No More Government Roads

What if I could propose a solution that would clean up our air, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, save energy, reduce urban sprawl, lower taxes, and alleviate traffic congestion, all in one fell swoop?

No, this isn’t a fantasy. It’s actually quite simple: get the government out of the business of building roads and highways.

Transportation by government decree

About a hundred years ago, someone in government decided that private cars and cargo trucks shall be the dominant modes of transportation. And so it came to be. Here are some figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation:

As of 2003 (latest year compiled statistics are available), there were nearly 4 million miles of paved roads and streets in the U.S. If you add up multi-lane roads, you get about 8.3 million lane-miles. In FY 2004, federal, state, and local governments spent about $147 Billion building and maintaining all that concrete. (About $144 Billion of that was state and local dollars.) The DOT estimates that we logged about 2.9 Trillion vehicle-miles in 2003.

So with a little help from our good friends in government, America has made its choice, and it chose the road. But was it a wise and proper choice?

Consider the private car:

It’s expensive. The typical American car can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and once you include fuel, maintenance, insurance, parking, and other expenses, the typical American will easily spend a few more $thousands a year on his car.

It’s dangerous. The DOT reports that, in 2003, there were 6.3 million vehicle crashes, involving 2.9 million injuries and 42 thousand fatalities.

It’s dirty. The typical U.S. car, over its lifetime, will spew a ton of noxious pollutants into our air; and there are hundreds of millions of cars and trucks out there. And this doesn’t count the billions of square miles needed of formerly pristine natural countryside converted to concrete for driving and parking. Consider the 8.3 million lane-miles mentioned above, which doesn’t even count road shoulders, private roads and driveways, parking lots, etc. Do the math; that’s a lot of pavement.

It’s inefficient. A gallon of fossil fuel will propel the average car only a couple dozen miles, and most of the time, the car carries only the driver.

And because of heavy traffic congestion in most major metropolitan areas, transportation via car can be horribly slow. Average speeds of 1 mile per hour at rush hour are fairly common in most cities.

These automobile-created evils are obvious. But choosing the private car has affected our culture in many other negative ways that are not so obvious. For example, consider the demise of mom-and-pop merchants as “Big Box” mega-retailers proliferate. In an earlier time, we would walk to the corner market, where we knew the owners by first name, and purchase groceries, hardware, clothing, etc. Those days are gone. Nowadays, when you need a loaf of bread, it is a veritable requirement that you must drive there in your car and park somewhere in their massive multi-acre parking lot. This trend in retail shopping was facilitated by – you guessed it – the availability of streets paved with taxpayer dollars.

But for all the problems surrounding the American private car, they are small potatoes compared to the real villain: cargo trucks. Nothing about our tax-subsidized transportation system irks me more than having to share the road with these monstrous, noisy, dangerous, smoke-bellowing behemoths. They eat up the lion’s share of road space, and are far and away the largest contributors to highway wear and tear. When a car collides with one of them, guess who always loses? Consider the huge expense required to make a road with the capacity to carry 18-wheelers. Here in Houston, they are rebuilding Interstate-10 to include overpasses with a 16-foot clearance. The car I drive is not even 5 feet tall! I have a serious problem with paying taxes to build 16-foot overpasses so truckers can make a profit.

What about alternatives?

Is this the best transportation alternative our advanced technology can devise? With the awesome technological advances our society has created in fields like information technology, medicine, manufacturing, electronics, communication, construction, and science, why is the bulk of our transportation needs being met by this dirty, dangerous, expensive, slow, inefficient dinosaur?

The answer, of course, is that the auto and trucking industries are heavily subsidized by the government, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers.

True, there are some healthy free-market industries in some alternative transportation modes such as air travel, and to a lesser degree, ground mass transit such as buses and trains. In the cargo transportation private sector, air freight, trains, and water-based modes do exist. But these are relatively small niche markets. Road-based transportation is king, especially in the U.S., and the reason is simple: it’s hard to compete when the government is subsidizing your road-based competition.

Recognizing the many advantages of mass-transit alternatives, the predictable response has been that the government should ALSO subsidize these alternatives. In fact, in some areas, the government does just that. Air transit is heavily subsidized by community airports and federally funded agencies like the FAA. Water transportation is subsidized via the Army Corp of Engineers and their dams, locks, and levies. Many cities own mass transits systems such as buses, trains, and subways. And let’s not forget Amtrak.

