Monthly Archives: December 2005

Traffic Jams and Bread Lines

On my daily drive to work, I am greeted by a crawling, sprawling traffic jam on the other side of the freeway. I can’t imagine what it must be like to spend an hour or more of one’s life every day in the ridiculous drudgery of a traffic jam – I would go insane if I had to get up at 5 am for the commute, like some of my coworkers. (Luckily, I was able to find an apartment that allows me to be at work in six minutes.)

The sight of thousands of victims inching forward in mind-numbing drudgery reminded me of a similar scene from my childhood in Soviet Ukraine. A few times a month, I would go visit my grandmother in the city, and we would spend a day buying groceries.

A day was necessary, because much of it was spent in line for bread, fish, or the rare “exotic” foods like plums or oranges. Once, we waited four hours for some dried figs, only to find that they had all been sold to the revered yet much-reviled war veterans. I remember someone yelling at the store vendors and accusing them of keeping some figs for themselves and of their apathy towards our fig-less plight. The vendors shouted curses back with the same enthusiasm. Their apathy was indeed obvious, though I would not realize why until many years later.

Why should have Soviet bureaucrats care about how long we had to wait for non-existent figs? Why should the bureaucrats in charge of the Dallas roads care about the lives squandered away in the daily commute?

I know who did care about our plight: the bazaar merchants who sold us chickens and potatoes. They were tough bargainers, but they were very interested in meeting the wants of their customers. The American supermarket is a bazaar on a grand scale, where I can not only find dried figs 24/7, but a dozen other fruits I have never heard of.

We trust entrepreneurs with our bread, so why don’t we trust them with our roads? To a politician, each traffic-plagued driver is a liability, to be appeased by a some highly visible but most likely useless project. How might an entrepreneur look at a traffic jam, if the State did not monopolize transportation?

To an entrepreneur, each tired and miserable driver is a goldmine, an income opportunity waiting to be exploited. The misery of the driver is an unmet need, a value waiting for the right mind to come along and provide it. The idea of a traffic jam would be obscene in a free market: millions of unsatisfied consumers are an irresistible magnet for the right investor.

Are our roads really as bad as Soviet bread lines? They certainly get far more funding (from money taken from more productive enterprises), but the incompetence can be staggering.

I tried to go the bike shop across town today, and ended up stuck in traffic. The lane on the right of me was a HOV lane. It was created by city politicians with good intentions, I’m sure, but since the vast majority of drivers ride alone, it only ends up constricting the lanes available for traffic. Once the volume of cars per lane reaches a critical mass, the traffic slows to a crawl. Do you think political pressure or a calculation by a traffic expert made that decision? Federal funding regulations require new city highways to dedicate an HOV lane, despite studies (from the very highway I was driving) that indicate “a 41-56 percent increase in injury accidents.” Does anyone care?

On the right side of the highway, several lanes on the left were closed for an accident earlier in the day. It had taken most of the day to clean up, and the roads were still closed several hours after the accident. A hundred thousand drivers were stuck in traffic, but who cares? Certainly the police in the cars blocking the road didn’t, and neither did the road workers. Why should they – they are stuck at work, so why should commuters get home any sooner? Maybe they were waiting for someone in dispatch to wake up, or perhaps they preferred to wait till traffic died down to drive home themselves.

By the time I made it to the bike shop, it had closed, so I stopped by to meet some friends at a sandwich place. It was getting late, and the waitress looked busy and tired from long day, but when I walked in, she walked over, smiled, and asked, “How can I help you?” Sure beats waiting in line for figs.

(Read more on how private roads could work.)

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