One of the more frustrating aspects of life is sitting in traffic, particularly after a long day of work when you just want to be home with your family. Not only does traffic take time away from activities people would rather be doing, but it can also trigger unwelcome emotions of anger, stress, and anxiety. Reducing congestion provides many social and environmental benefits including savings on fuel, improved safety, reduced pollution, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and less traffic noise. As policymakers consider how to reduce traffic congestion, they should consider the following four priorities.
1. Embrace Innovation
Technological advancements have enabled the private and public sectors to improve efficiencies, collect and use information, and diversify modes of transportation. The use of cameras, sensors, AI and algorithms has helped understand patterns to improve traffic flow. Automation in the trucking, shipping, and freight rail industry reduces costs and saves consumers money. It also improves transportation logistics, generating more efficiencies Advanced computer systems in the locomotive industry, for instance, “improve fuel efficiency by up to 14% by calculating the most efficient speed, spacing and timing of trains while monitoring locomotive performance. Idling-reduction technologies, such as stop-start systems that shut down a locomotive when not in use and restart it as needed, can reduce unnecessary idle time by 50%.”
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Furthermore, the use of drone technologies can help monitor traffic patterns and serve as an alternative delivery method. Enacting regulations to appease political constituencies will undermine competition, deter investment in new technologies and reduce the economic and environmental benefits that would accrue to consumers.
2. Enact Permitting Reform 2.0
The Fiscal Responsibility Act, recently signed into law by President Biden, included several reforms to enable a more efficient federal permitting process. Notable improvements include establishing a lead agency, empowering permit applicants to petition the courts if agencies fail to fulfill their statutory obligation, limiting the number of “reasonable alternatives,” and allowing agencies to rely on past environmental analyses. To unlock investment in everything from clean energy to transportation systems, more improvements are necessary. Reforms that narrow the scope of judicial review, improve the community engagement process and provide certainty with respect to Clean Water Act permits would improve permitting efficiencies while maintaining rigorous environmental standards.
3. Modernize Antiquated Shipping Laws
Shipping and dredging laws that are more than a century old create transportation inefficiencies, which increases pollution and increases unwanted congestion on America’s highways. The Foreign Dredge Act prohibits any foreign-built or chartered ships from dredging in the U.S. Consequently, some of the world’s best dredgers (Dutch and Belgian companies), which could deepen and widen America’s ports at a fraction of the cost and time, cannot bid on contracts. More competitive dredging bids would be beneficial to taxpayers, American consumers and companies, and the environment.
Unable to accommodate two-way traffic or larger cargo ships, port channels across the U.S. have become congested. As a result, light loading occurs when ships cannot carry a full cargo load through a channel because the channel cannot accommodate the depth; therefore, ships offload some of their cargo at a different port before making their way to a destination. Both congestion and light-loading waste time and money and generate more emissions than otherwise would occur. Additionally, the Jones Act mandates that oil (and other goods) shipped between two ports in the U.S. must be transported on a U.S.-built, U.S.-flagged vessel with a crew that is at least 75% American. The Jones Act drives up prices for consumers, especially in non-continuous states and territories, and it also disincentives the use of environmentally friendly modes of transportation in shipping. Congress would be wise to repeal the Foreign Dredge Act and the Jones Act, but at a very minimum, policymakers should get rid of the foreign build requirements.
4. Use Price Mechanisms
As Matt Yglesias writes, “The problem with roads in America is that we’re perennially caught between building infrastructure that is in high demand and that ends up overtaxed, and wastefully creating things that nobody uses.” Prices communicate information and help people make choices as to what they value at what price point. Congestion pricing uses real-time pricing through tolls or other mechanisms to divert traffic away from busy roads during peak hours. The implementation of congestion prices in several cities worldwide has been shown to produce economic (improved productivity and social well-being) and environmental benefits. For Americans rightly wary about another cost, cities could offset the revenue generated from congestion pricing with tax reductions elsewhere.
After the pandemic, more than 40 percent of Americans are choosing remote or hybrid work schedules. They’re making that choice for many reasons, including the avoidance of sitting in traffic on the way to and from work. For many Americans, however, the choice of hybrid and remote work doesn’t exist. Finding ways to relieve congestion is an opportunity to improve the quality of Americans’ lives and improve the state of the environment.