- The limited access points make it easy to implement
- Freeways are extremely expensive, but all the taxes made to fund them result in them being funded by all car drivers (license fees, gas taxes, etc...), whether they use them or not, which makes freeways, for the individual car driver, extremely cheap to use while at the same time, for the government, extremely expensive to build and maintain (perverse incentive)
- Since freeways often suffer from congestion, tolling may help keep demand down and avoid the need to build new ones
Myth 1: freeways are necessary for economic developmentLike all myths, there is a degree of truth in this. freeways between cities do help the economy a lot by helping national and regional transport, even international transport. Freight truck companies are thus likely to want to settle near freeways, as are heavy industries that rely from a regular influx of heavy parts and materials. So, in other words, freeways are very useful for some freight and rapid movement from city to city, that's their major economic contribution. Trains can do the same thing, but trucks have the advantage of being able to go from point-to-point without the need to stop at stations along the way for modal shifts.
So tying in a region together with freeways is justifiable. However, the problem is freeway commuting. Commuting is by far the dominant reason that leads cars on urban and metropolitan freeways, not freight, nor long-distance trips. And the reality is that this freeway commuting is absolutely economically inefficient, even useless. It allows people to live farther from their jobs, and that just means more waste, wasted gas, wasted land, wasted energy. And since freeways are low-capacity, it leads to congestion because all commuters in a region cannot all use the freeways.
So how many freeways do we actually require for economic efficiency? Well, let's take a region with urban areas in grey:
|A region of a country, urban areas in gray, how many freeways are needed?|
|All the efficient freeways for the previous region|
We have examples of this at work, for example in Europe, where many countries were reluctant to bulldoze their historic cities just to run freeways through. Even Germany, the country of the Autobahn, has largely rejected the concept of urban freeways:
|Munich, Germany: freeways in orange, none inside the city itself|
|Kansas City, Missouri: a bit more freeways|
No. They are economic displacement. Almost all suburban industrial parks near freeways are echoes of decaying industrial areas closer to the center of the region, areas that have been abandoned as commuters jammed up roads and made these areas harder to get to, leading industries to move away to ensure more reliable and speedy transport. Likewise, all suburban freeway malls leave in their wake dead strip malls or even older malls who empty out as stores seek better locations to keep up with sprawl.
Myth 2: we must build more freeways to reduce pollution from stop-and-go trafficThis is one we often see when freeways are congested to try to greenwash building new roads. Cars idling in traffic do burn more fuel than if they had free flow all the way, and the concentration of many cars all idling in the same spot does create a greater impression of pollution than if they were all spread around. However, we have to understand induced demand... building new freeways incites a lot of sprawl, increasing travel distances, so what is "saved" by getting rid of congestion is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of fuel you incite people to burn when they start living further and further away from jobs, retail and services.
In fact, one of the things we can notice is that most people tend to define distances in term of travel time, not travel distance, and make their decisions based on that. So someone who wants to spend 30 minutes maximum on commuting will choose a place to live that offers him a 30-minute commute. or less. Whether that 30 minutes is 30 minutes of free-flowing freeway or stop-and-go traffic is irrelevant.
Though fuel economy measured on the distance traveled is much worse in stop-and-go traffic, idling engines, of course, use but a fraction of gas per hour as engines at freeway speeds. A fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km (around 30 mpg) means that the engine is burning 8 liters (around 2 gallons) every hour, meanwhile an idling engine will burn about 1,5 liter of fuel per hour (0,4 gallon per hour), if I go by the estimate that engines burn 0,6 liters per hour per liter of engine displacement (so a 2.4L engine would burn around 1,4 liters per hour). So for a threshold of 30 minutes for the commute, the 30-minute stop-and-go commute will burn up to 5 times less fuel than the 30-minute freeway commute without congestion. Likewise, a 30-minute 30 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 12 L/100 km (around 20 MPG) will burn 1,8 liter of fuel, while a 30-minute 70 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km will burn 2,8 liters of fuel, more than 50% more.
Myth 3: removing freeways would mean chaos and gridlockAs a traffic engineer I can tell you that freeways do have to be closed once in a while, or bridges (more frequently). Whenever this happens, or a capacity reduction on a major freeway, the first day is terrible and chaotic. The second day is a bit better. After 3 or 4 days, when people have understood that this isn't going to be resolved, people find alternatives to deal with the traffic and adapt their movement patterns. Though the situation is generally a bit worse than prior to the capacity reduction, most of the traffic effectively vanishes from the grid, especially in the long-term, people and development will adapt to the new situation. This adaptation occurs even faster if you have alternatives like transit ready to go.
This isn't merely theoretical, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Seoul have all removed freeways, some of this removal was intentional, some wasn't but resulted from damages from earthquake or from collapse. In all cases, traffic adjusted and life goes on.
Myth 4: roads are public goods that should be free to use (no toll), because everyone benefits from them
Let's make another analogy why just charging people a flat fee (license fees) or gas taxes is a bad idea. Take a restaurant that serves hamburger steaks and lobsters (the owner is weird like that). They can sell their hamburger steaks for 10$ and make a profit off of them, or lobster for 30$ to have the same profit margin. Let's say 50% of their customers eat hamburger steaks and 50% eat lobsters. Now let's say that, to make it simpler, the owner decides: instead of charging people 10$ for hamburger steaks and 30$ for lobsters, I'll just charge everyone a flat price of 20$ when they enter the restaurant, then they can choose whichever platter they prefer, after all, 50% take the 10$ meal and 50% take the 30$ meal, so it should be fine. So now, the hamburger steak is insanely expensive at 20$ and the lobster is much cheaper at 20$. What happens? Well, people who want hamburger steaks go elsewhere, people who want lobsters flock the place, suddenly 90% of people take lobsters (some people are with friends and are allergic to seafood), the average cost of the meals should be 28$, but they charge only 20$, they're losing money on every meal, so they have to hike up the price to compensate.
That's what happens when you tax the cheap options to reduce the cost of expensive options, people start opting for what was expensive before and is now just as cheap as alternatives. In the end, everyone ends up paying more because the prices need to rise to compensate.