But this implies that transportation is first and foremost a government function. This means that politicians will decide where and how people and cargo are to be moved, and which transportation companies get to feed at the public trough, and which ones must make it on their own.

Since when is transportation, or any economic service, for that matter, a responsibility of government? Isn’t that what the free market is for?

We let the free market run the drink industry, and as a result, you can choose to drink soda, juice, milk, coffee, tea, lemonade, kool-aid, “sports drinks,” root beer, wine, beer, bottled water, or any of an infinite array of alternatives in every flavor and variety imaginable, and then some. But we let the government run the transportation industry, and you basically get one choice: a car, and that’s about it.

Is the drink industry less important than the transportation industry? The standard argument is that national “infrastructure” – whatever the heck that is – is extremely vital to our common welfare. If that is true, then that’s all the more reason why politicians and bureaucrats should NOT be running it.

Everyone suffers when government is put in charge of something important. But the ones who are hurt the most are the poor who cannot afford a car, or those who are physically unable to drive a car, and those too young to own a car or drive.

More roads is NOT the solution

And so, a vicious cycle has been set in motion. Every year, traffic congestion gets worse and worse; the air we breathe becomes more saturated with noxious fumes from burning fossil fuels; and the U.S. must import more and more oil from Middle-eastern terrorist nations to fund our insatiable energy appetite.

The government says we must cure our “addiction to oil.” So they impose fuel efficiency standards on vehicle manufacturers. They restrict oil imports. They raise the gasoline tax. All of these “solutions” only serve to destroy even more of our liberties and make government larger and more powerful, yet do nothing to solve the fundamental problems.

No one seems capable of realizing that the primary reason why fuel consumption increases is because the number of vehicle-miles is increasing. So what do governments do to reduce vehicle-miles? They build more roads! Is it any wonder why open countryside is being gobbled up by city sprawl?

The government says we need more roads so as to reduce traffic congestion But it is a myth to think that laying down more concrete will make traffic congestion will go away. What the road-building advocates forget is the time-honored adage: If you build it, they will come. When you build more roads, all you do is encourage more people to drive more and drive further. Here in my hometown of Houston, arguably the Car Capital of the World, it’s not at all unusual to meet people who drive 20, 30, 40, or 50 miles daily to work each way! There are actually some Houstonians who drive over 150 miles each way, 5 days a week.

How the free-market works

Many people claim that the government must provide roads, because if the free market provided them, they’d have to put toll booths on every corner in order to make them profitable.

Granted, in a truly free-market transportation system, toll roads will play a role. But the myth of widespread toll-booth proliferation is false because there are a multitude of ways a road-financer can get a return on investment that are far less intrusive.

Consider your typical business: they want to make it easy and convenient to be able to get to them. Many businesses already pay for parking lots and the roads that run through them, and don’t charge a thing to use them. To them, the concrete they must lay for their customers is just another business expense.

Homeowners, likewise, want to be able to get to their homes. Neighbors who share a street can pay for whatever they can agree to, be it a narrow dirt lane with ditches, or a 40-foot wide slab of smooth cement with curbs, sidewalks, and underground storm sewers, or whatever they choose.

The important point to keep in mind is: if a street is needed and wanted, then the free market will find a way to provide it. Remember the mathematician in Jurassic Park who philosophized: “Life always finds a way”? Ditto for free enterprise: the market always finds a way. The Internet “information superhighway” is an excellent example of a self-supporting, profitable, widely-available public resource that came about without governmental support.

What would the world be like if government had never intervened in the transportation industry in the first place? It’s interesting to contemplate. Certainly, the private car would still play a major role; people love their cars – that’s a fact. However, there would likely not be a wholesale paving of paradise, like we see now in most major cities, complete with 24-7 traffic jams. And of course, you’d have all those tax dollars back that the government is stealing from you now.

But the biggest difference would be a wide variety of available alternatives. Odds are, you’d have many fast, inexpensive, safe, convenient, efficient choices in how to get from point A to point B. (Or at least as many choices as you have in deciding what to drink along the way.)

Smaller government works best

The pundits continue to scream for even greater government control of our lives and our dollars in vain attempts to solve every problem known to man, including the reduction of energy consumption, cleaning up air pollution, and reducing traffic congestion. Perhaps it’s time to propose a solution 180 degrees in the opposite direction: Instead of bigger government, perhaps the solution to these problems lies with smaller government.

April 25, 2006