Cape Cod Traffic

by Russ Roberts on August 27, 2007

in Complexity & Emergence, Prices

In a comment on a recent post of Don’s about Cape Cod, Spencer asks about my prediction about Cape Cod traffic. He is referring to this article I wrote in the Boston Globe last November where I predicted that the $62 million project to eliminate congestion at the entrance to the Cape was likely to fail. Here is what I wrote:

Getting rid of the rotary can’t solve the traffic problem because it
doesn’t change the underlying cause of the congestion: the relative
scarcity of sand and surf next to magnificent dunes.

A lot of
wonderful scarce things are expensive. Think box seats at Fenway on a
perfect night in June, Van Gogh’s paintings, or a condo overlooking
Central Park.

But sitting on the beach at Cape Cod is wonderful
and scarce and relatively cheap — cheap measured by the out-of-pocket
costs of a day trip. So more people want to enjoy the Cape than there
is room for them on the Cape’s roads and beaches. Removing a rotary
makes that problem worse, not better. It removes one of the costs of
enjoying those beaches. So other costs emerge in response, though no
one wants it that way.

Next July or August, there will be a new
bottleneck. I’m not sure where it will be, but I’m confident it will be
there. The only question is how bad it will be.

The first test of the so-called Sagamore flyover came on Memorial Day. The Globe reported:

For thousands of visitors, going to  Cape Cod   over Memorial Day weekend was much easier and more pleasant than heading home.

The new $60 million flyover, which erased the hated rotary at the base
of the Sagamore Bridge, smoothed Cape-bound travel on Friday and
Saturday. But drivers returning from the Cape Monday found themselves
in a worse-than-usual traffic nightmare, with backups that stretched as far  as 17 miles to Yarmouth at midafternoon.

To avoid a repeat this summer, state transportation officials said
yesterday they plan to install electronic signs urging vacationers to
stagger their departure from the Cape as well as their arrival.
Officials said they will also look at possible changes to the roadways
around Exit 1, where Route 6A merges into Route 6 at the base of the

Evidently, there are still problems as this article a week and a half ago from South Coast Today illustrates:

For Gov. Dukakis, a recent trip to the Cape
reiterated the need for the rail line when he and his wife sat in heavy
traffic before and after crossing the Sagamore Bridge.

Money that went into the $62 million flyover project would have been better spent on rail lines, he said.

When something valuable (experiencing Cape Cod) is underpriced, it will inevitably be overused and congestion will ration access. Something that appears to be an engineering problem (an inefficient traffic rotary) is really an economics problem.

Two reports don’t prove a prediction. I’d love to see some real data on whether delays are more common or less. Anybody out there have any info? Diligent observers can go here on Fridays and Sundays and make their own estimates of whether traffic is free-flowing. Meanwhile, here’s a story from December 2003 that called it a $35 million project. I guess it’s hard to keep costs down in Massachusetts.

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Russell Nelson August 28, 2007 at 2:39 am

I assume that we're talking about this rotary:,-70.54330&z=16&t=H
Interestingly, you can see the flyover in the map portion of the hybrid whereas in the aerial photo it's not yet constructed. Makes it easy to see what they changed.

A friend of mine works for the New Jersey DOT. He says that the new rotaries are not like the old ones. The old rotaries from 40 years ago were so bad that they destroyed nearly all of them. Then, they found out that the way to run a rotary is to put yields on the inputs. That way the rotary never gets congested, and they work much better than traffic lights.

So why do people do these kinds of things without consulting economists? We could have *told* them that what they were going to do wasn't going to work. Trouble is, of course, that nobody wants to hear their grand plans scuttled by a bunch of pencil-pushing green-shaded economists.

shawn August 28, 2007 at 7:26 am

they had stop signs at a roundabout!? YIKES…no wonder it sucked!

SaulOhio August 28, 2007 at 9:57 am

Theory, prediction from that theory, prediction observed to come ture. Who says economics isn't an exact science?

SaulOhio August 28, 2007 at 9:58 am

Sorry. True, not ture.

Steve August 28, 2007 at 11:34 am
shawn August 28, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Steve…oh. my. god.

I'm a landscape architect, and I'm going to save that. At some point, I'll be able to show a client that and tell him that's what we want to do. HA!!

Mike August 28, 2007 at 2:36 pm

"I guess it's hard to keep costs down in Massachusetts."

Geez, I can't wait to see how the Health Plan turns out.

I have a colleague who travels from western, MA to the Cape every weekend. She leaves at 1:00am so as to avoid the traffic.

Hudson August 28, 2007 at 2:45 pm

Anything that makes New Englanders miserable makes me happy. Go Yankees!

David Peterson August 28, 2007 at 4:31 pm

I don't think that it's so much the scarcity of the beaches on the cape side of the canal so much as it is that there are basically two constrictive ways to get on and off the cape; the Bourne and Sagamore bridges. They have this mentality on the cape that if they disallow new development they'll keep the cape in a time capsule (I remember how hard they fought to keep Home Depot not only off the cape, but as far away from the bridges as possible). They think that if they only have a limited space (and not only is it limited, they were designed for long before the modern highway era) it will dissuade too many tourists, when it clearly hasn't.
Adding tolls to the existing bridges and maybe constructing another, wider bridge would be a good solution too…if the area wasn't so damn egalitarian. But then if it wasn't so egalitarian, it wouldn't be Massachusetts.

shawn August 29, 2007 at 10:37 am

patrick, your link's busted. Unless that's some clever joke which I'm not getting.

shawn August 29, 2007 at 10:39 am

…it's actually secretly in the cape's interest to limit access. scarce supply, increased demand, queuing rations supply.

Cape Cod is a Soviet t-shirt. Now line up.

spencer August 29, 2007 at 12:22 pm

Before the construction the backup or traffic jam was on the route into the cape. The backup in this news report was on the route out of the cape. It had nothing to do with the elimination of the rotary.

spencer August 29, 2007 at 12:34 pm

But you are right about congestion. I live near Boston and have not been to the Cape in years because of the crowding.

However, I would like to see a lot more evidence before I would agree that the Cape beach scene should be rationed only by price.

If it is, someone is still going to have to make a decision about how many people will be allowed onto the Cape. Who do you suggested make that decision. I can not see how the market can since the entire cape is not owned by one individual or corporation.
Moreover, I would also have serious reservation that the Cape should be limited to only those who can afford to pay an ever higher price of admission.

But even where you have a completely free market you still have rationing by time or inconvenience as well as by price. For example, there are long lines inside Disney World.

shawn August 29, 2007 at 7:12 pm

spencer…unless you pay for a 'front of the line' ticket at disney. Then you're up front. Speedpass, or some such.

Josh August 30, 2007 at 6:51 pm

I went down to the cape for the first time a couple weeks ago… and sat in traffic going there and back.

Flash Gordon August 31, 2007 at 1:26 pm

A similar problem used to exist at Colorado ski areas. Long lift lines at the bottom of the mountain often involved a 10-20 minute wait between runs. Many complained. High speed quad lifts were installed which greatly reduced the wait at the bottom.

But the result was congestion at the top of the mountain. This was not only a nuisance, but a danger. Accidents increased and got worse.

Skiers found they had traded a wait at the bottom followed by a good run down for no wait at the bottom followed by a crowded and possibly injurious run down the mountain

It seems better now. Perhaps the lifts are running a little slower, and a $90 lift ticket may also have something to do with it.

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