Carmaggedon redux: Will building more roads solve our traffic problems?

Lessening our dependence on cars

If building more roads could potentially cause more traffic, what alternative strategies can we resort to?

First, as a converse to the "induced demand effect", some studies suggest that reducing road capacity may actually prove beneficial for motorists, in particular, and society in general.

The idea is to reduce our dependency on cars and make our cities more pedestrian-friendly rather than car-friendly. Certain cities in Europe and the US have already closed off their central business districts to vehicles altogether, with wide-ranging benefits in terms of congestion and pollution.

Second, instead of building more roads, installing bus- or train-based public transportation could work better. Such projects are thankfully included in the Duterte administration's massive infrastructure plan called "Build, Build, Build."

But even if buses and trains are a more compact way of moving people, some studies show that they do not reduce road traffic significantly. Additional capacity induces people to take more bus and train rides than they otherwise would – the induced demand effect all over again.

New technologies

Third, we could make road users pay for the congestion they cause unto all other motorists. Such "congestion pricing" has, in fact, been successfully implemented in many parts of the world.

For example, when Singapore implemented congestion pricing back in 1975, it resulted in an immediate drop of traffic by 75%. Today, the system's electronic version earns an average net profit of $US40 million annually, which the Singaporean government uses to fund road improvements and other forms of public transportation.

Finally, perhaps we should expand our horizons and look deep into the future of transportation.

Rather than just building more roads, we should start thinking about the prospect of self-driving cars, inter-vehicle communication, and intelligent road networks in Metro Manila and other urban areas – no matter how farfetched these technologies may sound today.

For instance, by removing the human element altogether, self-driving cars will eliminate the pesky reaction time which causes "phantom traffic jams".

Conclusion: More roads will never be enough

A knee-jerk proposal to solve our daily Carmaggedon woes is to build more roads to make room for the growing number of vehicles.

But the evidence suggests that simply building more roads (or widening and expanding existing ones) will never be enough. Instead, they could actually cause more traffic by inducing people to purchase more vehicles and take more trips than they would otherwise take.

To be sure, we're not saying that the government's infrastructure plans are out of place. The Philippines is lagging when it comes to public infrastructure spending, and we should definitely ramp it up nearer the international benchmark of around 5% of GDP.

Instead, we should bear in mind that some types of infrastructure investments work better than others in solving congestion, and we should prioritize them accordingly. Planners should take into account the unintended consequences of building more roads and ask: "How many more vehicles will be added to the streets if we construct more roads?"

By answering questions such as this, we can overhaul our urban landscapes to accommodate our rapidly growing population. This is especially important since, for the first time in our history, more than half of all Filipinos are projected to live in urban areas in the next few years. –

The author is a PhD student and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Thanks to Kevin Mandrilla for valuable comments and suggestions.

JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.