The Road Well-Traveled

It’s a well-documented truth that long commutes are bad for both the environment and emotional well-being of the commuter. So policy interventions aimed at reducing traffic and, by extension, commuting time have the potential to significantly improve welfare. A new paper by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner evaluates two frequently proposed solutions to the problem and finds both lacking. Duranton and Turner find that highway kilometers traveled actually increases proportionately to highways. Provision of public transportation has no effect on kilometers traveled. The authors conclude that, “an increased provision of roads or public transit is unlikely to relieve congestion and that the current provision of roads exceeds the optimum given the absence of congestion pricing.” [%comments]


The two simplest ways to reduce commuting are to promote telecommuting and to encourage companies with multiple locations (i.e. banks, fast-food chains, supermarkets, etc.) to employ people at the location closest to where they live.


Get rid of zoning restrictions so people can live closer to where they work.


Or we could assign a monetary value to all environmental costs and require those costs to be paid, now and full, rather than continuing the shortsighted policy of taking interest-free loans from our future.
If there is no dollar sign in the cost at the transaction level, human behavior struggles to understand the true cost.

Ben D

Duranton wants to reduce the duration of commutes? Sounds like an aptonym!

A-ha! Therefore we have proved through highly scientific methods that there is NO solution and you all must just suck it up and suffer.

Perhaps mfw13 has it, that the current problems are based on certain cultural norms in business and in general economic life that need some alteration. This unfortunately, was not the thing examied.

I mean, who really thinks that building more roads will solve congestion?


I would think the idea that more highway miles comes with more highways would be obvious.

If I'm going from Andover, MA to Salem MA, there's no direct highway and I take backroads, thus putting no more traffic than normal on the highway.

If the state were to build a highway that cuts East/West across the state, I would start taking the highway and alleviate traffic on the backroads.

The real question is, did highway miles go up in proportion with new highways while backroad miles went down in proportion.


Certainly there is a quadratic relation, where a thriving metropolis attracts many worker bees some of whom prefer the suburbs or avoid the correspondingly high premium on desirable reidences, while locales with less dynamism have modest traffic and worker bees still preferring the suburbs, but finding them geographically more proximal.

Real estate cannot always radiate out 360 degrees, but the square-footage land space available for housing around a commcercial hub certainly increases geometrically in relation to the linear increase in the commute to the hub.

While I agree that roadways cannot keep up - as you build more roadways, the attractiveness of ever-more-distant bedroom communities increases, since commute time has dropped relative to bedroom communities somewhat closer-in.

If there is a quadratci relation, then a city can tax per growth/desirability, and directly use that tax to build transportation (mass transit, contraflow, HOV, maglev, star trek transporter, etc.) and stay ahead of the curve - ahead of some point where travel time greatly increases with a modest increase in workers, as they simultaneously converge from 360 degrees toward the hub.


Frank Paine

I'm sorry, but there's something fundamentally wrong with the idea of “congestion pricing”.

Public streets are just that — public. They were built with public funds, and their maintenance is paid for through state & federal excise taxes on gasoline.

Besides, we have an existing “congestion pricing” system already in place.

They're called Toll Booths.

Bobbi A.

I have just an hour's commute. I have this commute because I needed to live near my elderly parent. Jobs for my skills were in the City. If I could have convinced him to live closer to me, even for part of the year, I would never have chosen to expand my commute from 20 minutes to 1 hour. Having better choices on quality of home & neighborhood closer to the best choices in work is what is needed to balance this out.

A friend used to describe it this way: 'Live where you choose, work where you can'


A solution to long commutes and unhappiness described here is form based zoning that encourages greater density in urban areas.

I love the commute from my old inner ring suburb of Detroit to the slightly less "inner" ring suburb of Detroit. Whether I'm riding my bike or driving my car, the two mile commute allows me to pass the zoo and the best bagel shop in town. On the way home I pick up my dry cleaning, a bottle of wine for dinner and drop my mail off at the post office and probably talk to a person or two I know along the way. The point is that the solution to commuter happiness may well be to re-scale the commute and cities away from mass transit or cars and toward a human scale thereby ending the aberrant behavior of having a totally disconnected life where one works in the city, lives in a exurb (perhaps in another state), sends the kids to a different school district and recreates somewhere else while having little direct human interaction in the process.

Find a city you like and make it work rather than approach life as though it is an ala carte menu and perhaps your life will change for the better.



I propose that all businesses should be forced to put living quarters underground below their buildings and all employees should be insanely happy now that their commute is now a 5 minute elevator ride. What could go wrong?


i think in the argot they say "build a lane, fill a lane". need simple rational tax on gas to reflect congestion and other externalities (noise, CO2, NOx, etc.). as ever...


If could have predicted as recently as last year, I would have said that I would never live farther than walking distance from my work. But now my SO works an hour away from where I live and work. Another friend's office changed locations. Other friends have changed jobs in the past year due to the recession. All these things have lead to largely unplanned and unwanted commutes.

I fear that as long as you have household members with different needs and unexpected changes there will be long commutes.


Seems to me we have a problem of something preventing good enough paying jobs from being near where people want to live. And jobs that don't pay enough for people to live close to them.


What this is really saying is that once things reach a certain point, there's no way that you can restore or change things so that commuting by car into the city becomes easier or quicker.

London and the SE of the UK have very high levels of traffic and hit saturation point a while back, which is why new road building isn't seen as a solution any more. They tried a bunch of other stuff too and there is a congestion charge in place, which hasn't created free traffic flow, but may have prevented gridlock.

Public transport is the commuting way ahead in London: new stations seem to open every week, new high speed trains, improvements to busses, etc, etc.

Though US cities are different from London, at least in the older/less decentralised cities, for commuting into the city, public transport has to be a - the - option. There the car commute has to be over...


One proposal is to modify taxes. Instead of taxing gasoline per gallon, tax vehicle miles traveled. (That requires some GPS technology.) It is privacy-invading, but solves other problems, such as that VMT increases as fuel costs decrease, and are not elastic in the other direction either, since some travel is required. The VMT tax could then be put toward roads as they are used (currently, gas taxes are down so roads not maintained except as part of federal stimulus). The other policy for public transit generally requires greater support than a user tax since it is capital-intensive. As carbon taxes are phased in to account for externalities, adjust the taxes depending on response.