Congestion is Communist

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.

Comments

  1. digamma says:

    Vukan Vuchic! The man behind SEPTA Regional Rail!

  2. Doug says:

    But, if congestion is communist, shouldn’t you be for it?

  3. Congestion communist the best argument we may have to get congestion pricing passed … Indeed if we had called it first class lane. It would have passed already

  4. Andrew says:

    But — the Moscow Metro is also one of the most used (and crowded and congested) in the world. So – since rationing on the roads is happening by time, not price, people are choosing the alternative (mass transit). Its just that Moscow is an old city with decaying infrastructure. What it needs is more investment in infrastructure.

  5. David Sucher says:

    It’s disingenuous to keep referring to government pricing with reference to the market such as “the government wasn’t using market prices.”

    Requiring people to pay for road space might be a good idea but it has little or nothing to do with markets or creating a market. It’s pricing by government decision — not pricing by individual consumers bidding on their perception of value in real time.

    The institutional structures will (my surmise) never allow or be able to do dynamic pricing. How would the bid process work? Park by the side of a road until the flow of cars was low enough so that the agency would lower the rate to encourage more capacity? In real time? Every 30 seconds?

    Making people pay to drive cars may be necessary but let’s not play with words and call it “market pricing.”

  6. hnc says:

    A potential reason why people seem to accept queues in traffic but not in other fields of economic activity: normally alternative markets develop that destroy the whole point of price controls in the first place, which is to give all people an equal chance to access goods regardless of income. There’s ample evidence of this from the Soviet Union, where the rich and powerful were always able to jump the queues or use the black market.

    In traffic, that’s not the case. Traffic really does affect all drivers equally, so not pricing congestion isn’t counterproductive to egalitarian goals in the same way that price controls on groceries, for example, is.