A common argument against migrants, domestic and foreign, in Los Angeles is that they increase congestion on the city’s already strained roads. In Malibu , one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful beach communities, residents are trying to pass legislation that would attempt to discourage further population growth in a misguided attempt to reduce congestion in the area. There is some truth to the argument as the most congested cities in the United States are also those with the largest percentage of foreign-born residents. If one were to run a quick regression on a city’s congestion level vs. foreign-born population I’m sure they’d fine a degree of correlation.
Traffic jam in Los Angeles. Source.
Given the likely existence of this correlation, should immigration be restricted to reduce traffic congestion?
Not at all. Migrants are attracted to economically well off cities. Well off cities grow large in size and in turn the largest cities tend to have the worst traffic congestion. For that matter congestion on roads isn’t caused by large populations but by inadequate pricing of roads. Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other highly congested cities wouldn’t suffer from their current congestion problems if they charged drivers a distance based use fee. The exact fee would vary between cities, but it would likely be no more than a few cents a mile with a surcharge during peak driving hours.
The adoption of distance based user fees would not only serve to reduce congestion, but also provide a stable funding source for maintaining current infrastructure and new developments. The United States’ is currently struggling to properly fund its transportation costs. Earlier this year the Highway Trust Fund had to receive funds from the general revenues in order to stay afloat. Roads have traditionally been funded through at-the-pump gasoline taxes, but increasing automobile fuel efficiency and political gridlock have made these taxes increasingly obsolete. Even if the current gasoline tax system could be reformed it would fail to promote a significant reduction in congestion as drivers would have little reason to worry about the marginal cost of travel besides the price of gasoline.
If the concern is that migrants are increasing congestion one shouldn’t seek to restrict future migration, deport current migrants, or even restrict development. There is an infinitely simpler and effective keyhole solution – adopt distance based user fees. Related arguments, such as the concern that an increase in a city’s population makes finding parking more difficult, are likewise best dealt with the adoption of better pricing mechanisms .