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.)


Filed under Economics, General, Politics

4 Responses to Traffic Jams and Bread Lines

  1. Monica Hughes

    Tell me about it. Every day I drive to work and it should take about 5 minutes, as the distance is about 2 miles. Instead it takes about 15 minutes because of traffic light patterns that make absolutely NO sense. Ugh.

  2. steve west

    one key difference between your soviet experience in food lines and the US commute is something called freedom – in the soviet experience, if you wanted food you had to rely on the state to supply it and thus stand in line (ie no freedom to choose where to get food) – in the US you can choose where to work and where to live, and yes we all choose our commute (ie freedom to choose the length of your commute) – interesting studies have shown that the more efficient the roads, the further folks choose to live away, which doesnt really shorten the commute time….

  3. adron

    Wow, that is a great analogy. I really liked it. I do have to say, if you look back at American history you will find that American transporation – public and private – was at one time almost 100% capitalistic. Between 1940ish (the start of WWII) and around 1965 almost every form of transit besides air travel was brought under monopoly control by the federal Government.

    Ever since then the US has had less transportation choices, less advances (the pace of development slowed drastically on many fronts), and congestion increased exponentially.

    I love how capitalism works, and would love to see the day when I can pay cash for my preferred form of transit and it NOT be subsidized or controlled by the Federal (or state) Government.

  4. mglenn

    steve: i think the point he makes is dead-on, and you come close to making the same:
    in the soviet experience, if you wanted food you had to rely on the state to supply it and thus stand in line
    – soviet/USA
    – food/transportation
    – stand/crawl inches per hour

    efficency? not a chance in hell. the most efficent our transportation gets is public transit. i’m not talking about busses, i mean light rail and trollies. these cost literally pennies on the dollar from cars, there are almost no lethal accidents, and traffic jams can be avoided completely. certainly, with these methods you lose privacy, an instance of what americans consider “freedom”, and the blue neon lights on the bottom of your hood ride, but that isnt the point. we have relied on the government, yet again in the course of humanity, to provide a good or service to the masses. has this EVER worked properly? i would venture to say this has worked not a single time for an extended period, ever.

    the reason this doesnt work is simple: SUPRISE: senators don’t live like the average person.

    senators don’t have to sit in traffic all day inching along the “express”ways, inhaling the exhaust of tens of thousands of people, lets get real, senators dont even pay for stamps. why would any sane person trust their daily transit to a senator? because they are scared shitless of having to do it themselves.

    thats where business comes in.

    business might be a little slow to pick up, especially considering the canibalism that has gone on in the past, with trollies all over (the west coast especially) paving roads over as a favor to car owners, only to be then forcefully shut down in favor of turning them into car-only lines. railways are forced to lease the lines they bought and paid for with their OWN money to a socialist money-losing unionized government system called amtrack, which is SUPPOSED to even get right-of-way from freight, even though frieght rail is the one who owns the track. not only this, but amtrack pays a pittance compared to what it costs for other freight rail to lease time on the tracks (a fourth of fifth of freight rail’s bill, actually). all this thanks to our glorious government and their infinite wisdom. remember the days when trollies got in wrecks daily? when they drove off the road cause the driver was drunk? where 114 people die each day from trains (not to mention the injured)? oh wait, sorry, that all started occuring when the cars came around.. oh well, at least i can see the bright side: during traffic jams, i get to see the scenery i would otherwise miss, like billboards, gas prices, and auto repair shops.

    who would be insane enough to find out how the government has repeatedly confinscated the business of public transit and turned it into potholes? one guy in omaha. the first privately funded streetcar in decades upon decades, this one is sure to be the test run for a new age… or at least outline region for a new “expressway”.

    to think of it in the simplest of all terms: how many people can you fit on a light rail car (about 2x the length of a car)? well, about 50. how many people can you fit using cars into the length of two cars? 10, and thats if someone is comfortable sitting “bitch”.

    streetcars and light rail have consistantly over-shot all estimates (at least in Portland Oregon) by 10-50% since their inception, they are safer, cheaper, and far more efficent. i have to admit, i was never a fan of “public transit” coming from Jacksonville Florida (the joke of all public transit buffs, apparently), and i identified “public transit” with “bus” and “smelly hobos”. since living here, i indentify “public transit” with “reading or working on the way to work”, and of course “smelly hobos”. the second part is only because its run by a city. do you think someone who owned the lines would really let mud-covered sub-humans really sleep on his train? not likely.

    wow, i’m on quite the tangent.

    anyway, the car companies were the ones who caused public transit to disappear from america. they genuinely (note: corporationly genuine) believed that cars would improve peoples lives, and until most people starting getting cars, they were right. the fact is that we simply cannot accomidate the type of network needed to give people a 6×12 foot space on the road, all at once.

    i drive to work, but i take the train most of the way there, and it eliminates more than half my commute of “dead time” where i sit and decrypt the guys licence plate in front of me into imaginary acronyms to keep from going [more] insane.

    i cannot advocate private-public-transit enough, as they will not do stupid things like building a road into the middle of nowhere so 8 people can use it, after spending $800,000. they will build where they are NEEDED and where people will spend money for them to be. smart building, not vote-buying.

    good luck, omaha street car. i hope you dont follow in the footsteps of history.

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