Murder on the Roads: Part II Streets and Freeways

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In the first
part of this essay, Murder
on the Roads: Part I — Intersections
, I discussed road intersections,
examining problems and showing how the state has a disincentive
to solve these problems and an incentive to exploit them instead.

From the Wired
magazine article
cited in Part I:

The common
thread in the new approach to traffic engineering is a recognition
that the way you build a road affects far more than the movement
of vehicles. It determines how drivers behave on it, whether pedestrians
feel safe to walk alongside it, what kinds of businesses and housing
spring up along it.

Although the
state tacitly denies its accountability in road design flaws by
blaming drivers with laws and fines, this doesn’t mean that drivers
aren’t accountable for their behavior behind the wheel. The point
is that governments exploit traffic problems while doing little
to solve them.

Studying what
drivers do naturally can assist engineers in designing safer, more
efficient roads. Instead of trying to control drivers’ behavior
with laws and cameras, the idea, as presented by Hans Monderman,
is to use road design to bring out optimum driving behavior.

For example,
roundabouts don’t make people less likely to be running late. Rather,
they cause drivers to slow down naturally as they approach, thus
creating a safer intersection that naturally handles traffic.

Reader Response
to Part I

I’ve received
some excellent feedback from readers, one of whom points out the
following:

Traffic lights,
speed limits, and arbitrary and unnecessary rules produce
exactly the opposite of what is intended — people no longer
think at all about their driving.

One reader
says that he finds roundabouts to be “stressful." Another reader
from Australia says that they are unpopular there for the same reason;
he believes this is because the roundabout “actually requires driver
input." I agree: roundabouts require and promote an increase
in driver awareness.

This reader
tells it like it is:

Maybe if
there were more roundabouts, drivers would put their cell phones
down and actually drive their cars.

It must be
kept in mind that not all roundabouts are created equal. Most existing
roundabouts were constructed by states, which, as monopolies, lack
the incentive for quality and efficiency that results from market
competition. Furthermore, the roundabout is not the best solution
for every intersection; some intersections with roundabouts would
be better off designed differently. A competitive, truly free market,
without state involvement and interference, results in ongoing improvement,
not an ongoing increase in problems.

The Construction
Racket

In most cities,
potholes and other road damage are a major public concern and a
hot topic in local elections. As this
BBC article
explains:

English authorities
last year paid out 47.3 million in settling claims by road users
for damage to vehicles or accidents due to road structural conditions.
The figure for Wales was 5.3 million and for London 16 million.

According to
the article, the problem results from misappropriation of money
and insufficient long-term investment. In a free market, a company
with such a poor record of doing business would not survive against
the competition.

If private
companies owned roads and generated revenue on a per-use basis,
budget allocation would likely not be an issue. There would also
be two strong financial incentives to maintain quality:

  • Quality,
    safety, and efficiency would ensure an increase in use by consumers.
  • Unlike governments,
    private companies don’t have the power to collect taxes. Consequently,
    financial liability for injury and damage claims is a greater
    incentive to maintain quality for private companies than it is
    for governments.

As philosopher
and writer Stefan
Molyneux
points out in this
YouTube video
on solving environmental problems without the
state, property ownership encourages long-term investment in upkeep.

The BBC article
quotes Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) chairman Jim Crick as saying:

Short-term
spending is an expensive and wasteful way of using taxpayers’
money to patch together the capital’s roads.

Crick is pointing
out that short-term, reactive responses to road damage, such as
the use of tar and gravel, are Band-Aids that do nothing to address
root causes. Such endless short-term spending would drive a private
business into the ground.

In Houston,
Texas, road construction is often woefully inefficient, with some
streets waiting a year or more to be repaved. This neglect is not
due to size or complexity, but rather to lack of incentive. For
example, in 2005, portions of Old Spanish Trail were stripped bare
for repaving, then abandoned for months at a time. Over the subsequent
18 months or so, road crews have returned sporadically. As of this
writing (January 2007), repaving has been completed on one side
of the street, leaving the pavement uneven and the unfinished side
rough and riddled with potholes and open manholes. Furthermore,
the lowered surface level of the unfinished side creates cliff-like
entries into driveways along the road, which drivers must negotiate
with extreme slowness and caution to prevent vehicle and tire damage.

Texas’s revenue
is among the highest of the U.S.’s 50 state governments. Claims
that inefficiencies are due to budget problems ought to arouse suspicion.
Austin blogger Sal Costello did
some investigating of his own
; as it turns out:

A
General Accounting Office report
of state highway construction
shows the median cost of a road lane mile in the US to be $1.6
million per lane mile. A look at 130
east of Austin shows it costs a whopping $7.6 million per lane
mile. And, San Antonio’s 281 is a jaw-dropping $27 million per
lane mile!

