It’s easy to get giddy about self-driving cars. Older people and preteens will become more independent and mobile. The scourge of drunken driving will disappear. People will be able to safely play video games while on the freeway to work.
But there is one problem autonomous driving is unlikely to solve: the columns of rush-hour gridlock that clog city streets and freeways. If decades of urban planning and economic research are any guide, the solution is unlikely to come from technology but from something similar to Uber’s surge pricing: charging people more to use driverless cars at rush hour.
Not that technology companies aren’t trying to find other solutions to congestion. Traffic is one of the few problems that fabulously wealthy people can’t buy their way out of. This helps explain why Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, wants to bore subterranean freeways under Los Angeles and build a hyperloop train half the length of California. Or why Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, is interested in flying cars.
This is in addition to other, less revolutionary efforts, from companies like Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company and which aims to ease congestion by helping cities make better use of data. And of course there is the self-driving car, which, in addition to making roads safer, is supposed to help manage freeways by smoothing human flaws — like a tendency to engage in antsy braking and sudden lane changes — that make traffic worse.
These various technologies share a common theme. One way or another, they promise to expand the nation’s roads — literally, in the case of Musk’s tunnels, figuratively, in the case of flying cars, and efficiently, in the case of self-driving ones. While it is possible that one or all of these technologies will increase road capacity to the point at which no amount of traffic will fill them, history gives us reasons to be skeptical.
Decades’ worth of studies show that whenever cities add roads, new drivers simply fill them up. This isn’t because of new development or population growth — although that’s part of the story — but because of a vicious cycle in which new roads bring new demand that no amount of further roads can satisfy.
This has been studied at rush hour, studied on individual freeway projects and studied with large data sets that encompass nearly every road in the United States. With remarkable consistency, the research finds the same thing: Whenever a road is built or an older road is widened, more people decide to drive more. Build more or widen further, and even more people decide to drive. Repeat to infinity.
When Peter Enevoldsen won a lucrative order for the precision tractor parts that his company, Sjorring Maskinfabrik, makes in northern Denmark, his eyes lit up. The contract was worth more than half a million euros — a boon for his profits.
There was just one hitch: He did not have enough employees for the job.
Delivery was delayed, by one month, then two, then three, as he searched for skilled welders to speed the work at the sprawling factory. But in Denmark’s fast-recovering economy, they were hard to come by.
As Europe rebounds from its economic malaise, Denmark is one of a few countries that can boast of nearing a golden era of full employment, meaning almost everyone who is able and willing to work has a job. But instead of being cheered, it is posing new challenges to the country’s recovery.
More than a third of companies in this industrial and technically advanced nation can no longer recruit enough skilled workers to fill posts. Vacancies abound for IT specialists, computer scientists, engineers and mechanics, as well as for electricians and carpenters. The wages needed to lure them are creeping up. Affected firms are scaling back production, turning down contracts and postponing expansion plans.
“We need more skilled workers, but we can’t get them,” said Enevoldsen, who recently joined other companies in a nationwide advertising campaign to lure talent. “If the labor shortage continues, it could sharply impact our growth, and growth in general.”
Europe’s recovery is gaining traction fastest in the north, where Britain, Germany and Denmark’s Nordic neighbors also pushing toward full employment. The unemployment rate has fallen in the United States as well, and some economists have expressed optimism the country may be headed in that direction.
But the experience in Denmark shows what can happen with too much of a good thing.
This country of just under 6 million people produces a diverse range of goods, from drugs to industrial machinery. To bolster its tech sector, the government recently named a “technology ambassador” to conduct relations with Google and other digital giants.
After a painful recession, unemployment is now at 4.3 percent, which is about as low as it can go without provoking inflation. During an economic boom a decade ago, joblessness fell as low as 2.4 percent, igniting an unsustainable spiral of higher wages and prices that the government desperately wants to avoid today.