Miami’s Roadways: A Tragedy of the Commons

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If you really want us Miamians to complain about something, ask us how bad our morning or afternoon commute is on any given weekday.

It can be just as bad on weekends when we’re either stuck in dense traffic courtesy of a random car crash or when we’re all out-and-about at the same time clogging up the limited amount of lanes on our highways, particularly on the Palmetto Expressway, which some locals have endearingly labeled “The Thunderdome.”

On those rare occassions when traffic does move, you may find us revving alongside other drivers à la 2 Fast, 2 Furious, finger-pointing and all, as we dodge orange construction barrels and flow along ever-changing traffic patterns in Miami-Dade County’s ongoing effort to ease traffic congestion—an effort that will probably never end.

Systemically speaking, Miami’s traffic woes are a fitting example of the systems archetype, or systems trap, known as the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when a commonly shared resource, such as a roadway, is “not only limited, but erodable when overused,” Donella H. Meadows explained in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer.

With an increasingly growing population, the Magic City’s seven main arteries—I-95, the Airport Expressway (or SR 112), the Palmetto Expressway (or SR 826), the Dolphin Expressway (or SR 836), Florida’s Turnpike Homestead Extension (or SR 821), the Don Shula Expressway (or SR 874), and the Snapper Creek Expressway (or SR 878)—are clearly overtaxed, particularly at peak traffic hours on weekday mornings and afternoons. Despite constant efforts by the county to improve conditions by expanding these roadways and adding additional traffic lanes, there aren’t many alternatives for Miami drivers unless they skip the highway and take the street route, which can be 10-times worse. So, as Meadows wrote, “there is very weak feedback from the condition of the resource to the decisions of the resource users. The consequence is overuse of the resource, eroding it until it becomes unavailable to anyone.”

Riding the break on the Dolphin Expressway at 5:20 p.m. on a Thursday as the blazing sun descends on the horizon is the only option available for commuters heading home from work to the suburbs on the western end of Miami-Dade County. That drive can take well over an hour. An alternative drive through the streets heading in that same direction? About two hours.

While the resource in question is the roadway and its quick access by drivers, the lack of quick access is what’s being eroded—along with the patience of millions of South Florida drivers.

So how did Miami’s tragedy get so tragic?

Meadows explained that “the tragedy of the commons arises from missing (or too long delayed) feedback from the resource to the growth of the users of that resource. The more users there are, the more resource is used. The more resource is used, the less there is per user.”

This is further fueled when, what Meadows called, the “bounded rationality of the commons” kicks in. Why should I give up my space in the commute for the sake of preserving the roadway? If I have a car, I’ll drive, a Miami driver might say. (And around here, public transportation really isn’t an option.) So more people pile on the road and continue to use the resource until it’s quick access is depleted. That’s the point when those of us stuck in traffic start wondering why we don’t move closer to work or wherever we need to go.

The root of the problem, however, seems to stem from poor planning on the county’s part. They do, after all, have the power to manage and enhance the resource in question.

As a native Miamian who remembers when this booming megatropolis had a relatively quaint, hometown-feel more than two decades ago, it appears that the county failed to make sure that our roadways adequately kept up with the soaring population growth.

According to the U.S. Census, Miami-Dade County had a little more than 935,000 residents in 1960. By 1980, that number swelled by 42 percent with more than 1.6 million residents calling Miami home. Today, Miami-Dade County’s population is roughly 62 percent larger than it was in 1960 with more than 2.5 million residents. Despite the county’s efforts to improve traffic conditions, many of the area’s main roadways still look the way they did some 20-plus years ago and haven’t adequately accommodated the growing volume of traffic.

Meadows wrote that the way out of the tragedy of the commons trap involves educating resource users “so they understand the consequences of abusing the resource. And also restore or strengthen the missing feedback link, either by privatizing the resource so each user feels the direct consequences of its abuse or (since many resources cannot be privatized) by regulating the access of all users to the resource.”

Miami-Dade County implemented Meadows’ suggestion by placing—and continuing to place—tolls along several of our major highways.

This remedy seems a little unfair to drivers though, especially when you consider the fact that poor planning in the face of exponential growth led us to this systemic trap in the first place. So in addition to sitting in traffic for extremely long periods of time in the hot Florida sun, we also have to pay for this privilege several times along the way, toll after toll?

Just another reason for any Miami driver complain, I suppose.

Read other posts by Aimee C. Juarez

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