be tracked so that if a crime was committed and they were in the vicinity it would be obvious very quickly. (my paraphrase:RM). That approach only covers a very small field of victims but the implimentation cost would, I suspect, be fairly small.

    On freeways, we are going to need them all in the future but I hope that narrow electrically powered vehicles become available soon. This mornings story on the growth of Melbourne over then next twenty years will certainly be demanding change of some sort. Politics are entirely unlikely to solve the problem, oil price and availability will.

  3. BilB says:

    Out of interest.

    I don’t know whether you have ever come across the website

    If you haven’t then I suggest that you bookmark this if you are interested in science. This is the best general reference tool that I have come across. I had forgotten what it was called but needed some information on chemical reactions and that set off a frantic search to refind this it. phwew, I found it again.

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