The question of transportation infrastructure is often posed to those who reveal themselves to be anarchists. “Without government, how would roads be built?” One can give plenty of reasons and examples concerning why coercion is not needed to construct something in such high demand. But let’s start with “Without government, how could roads be worse?”
Roads are currently built according to political demand in an economy dominated by the state, which exists to secure power and ultimately answers to the powerful.
The US Interstate and Trans-Canada highway systems, which owe their existence to government intervention, appear to be a comparatively efficient and safe way to travel. But what is not seen are transportation methods that could have developed in a society free of state controls. For example, high-speed roads might have been built over existing throughways. Some might be exclusive to smaller passenger vehicles and some might expand vertically to accommodate more traffic without stealing from people who live beside them. Connected networks of local rail systems might be prominent, or more people could travel by personal aircraft (which could of course be shared).
Considering the numerous ways that certain modes of transportation are subsidized by state force shows the difficulty of calculating what method would be most efficient in a free society. Governments use the power of eminent domain to take land for roads and for the massive commercial and residential developments they are built to serve. Large commercial airplanes are likely more economically viable because their production lines depend on military contracts. In the past, large rail companies were subsidized. And governments have always controlled the use of land on behalf of the politically powerful.
Interstate highways might reduce trip time when compared to other options in the state-controlled transportation infrastructure, but they are an integral part of a state-dominated economy that makes it necessary to drive farther, drive more often, and drive at certain times. If authoritarian obstructions were done away with, it is likely that people could work for less time, and at hours more of their choosing. And it would be easier to support oneself from home or neighborhood economic activity. A free economy would increase available options and the opportunity to create new arrangements.
As for local roads in suburbia, some may have originally been built as mixed-use roadways back before the internal combustion engine caught on, but they now often function to limit the types of travel that can be practiced. When government roads make motor vehicles the only safe way to travel between home and work or the store, then government roads work together with zoning laws to enforce the use of motor vehicles. And those who are not able to afford cars or are not permitted by the state to operate cars have their choices further limited. So government action converts roads from tools of personal mobility into means of controlling the movement and settlement of people.
Roads were often constructed in American frontier towns before the arrival of formal government. Recognizing that having an accessible throughway would be in their interests, local residents constructed and maintained roads and benefitted from the labor they put into them. More recently, residents of the Hawaiian island of Kauai bypassed the state bureaucracy to repair a road vital to the local economy, using much less time and money than the state said would be needed.
But the issue of transportation should be considered in terms of all transit options. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which constantly fails to support itself financially, recently announced more service cuts after increasing fares last year. Amtrak is expensive and frequently delayed. New Jersey Transit train lines have experienced service cuts and fare increases. This will cause more congestion on trains as well as on the roads as the costs of using trains outweigh the benefits for many potential customers.
Clearly government is not very good at managing something that is in high demand — convenient mobility. Maybe railway workers know more about managing trains than politicians do.
In a stateless society, transportation infrastructure would be built and operated on a consensual basis according to the demand of users. Any form of transportation that could be operated without coercion would be free to develop, and human creativity and cooperation would no longer be restrained by political domination. Without state control and state privilege, roads would be better.