Why Private Roads Would Have Fewer Traffic Jams

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Gor Mkrtchian – July 3, 2019

The regular occurrence of traffic jams in major cities is not an immutable fact of urban life. Private roads show us the path out.

A shortage occurs when the price of a scarce good is set below the market-clearing price.[1] If the state monopolized milk production, produced a fixed quantity of milk every year, set the price of milk at zero, and distributed it on a first-come first-serve basis, the result would be an anarchic rush to attain as much milk as possible, without consideration for the milk needs of others. A shortage would occur.

The state, for almost all of the highways and streets it controls, has set the price of this essential, scarce good at zero. Traffic jams are a manifestation of shortages in the road supply. Treating a good of which there exists a finite supply as though it existed in infinite abundance (had a price of zero) is incongruent with reality, and we should expect it to cause problems.

Congestion Pricing

If prices were allowed to adjust to demand, the price of using a given highway would increase when more people want to use it and decrease when fewer people want to use it.[2] The result would be that people would think twice before driving at a costly time. Those who needed most to use the highway at a time of high demand would be willing to pay the price,[3] while those who were willing to wait would adjust their behavior on the margin. When demand and hence prices for roads are highest, more people would go to the close bowling alley instead of the far away movie theatre, the closer restaurant instead of the farther one, or do something at home instead of going for a drive. They would be more cautious to schedule their errands before or after peak hours, instead of during them. As a result, the number of cars driving during peak hours would be reduced, mitigating traffic jams.

Employers would also react to priced roads by altering their employees’ hours. Employers would seek to schedule their workers’ shifts such that their commutes are during cheaper, lower demand hours, lest the employer need to pay higher salaries to offset the inconvenience of more expensive, slower commutes to attract employees of the same quality. The result would be more staggered commute schedules, such that fewer people are driving to or from work at any given time, reducing traffic.

Some businesses like restaurants and movie theaters would not react much, because:

Most restaurants, for example, are busiest during breakfast, lunch, and dinner time, and perhaps, in some cases, after show closings, for late-night meals. In other words, restaurants suffer from congested traffic, a peak load problem, during these times. But, were a restaurant management seriously to propose that its customers stagger their meal times ‘in order to reduce and spread out the rush hour peaks,’ it would be laughed right out of business in a trice. Its competitors would have a field day.[4]

However, other businesses would be more capable of beginning their employees’ shifts a few hours earlier or later than the bulk of other employers:

. . . if a price reduction is offered for off-peak travel, all employers will be tempted to accede to the wishes of their employees for cheaper travel. The ones who actually give in and reschedule their work forces will tend to be the ones whose employees’ productivity is increased to the least degree by working the same hours as the general labor force.[5]

The result would be social coordination of road use. Those industries which least need their employees working at a particular time would most strongly react to road prices by scheduling shifts to provide the cheapest commutes. If omnipotent, caring Martians were to dictate to every industry when their employees’ shifts should begin to both maximize workplace productivity and minimize traffic, the result would be the same as under a system of private roads.

Not only would the currently existing roads be rationed according to prices instead of the current free-for-all, the ability to make money from providing roads would lead to the widening of existing roads and the creation of new roads altogether when demand points to new profits to capture, “Privately-owned roads and bridges would have tolls set by supply and demand, just like prices are set in any other market. Infrastructure in need of repair or expansion would get it, whereas wasteful boondoggles would be minimized with private money on the line.”[6]

Likewise, road owners hoping to lure potential customers to choose their routes instead of rival routes (intra-market competition) or to use their routes more often instead of staying at home and driving less altogether (inter-market competition) would wish to make their roads as safe, uncongested, and attractive as possible. This means wherever currently there is a stop-sign that should be a yield sign, a 45 MPH speed limit that should be a 65 MPH speed limit, a traditional intersection that should be a roundabout, or any other change in road design and rules, private road owners would be driven by self-interest to adjust in order to maximize safety and traffic flow.

Contrast this with the current system under which certain government run intersections are infamous for being dangerous and accident prone. Why do political actors allow these preventable series of tragedies to persist rather than adjusting the designs and/or rules of those intersections? The overseers of government run roads are chosen democratically, rather than by the market. Whereas the private owner of a road bears direct legal and financial responsibility for its safety, mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, occurring once every four years, seldom depend upon the candidates’ positions on individual intersections or roads:

The dollar vote occurs every day, the ballot box vote only every two or four years. The former may be applied narrowly, to a single product (e.g., the Edsel) while the latter is a ‘package deal,’ an all or none proposition for one candidate or the other. That is, there was no way to register approval of Bush’s policies in areas 1, 3, 5 and 7, and for Clinton in 2, 4, 6, and 8. People were limited to choosing one or the other in the last presidential election.[7]

Mayor Jones and Governor Smith may go through their entire election campaigns and reigns without giving a thought to death-trap intersections under their jurisdictions that could stop killing people if only some signs or speed-bumps were added. With privatization, each road would have a special caretaker, an owner, whose livelihood and freedom depended on the quality and safety of their product.

Road privatization launches a triple-attack on traffic. First, prices for road use allow coordination in when and how much travelers use particular roads. Second, the road supply is increased through construction of new roads and expansion of existing roads. Third, entrepreneurs seeking to improve their services would optimize the designs and rules of their roads. In severe traffic, how often have our thoughts turned to state-enforced population control, when we just needed to know that keeping the price of a scarce good at zero causes shortages?

This article was originally published at Mises.org.


[1] The market-clearing price is the price at which there is a willing and able buyer for every unit of a good produced, and visa-versa.

[2] Uber’s surge pricing works similarly.

[3] If roads were privately provided, the state would no longer need to collect taxes to finance roads, and so society could use the money saved in taxes to pay for tolls, or anything else.

[4] Walter Block, The Privatization of Roads and Highways, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009, p. 60.

[5] Ibid., pp. 60-61.

[6] Robert P. Murphy, “A Gas Tax Hike is the Wrong Way to Fund Highways,” Mises Wire, 2018.

[7] Walter Block, The Privatization of Roads and Highways, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009, p. 196.

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