The Texas Department
of Transportation uses what are called Comprehensive Development
Agreements (CDAs) — road and land development contracts under which
tax dollars are distributed to private corporations for road construction.

Could this
CDA system be a recipe for corruption? Could CDAs be a factor in
the inefficient management of Texas’s budget? This
Associated Press article
may be sufficient to answer that question.
If there were no corruption to hide, why would contract
details be kept secret
? Why would Texas have an interest in
making secret deals to protect a construction company from its competition?
Is it possible that this is because that same construction company,
Cintra-Zachry, donated
enough money to the right politicians?

Government
meddling in the transportation industry has consistently resulted
in corruption and ineffectiveness.
In his essay The
Role of Transportation in America's 19th Century Internal Improvements
Debate
, Thomas J. DiLorenzo writes:

There was
so much waste and corruption that Ohio “stood as one of the chief
examples of the revulsion of feeling against governmental promotion
of internal improvement.” In 1851 the state amended its constitution
to prohibit both state and local government subsidies to private
companies. Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan were even less successful
with their subsidy programs, enacted in 1836 and 1837. In three
short years the subsidized canal, road, and railroad projects
were all bankrupt and unfinished. By 1840 each of these states
also amended their constitutions to prohibit state subsidies for
internal improvements.

And:

Government
subsidies for internal improvements in the 1830s were a complete,
total, financial disaster. As described by historian John Bach
McMaster: “In every state which had gone recklessly into
internal improvements the financial situation was alarming. No
works were finished; little or no income was derived from them;
interest on the bonds increased day by day and no means of paying
it save by taxation remained [emphasis added].”

In the 19th-century
U.S., tax-funded internal improvements projects involving railroads,
roads and canals were such monumental disasters and so rife with
corruption that internal improvement subsidies and corporate welfare
had been banned in every state by 1875.

As DiLorenzo
concludes in his essay and as Stefan Molyneux shows in the YouTube
video cited previously, payment on a per-mile basis is inefficient
and a recipe for corruption.

Freeways
and Wide Thoroughfares

As long as
the state monopolizes the road-building business, we may never know
whether freeways and wide thoroughfares are the most economically
feasible approach to urban road design.

On first consideration,
the multi-lane, high-speed freeways found in American cities may
seem like a good idea: they allow large numbers of cars to travel
long distances rapidly. But these freeways are also very dangerous.
In the Wired
Magazine article
cited previously, Dutch traffic engineer
Hans Monderman is quoted as saying:

“A wide road
with a lot of signs is telling a story. It’s saying, go ahead,
don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention
to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.”

Such roads
not only create dangerous driving conditions, but also lead to urban
sprawl and massive overuse of land. Indeed, in many cities, freeways
have defined, and continued to define, the patterns of urban and
suburban growth. The result is metropolitan areas spread over enormous
expanses of land, condemning millions of people to horrific daily
commutes.

Cars have become
an integral part of life in America, and though Americans love them,
consultant
Ian Lockwood points out that “The truth is that most people are
prisoners of their cars.”
It might be more accurate to say
that people are prisoners of road design and urban sprawl. Changes
in road construction philosophy and in patterns of city growth could
enable people to enjoy their cars without being “prisoners."

As transportation
engineer for West Palm Beach, Florida, Lockwood oversaw a road redesign
project whose results illustrate this point. Wired reports:

In West Palm
Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets,
removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed,
and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result:
slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times…. When the
city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide
thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much
that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian
traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property
values along Clematis Street, one of the town’s main drags, have
more than doubled since it was reconfigured.

Granted, a
city of three million cannot convert all its freeways and wide thoroughfares
into two-lane streets overnight. And the urban and suburban sprawl
that they have spawned cannot be undone with a wave of a magic wand.
But West Palm Beach’s experience exposes possibilities. Similar
projects could be undertaken in localized areas within any city,
with similar benefits.

It’s time to
rethink the practice of building more and more freeways and wide
thoroughfares as the backbone of urban development.

I Can’t
Drive 55!

Are there any
benefits to lower speed limits?

In 1974, in
response to the OPEC oil embargo and resulting energy crisis, the
national speed limit was set at 55 mph. The National Safety Council
estimated that this saved about 17,000 lives per year, a 15% drop
in traffic fatalities.

However,
the lower death rate was actually attributable to the 20–30% decrease
in driving that resulted from the energy crisis and high gasoline
prices
.

By 1995, when
the 55-mph speed limit was repealed, the energy crisis of the 1970s
had long since ended. Yet two years later, in 1997, with no energy
crisis and the 55-mph speed limit out of the way, the traffic fatality
rate hit an all-time low.

Highway
Robbery

A
study
on the relationship between local revenue and traffic
citations in North Carolina from 1989 to 2003 confirmed what anyone
might have suspected: that revenue maximization is a primary motive
behind traffic tickets.

