I firmly believe that future people are going to regard the level of traffic congestion tolerated by the people of the early 21st century as slightly bizarre. I only rarely drive, so it’s not a big issue in my life, but perhaps that makes the persistence of this solvable problem more salient to me. At any rate, further evidence that it’s a hugely underrated issue is provided by Janet Currie’s paper “Traffic Congestion and Infant Health: Evidence from EZ Pass”
This paper provides evidence of the significant negative health externalities of traffic congestion. We exploit the introduction of electronic toll collection, or E-ZPass, which greatly reduced traffic congestion and emissions from motor vehicles in the vicinity of highway toll plazas. Specifically, we compare infants born to mothers living near toll plazas to infants born to mothers living near busy roadways but away from toll plazas with the idea that mothers living away from toll plazas did not experience significant reductions in local traffic congestion. We also examine differences in the health of infants born to the same mother, but who differ in terms of whether or not they were “exposed” to E-ZPass. We find that reductions in traffic congestion generated by E-ZPass reduced the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight among mothers within 2km of a toll plaza by 6.7-9.1% and 8.5-11.3% respectively, with larger effects for African-Americans, smokers, and those very close to toll plazas. There were no immediate changes in the characteristics of mothers or in housing prices in the vicinity of toll plazas that could explain these changes, and the results are robust to many changes in specification. The results suggest that traffic congestion is a significant contributor to poor health in affected infants. Estimates of the costs of traffic congestion should account for these important health externalities.
The small issue here is that public policy should more strongly encourage people to get EZ Pass. Indeed, I would say that the use of some form of electronic toll-paying system should probably be made mandatory and other options phased out. That’s in part because universal use of EZ-Pass would make it much easier to tackle the large issue here which is that taking up space on a crowded road at a crowded time imposes large costs on other people. People should be charged for the right to do so, which could massively reduce traffic congestion with large economic and public health benefits.