Traffic in our major cities is grinding to a halt. This is especially true during morning and evening “rush” hours (scare quotes around this word since no one is rushing around anywhere, apart from bicyclists and roller skaters, who are just about the fastest movers in this system). All too often, however, this period stretches from 7 am to 7 pm, with barely a diminution during this period of time.
Nor are large cities the only ones suffering from this transportation malady. Here is a case in point: just try moving from the 520 to the 405 in the state of Washington, near Seattle. There are literally miles of cars just creeping along, patiently waiting their turn.
What has government, the owner and manager of our vehicular transportation system, done to rectify this frustrating situation? It has whined to the business community to stagger hours of work. It has urged motorists to car-pool or take buses. But to no avail. There is no evidence whatsoever that this jaw-boning has had any success.
It has also set up express lanes the use of which is limited to vehicles with two or more occupants. This too has failed, since, often, there is back to back traffic on them, too. Further, who is it more important to get to where they are going? Five busboys or cleaning ladies who earn $20 per hour each, for a grand total of $100 hourly, or one doctor, or businessman whose time is worth $500 per hour? Our present rules and regulations vitiate in favor of the former, not the latter. This is due to the fact that express lanes on highways give the nod to automobiles with two or more occupants. The former low wage earners would qualify, but neither of the latter two would do so. They would be confined to one of the bumper to bumper lanes, cooling their heels, while the marginal workers would whiz on by. This brings to mind Thomas Sowell’s famous statement: “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” Who is in charge of this present irrational system? Bureaucrats in the Department of Transportation.
How would private enterprise handle this challenge? Please do not stop reading at this point, horror struck by the idea that entrepreneurs could actually own and manage our system of streets, roads and highways. Our very first thoroughfares were run on this system. Charges were based on the number of axels, and horses. Even the width of the wagon wheel was considered in the pricing system. The owners of thin wheeled vehicles, think ice skates, were charged more, since they dug ruts into the dirt road. And even nowadays, capitalists run long thin things such as railroads.
First of all, under capitalism, there would be competition. Those entrepreneurs who failed to satisfy customers would tend to go bankrupt, leaving the field to more efficient providers, a la Sowell. So what would the private owners do? Simple. They would raise prices and continue to do so, until traffic moved during periods of high demand; this would presumably be as something of the order of 40 miles per hour, the speed that maximizes road usage, and hence, ceteris paribus, profits.
In other words, the owners would borrow a leaf from practically every other industry under the sun. They would engage in peak load pricing, as do hotels, movie theaters, ski resorts, etc.
What about the poor? Would this not be unfair to them? They would have to car pool, or patronize buses, or use less crowded streets instead of the highways. They would be subjected to staggered work hours. They would also gain from the fact that the economy would be far more efficient in terms of transportation.
The only real contribution made by government to transportation arteriosclerosis stemmed from its reaction to covid: pretty much shut down virtually everything. With very little traffic on the road, automobiles moved more slowly. But with this disease now, happily, in the rear view mirror, that “contribution” can no longer be made. The best way forward is privatization.