In the latest edition of the New Yorker, or at least the latest edition to arrive at my house, there is a piece by Keith Gessen on the epic congestion of Moscow. Gessen quizzes a number of urban planners, traffic engineers, and so on on the roots and meaning of traffic, and a variety of explanations pour forth. The regrettable design (central city streets five, ten, eighteen lanes wide), the lack of driving decorum, the oddly anachronistic traffic technology, and the anything-goes-for-rich-drivers set of special privileges. Design can obviously impact traffic to some extent, but it’s not as though any city has hit on the combination of road design and rules that has eliminated traffic. The closest Gessen gets to a real answer on congestion comes from University of Pennsylvania transportation expert Vukan Vuchic, who provides the generally understood, yet generally unheeded, truth: “No city has ever constructed itself out of congestion.”
And yet the author comes dangerously close to understanding the phenomenon, through simple reflection:
I recalled Vladimir Sorokin’s novella “The Queue,” from the era of the Brezhnev stagnation, which is also about a line — a line of people waiting to buy something (it’s never clear what, and they themselves do not know), the line so long, so complex, that they, too, begin to live in it.
We’ve been here before. the cars standing in endless lines on the crowded Moscow streets: they resemble nothing so much as the people who used to wait in endless lines outside the Moscow stores for Polish coats, Czech shoes, and, famously, toilet paper. Now, more comfortably, they wait for the light.
Exactly! This should be a eureka moment for Gessen, but he quickly moves on to other thoughts. But this is the heart of the issue. Why were old Soviet citizens forced to queue for hours? Because the government wasn’t using market prices to allocate scarce resources. And why are Russians doomed to interminable congestion today? Exactly the same reason.
Now, Moscow may lack the institutional strength to adopt congestion pricing. Gessen relates how Moscow attempted to charge for parking by deploying orange-vested men to collect parking fees. This led to a boom in the wearing of orange vests in pay-parking areas, and the diversion of parking fee money (by both the legitimate parking attendants and the frauds) to private ends.
Still, we should reflect on the lessons here. Most cities are better governed than Russia. The competent Swedes have made congestion pricing work, as have the British. America, land of market-worship, should be able to manage the whole market pricing thing.