Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Browaty’s Paradox, or How to Build a Communist Paradise

I know it’s hard to tell, but I admit I did doctor this photo a bit. Amazing what you can do with computers nowadays!

Dear Winnipeg,

I want to share with you something called Browaty’s Paradox. It’s still a fairly new concept in political science, so I’m not at all surprised if you’ve never heard of it.

[Also, I only just made it up today.]

Browaty’s Paradox works like this. Imagine a North Kildonan Councillor. [Doesn’t matter which, any one will do.]

Now, this Councillor, as most Councillors, likes responsible government, sustainable policies, and data-driven decision-making.

[Also likes: piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.]

[Well, probably. I mean, who doesn’t?]

Now here’s the catch: if the Councillor votes in favour of a responsible, sustainable, data-driven transportation policy, his constituents will oust him and he will no longer be the Councillor for North Kildonan.

But if he’s not the Councillor for North Kildonan, then he can’t vote on the policy. But if he can’t vote on the policy, then he remains Councillor. But if he IS the Councillor, then he votes in favour of the policy. But then he wouldn’t be the Councillor…

Hence the paradox.

[OK, maybe it’s not exactly a paradox… wait, unless we add a time travel element?]

Imagine a time-travelling North Kildonan Councillor. [Doesn’t matter which, any one will do.]

Now this Councillor, as most Councillors…

[Never mind. Let’s just call it Browaty’s Dilemma then.]

Faced with a responsible, sustainable, data-driven transportation policy motion, our Councillor-turned-hero is forced to choose: vote in favour and possibly lose his job (because North Kildonan voters will oust him), or vote against and possibly lose his job (because the City he works for will end up bankrupt).

Classic no-win situation.

So how do we solve it? Well, it turns out North Kildonans are smart, rational people. [I even know a few who make a mean piña colada.]

And these North Kildonans, when presented with all the facts, trade-offs and other relevant details of a given situation, are entirely capable of holding logical, nuanced opinions.

Unfortunately, so far, it seems he’d rather pander and patronize, than inform and educate. But fear not, North Kildonanites (North Kildonaners? North Kildonagonians?)… Elmwood Guy is here to help!

So the rest of this letter is for you, my dear North Kildonan friends.

Let’s talk about Induced Demand.

Like we’ve seen before, induced demand is a concept that says if you build more capacity for cars, all it will get you is more cars.

This is not exactly new. As far back as 1955, in an article in the New Yorker, social media influencer Lewis Mumford compared trying to cure congestion by building more roads to trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.

[I mean, if there was social media in the 50s, he would totally have been an influencer. But back then, they just called them writers.]

I will admit that it does sound a little counter-intuitive at first.

But that’s only because of domain dependence, a psychological phenomenon that prevents people from applying knowledge they have on one topic to a different topic.

Don’t feel bad, we all do it. [Even Daniel LaRusso had to be shown that household maintenance is also karate!]

So back to induced demand, and how basic supply-and-demand economics can be applied to karate, er, I mean traffic.

It’s Econ 101 that when you increase the supply of an item, the price of it drops, and in turn people consume more of that item.

We see it in how BOGO sales work: a store has over-ordered doodads, and so they are forced to reduce the price, and you end up buying 2 doodads instead of 1.

Well this applies to road use as well. When we increase supply, by adding new roads, or by widening existing roads, the price to use them drops. Since we don’t have any toll roads here in Winnipeg, the price we pay is in the time we spend in congestion. Time is money, after all.

So since there is (temporarily) reduced congestion, travel times are lower, and so more people are willing to “pay the price” to travel on that road, which quickly fills up again to previous congestion levels.

Or so goes the theory.

But does it actually bear out in reality?

Spoiler: yes, yes it does. There are tons of research on the topic, using real-world situations, going back decades.

The most extreme example is the Katy Freeway in Houston. Expanded in 2008 at a cost of nearly $3 Billion (yes, that’s a B), the new highway was widened to 18 lanes at its widest point, plus 8 lanes of service roads, for a total of 26 lanes!

Did it work? Well, yes, a bit at first. But within about 5 years, commute times were not only back to where they were before, but had actually gotten worse. Much worse. Morning commutes had increased by 25 minutes and evening by 23 minutes.

Sure, but that doesn’t necessarily show that the extra road capacity caused the increased traffic. If that were the case, then there would be clear research on the opposite phenomenon. That if you increase the “price” (ie. time) by reducing supply, demand will drop as well.

Yeah, well, there’s a bunch of that too. Also going back decades.

In 2019, Seattle spent $3 Billion on a tunnel to replace its aging Alaskan Way viaduct, a double-decker freeway that carried 90,000 cars per day. Through some quirk in the construction schedule, the freeway was decommissioned 3 weeks BEFORE the tunnel was to open. And where did all those cars go? Basically, they vanished.

Need more examples?

In 1989, San Francisco’s Embarcadero freeway. Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon expressway in 2003. Manhattan’s 1973 removal of the West Side Highway.

I could go on and on. But Winnipeg isn’t New York, or Seoul, or San Francisco. Except it is.

This summer, Watt Street has been undergoing some major rehabilitation. Water main replacement, the whole deal. Yet, despite the fact that City traffic engineers tell us it “needs 4 lanes” to accommodate all that peak traffic, construction has forced it down to 2 lanes since May, and that’s expected to continue until October. Heck, for two of those months, it actually was reduced to a single, solitary lane in one direction only.

And the world didn’t end.

So where did the 13,000 cars that use this route daily go? Traffic has to go SOMEWHERE. If you block off a river, that water will get diverted elsewhere, right?

The problem here is thinking of traffic as a liquid, with a fixed volume.

Traffic isn’t fixed at all. Traffic is the result of hundreds of thousands of people each making dozens of transportation choices every day.

When conditions change, people change their choices. They may decide to travel at a different time, or by a different mode, or they may decide to forgo the trip altogether.

In that sense, traffic is more like a gas, adapting to the size of its container.

But just so there’s no confusion… I’m not saying reducing capacity will reduce congestion. A city will always have congestion, we can just choose to have it with lots of cars or with fewer cars. The latter is better for our climate goals. And it’s also a LOT cheaper.

Given that we can’t even afford the roads we already have, it’s obvious: expanding capacity is off the table. We need to focus on decreasing vehicle-kilometres traveled instead. To do that, basic economics tells us to increase the price of driving by replacing car travel lanes with parking lanes, wider sidewalks, bike lanes, transit-only lanes, and more.

Or you know, we could ACTUALLY increase the price of driving by charging tolls.

And before I get accused of trying to impose some radical left-wing, communist, bike-riding, transit-taking, “war on cars” agenda on this city, I might point out that replacing a tax-supported service with a user-fee in order to lower government spending is about as RIGHT-wing as you can get.

So there you have it, NK folks. Now you can let your Councillor know that there’s no need to pander anymore. He can vote his conscience and pass that motion!

[You’re welcome, Jeff.]

Hugga mugga,

Elmwood Guy