Most suburbanites in Fairfax and Montgomery counties think rising traffic congestion is caused by the recent surge in suburban commercial and other nonresidential development. That's why they have been pressing for limits on growth.
In fact, it is the complaining suburban householders themselves who are a major cause of increased traffic. Why? Because they wish to live in places where the houses are spread over large tracts of land that can be served efficiently only by private automobiles. They also wish to enjoy a wide choice of combinations of where to live and where to work. And they like commuting by private car, usually alone, because of the greater convenience, luxury and privacy.
All of this has made rising traffic congestion inevitable, no matter how much or how little commercial development occurs. Look at increases in the U.S. vehicle population: From 1970 through 1985, the number of people in the United States rose about 37 million, or 18 percent. The number of cars and trucks in use rose 62 million, or 63 percent. Yet the number of miles of roads and streets rose by less than 5 percent.
Are any remedies possible? Some actions would reduce congestion for a few years, so they are certainly worth considering. They include building more roads, staggering work hours, encouraging van pools, creating more designated lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles and electronic traffic management. But if these steps increase highway capacity, even more people will use vehicles in the long run.
If all suburban commercial growth were prohibited, new jobs would locate either in the city or in other metropolitan areas. In the first case, suburban congestion would still get worse as long as the additional people chose to live in the suburbs.
In the second case, further economic growth in the metropolitan area would come to a halt. That would mean rising residential property taxes to pay for improvements in the schools, roads, etc. If suburbanites are not willing to pay that price, they must endure increasing traffic congestion.
True, stringently limiting future commercial and residential growth would slow the rate at which congestion worsened. The situation could be improved for a while. But rising congestion cannot be ended altogether if we have more metropolitan area jobs plus continued pursuit of the patterns already cited.
Eventually, people will react to congestion by living closer to where they work. They won't live closer-in because that would mean higher residential densities, which residents oppose. Rather, existing and new jobs will move farther out, toward the places where people live and beyond. The long-run result will be even more sprawl than we have now. There will also be some staggering of work hours, and more people will work at home part of the time and commute during nonpeak periods.
Meanwhile, perhaps the remedy is learning to enjoy traffic congestion. Get yourself a comfortable air-conditioned car with a stereo radio, a tape deck and a telephone, and commute daily with someone you are attracted to!
-- Anthony Downs is an economist with the Brookings Institution. This is adapted from remarks last month to the Greater Washington Research Center.