So governments
can maintain traffic circumstances that promote human “error” and
disobedience, and exploit them for “revenue." If taking steps
to solve traffic problems (i.e., to improve traffic safety and efficiency),
like building roundabouts at intersections, would eliminate these
opportunities for exploitation, then don’t these governments have
a powerful incentive not to take those steps?

The pervasiveness
of this problem is illustrated by this
story from the Tulsa World
:

A state [Oklahoma]
law, approved in 2003, allows the state to prohibit a city or
town’s police department from enforcing traffic laws on state
or U.S. highways if state officials determine that its traffic
enforcement practices are being conducted on the outskirts of
town but within the city limits and if such enforcement generates
more than 50 percent of the town’s operating revenue.

The very existence
of this law constitutes acknowledgement on the part of Oklahoma’s
state government that traffic laws can and are exploited by local
governments for revenue. As the World reports, several town
governments were designated as speed traps under this law:

The town
of Moffett, with a population of about 179 people, received 78
percent of its revenue from traffic fines in 2003 and 84 percent
of its revenue in 2004, Philippi said. Figures for 2005 were not
available.

Every day,
county and municipal courtrooms are packed with people fighting
fines — most of us have been there. Entire industries, such as the
defensive-driving class industry, have developed in response to
this government-created problem and profit immensely. Numerous lawyers
and law firms generate most or all of their revenue fighting clients’
traffic tickets.

And because
traffic tickets are their bread and butter, these businesses, in
turn, have a powerful incentive to oppose any change that would
reduce the number of traffic tickets issued — and more to the point,
to support politicians who oppose such changes.

Truckin’

Companies use
18-wheelers and other large trucks to ship all manner of cargo,
from dangerous
liquids
to lumber; these vehicles
significantly
add to the number of fatalities
in collision accidents. But
big rigs’ bad influence doesn’t stop there: accident rates and traffic
congestion are further exacerbated by the damage
to road integrity
caused by large trucks, and by the common
occurrence of debris, such as tire
retread
and lost
cargo
, left
in the path of traffic
.

Governments
fund road construction. As a result, when a company uses trucks
to transport its products, it is externalizing a significant portion
of its transportation costs to the taxpayer. In a free-market system,
this situation would be different: because of the risks big trucks
pose to other traffic and the wear and tear that they cause to roads,
higher per-use rates would be charged for these vehicles. This is
already the case on many government-run toll roads, such as the
Harris County toll
roads in Texas
and the turnpikes
in Oklahoma
: tolls increase with vehicle axle count.

In addition,
a free market might produce such solutions as truck-only lanes,
or separate, more durably constructed roads for trucks, with different
fare schedules based on weight or axle count. Such solutions, in
turn, would increase demand for shipping innovations to reduce the
cost of transporting goods, further stimulating the market. And
superior roads could lead to relaxed weight restrictions, allowing
for increased shipping efficiency.

Conclusion

This two-part
essay has shown that the state has an inherent disincentive to solve
traffic problems. Consequently, government monopoly on roads has
resulted in countless injuries and fatalities, urban sprawl and
traffic congestion, damage to vehicles, and other preventable or
reducible negative consequences.

So, in monopolizing
road construction, are our governments perpetrating mass negligent
homicide and unethical, brutal exploitation? A look at history shows
that these are all-too-common results of state power.

Questions are
often raised regarding the proposition that free market roads are
a viable solution to the problems discussed in this two-part essay,
the most obvious being, “So, how would roads be paid for?” As Stefan
Molyneux points out in his article “Worst.
Meeting. Ever!,"
coercion is all too often an easier approach
to complex problems than developing genuinely good solutions. Roads
have been built and managed exclusively by coercive monopolies (governments)
for decades; as a result, it has never occurred to Joe Public to
wonder whether there might be a better way. The common belief that
the market could not handle roads (construction, operation, and
maintenance) usually arises not from careful consideration of alternatives,
but from the exact opposite: a knee-jerk refusal to consider alternatives.

In his 2003
LewRockwell.com article “Abolishing Government Improves the Roads,"
Brad Edmonds states:

One of the
objections to privatizing roads is that we'd have to stop at a
toll booth at every intersection. A 5-minute commute to the grocery
store would require, for me, three toll booths, 75 cents, and
become an 8-minute commute, according to this objection.

But Edmonds
describes one of any number of potential solutions to this problem,
based on how similar issues are solved in the market. (Please refer
to his article for the specifics.)

The
real question is: What if entrepreneurially-minded people had the
opportunity to pursue the development of solutions to road and traffic
problems? With the same incentive that exists in all markets, namely
the possibility of coming up with something great and striking it
rich?

February
20, 2007

Nathan
McKaskle [send him mail]
lives in Houston, TX. When he is not studying libertarian philosophy
and working on the start of his own on-site computer support company,
he is working for Dominion Energy E&P as a Citrix Server Administrator.
Visit his personal blog.

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