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The Eclipse: How Markets Could Have Prevented the "Traffic Nightmare"

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Tags PricesValue and Exchange

08/22/2017

In a typical illustration of how the news media resorts to exaggeration and hyperbole in order to seem relevant, the national media promised us "chaos" and a traffic "nightmare" in cities and towns where a total eclipse could be viewed yesterday. 

A month ago, USAToday suggested that too many hikers and forest-fire danger "could cause eclipse-watching chaos during solar eclipse." The Oregonian reported last month that the presence of public lands invite "eclipse watching chaos across Oregon." 

And then the event came and went. The media, which had promised "chaos" ended up reporting little more than the so-called "traffic nightmare" that was allegedly occurring. If by "nightmare," one means "numerous very boring hours sitting in a climate-controlled automobile," then yes, the event was a "nightmare" for many people. 

The British media was especially excitable in its coverage. The UK's Express predicted on Friday there would be "traffic chaos" complete with file photos of wildfires and traffic congestion not even tied to the actual event. 

After the event, The Daily Mail eagerly reported on the "disastrous traffic jams" that the site suggested "could last all week." 

Beyond long waits, few actual "disasters" occurred, and traffic is apparently back to normal Tuesday morning. However, it is true that what was usually a two-hour drive had become an eight-hour trek in some places. I personally experienced some rather memorable delays when I drove from Denver to the Nebraska panhandle for the eclipse on Monday. What is normally a three-hour drive took about six-and-a-half hours on the way back. One downtown stretch of road in Kimball, Nebraska is now forever burned into my memory after having inched through a single mile of road there for more than an hour. (The Kimballians, fortunately, are very nice people.)

In other words, no real chaos ever materialized, and Americans were quite well behaved during the entire event. This should surprise no one who doesn't believe everything he hears on television "news." 

How Better Highway Pricing Could Have Improved Things 

This isn't to say there was no room for improvement, however. Some basic market-oriented reforms could have greatly alleviated the time spent in traffic, and allowed travelers to instead spend their time and resources in ways other than sitting in their cars. 

Not surprisingly, the biggest problems were to be found on the roads where a "free" public access led to immediate crowding onto roads in the aftermath of the eclipse. In contrast, private areas, such as hotels and camping areas on farmland, were distributed in a quite orderly fashion. 

Moreover, the large volume of people had not been much of a problem for the highways in the lead up to the event because people arrived over several days, and not all at once. 

The real problems came after the eclipse when everyone attempted to leave simultaneously. 

This situation could have been greatly improved had access to roads been priced in such a way as to avoid problems of overcapacity. 

For example, were there market-based, controlled access to the major roadways, access in the first hour after the eclipse could have been priced very high, and would therefore have limited access to those who really wanted to leave as soon as possible. It may even be that a toll of, say, fifty dollars may have been sufficient to convince many thousands of travelers to wait an hour or two before departing. Rather than spend fifty dollars, many might have elected to simply play card games for an hour, visit local shopping areas, or have a meal in town. (In Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I took in the eclipse, restaurants and shops were hardly overflowing with people.)

An hour after the eclipse ended, the highways could then have been opened up to travelers willing to pay, say, thirty dollars to get on highways. At this point, more travelers would be willing to pay the toll, and would have departed at that time. 

Indeed, in our modern technical world, such a clumsy system of pricing guesswork is not even necessary. Conceivably, highway access could have been priced based on how near to capacity the highways were, with prices rising as the highways neared capacity, and falling, as traffic totals fell well below capacity. Prices could be posted through a variety of media, including smart-phone apps. 

Several hours after the eclipse, prices would of course fall very low as most of the most anxious travelers would have already paid high tolls to get early access to highways. Cheaper travelers, such as yours truly, would have stayed behind to enjoy the local amenities until prices fell below a certain point. 

Naturally, local merchants would also love this approach. Instead of sitting in traffic in the wake of the eclipse, many travelers would have been shopping and spending in the towns nearest to their chosen eclipse-viewing spots. 

Had travelers been able to rely on information about highway availability — expressed through the pricing process — they would have allocated their time in a better-informed manner. 

As it actually played out, many travelers simply rushed to crowd onto the highways in the hopes of "beating the traffic" since access was equally "free" for everyone, and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Except what we ended up with was far worse than a "first-come, first-served" situation since access to the highways wasn't closed once the highways were at full capacity. The highways remained opon even after reaching capacity, meaning that, in many areas, traffic came to a complete standstill. 

Now, it's true that travelers were not completely without information about roadway conditions. Many people elected to wait simply because they assumed — correctly — that highways would be choked with people immediately after the event. But how long should they wait? Some entrepreneurs have attempted to address this by creating smart-phone apps that tell us about traffic conditions on the roads. 

But these attempts at providing travelers with some basic information is inferior to a system of price-signals because it assumes that everyone's demand for highway access and highway space is essentially equal. In reality, people's demand for highway space differs considerably, as would be shown clearly if those who really wanted to drive home immediately were required to pay fifty dollars for high way access. If we can identify the details of this demand, then highway space really can be distributed to consumers based on how badly they want it. 

Those who needed to leave the fastest could pay the most. Those with a more flexible schedule could have paid far less, and would have been assured of far-faster driving once they actually went onto the highways. 

Cries of Protest: "Price Gouging" and the "Have-nots" 

Of course, we can already guess at the howls of protest that would be heard at the suggestion of such a pricing mechanism. 

We'd be told that charging people fifty dollars for immediate exit on the highways would create some sort of caste system in which "rich" people (i.e., the "haves") get to leave whenever they want, and the "have-nots" have to sit around waiting. We'd be told it's a type of "price gouging" in which prices are raised to "exploit" the poor, when only the rich can afford to get the goods. 

The result of egalitarianism, however, was right in front of all of us who were on the roads that day. Rather than the "rich" getting to leave right away, and the "poor" having to wait slightly longer, everyone — whether rich or poor — sat in stand-still traffic instead. 

The argument in favor of this approach is essentially the argument that terrible traffic delays are fine, just so long as everyone has to endure it together regardless of what level of riches they have attained. 

In the end, even this lame argument fails because the truly wealthy didn't sit in traffic anyway. They flew their private and chartered planes into small local airports along the eclipse's path of totality. When the eclipse was over, they flew back to where they came from. 

As we sat in traffic along highway 71 South of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, we watched the planes taking off from Western Nebraska Regional Airport and heading back to whatever rich-man paradise they originated from. But at least the guy in the late-model SUV in front of me didn't get the opportunity to pay a high toll and drive home fast, while I might have had to stay behind and wait. That'll show him! Hooray for "equality."

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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