How not to estimate an elasticity


The Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole claims to debunk a recent paper suggesting a “fundamental of road congestion”.

In support of the induced-demand claim, Mann cites research by economists Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania. “We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Mann quotes Turner as saying. Mann describes this relationship as, “If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.” If this were true, then building more roads doesn’t make traffic worse, as the Wired headline claims; it just won’t make it any better.

However, this is simply not true. Nor is it what Duranton & Turner’s paper actually said. The paper compared daily kilometers of interstate highway driving with lane kilometers of interstates in the urbanized portions of 228 metropolitan areas. In the average metropolitan area, it found that between 1983 and 1993 lane miles grew by 32 percent while driving grew by 77 percent. Between 1993 and 2003, lane miles grew by 18 percent, and driving grew by 46 percent.

That’s hardly a “perfect one-to-one relationship.”

The paper also calculated the elasticities of driving in relationship to lane kilometers. An elasticity of 2 would mean a 10 percent increase in lane miles would correspond with a 20 percent growth in driving; an elasticity of 1 would mean that lane miles and driving would track closely together. The paper found that elasticities were very close to 1 with standard errors of around 0.05. Even though this is contradicted by the previously cited data showing that driving grew much faster than lane miles, this is the source of Turner’s “perfect one-to-one relationship.”

My prior belief is that results published in the American Economic Review are unlikely to be debunked by a couple of paragraphs in a blog post. In this case, it’s fairly straightforward to explain why the average growth rates of lane kilometers and vehicle-kilometers traveled are not informative about the elasticity.

The lane-kilometer elasticity of VKT describes how changes in VKT relate to changes in lane kilometers. O’Toole tries to say something about this relationship by noting the average value of each. But describing the average growth rates does not say whether cities that experienced faster growth in lane kilometers also experienced faster growth in vehicle-kilometers traveled. It’s entirely possible for both averages to be positive and the elasticity relating them to be negative! Here are a few lines of Stata code to generate an example in which the averages are 32% and 77%, while the elasticity is -1.

set obs 228
gen delta_lane = .32 + rnormal(0,.2)
gen delta_VKT = (.77 +.32) - delta_lane + rnormal(0,.2)
twoway (scatter delta_VKT delta_lane) (lfit delta_VKT delta_lane), graphregion(color(white))

That yields a figure like this:


Having made this econometric point, one can grab the data used in the Duranton and Turner paper to  note the average values and appropriately estimate the elasticity, revealing no contradiction whatsoever between these two moments.

use "Duranton_Turner_AER_2010.dta", clear
gen delta_VKT = log(vmt_IHU_93) - log(vmt_IHU_83)
gen delta_lane = log(ln_km_IHU_93) - log(ln_km_IHU_83)
summ delta*
reg delta_VKT delta_lane
twoway (scatter delta_VKT delta_lane) (lfit delta_VKT delta_lane), graphregion(color(white))


Across MSAs, the average VKT change was a 61 log-point increase, while the average lane kilometers change was a 25 log-point increase. That’s a ratio greater than two, but the estimated elasticity is 0.955. Hence Matt saying that he and Gilles found a one-to-one relationship. Their paper deals with various types of roads and instrumenting to infer the causal relationship, but I don’t need to describe those issues here. I’ve written enough to demonstrate why O’Toole’s blog post does not debunk the Duranton-Turner findings.