Downs has served as a consultant to many of the nation's largest corporations and public officials, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the National Commission on Urban Problems in 1967, and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp appointed him to the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in 1989. He is officer or trustee of General Growth Properties and the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund.
Downs received a B.A. from Carleton College and later a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University. He is the author or co-author of 24 books and over 500 articles. His most influential books are An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) and Inside Bureaucracy (1967); widely translated, both are credited as major influences on the public choice school of political economy. Later, Downs concerned himself with housing policy, writing about rent control and housing affordability. The Revolution in Real Estate Finance (1985) predicted a long-term housing slowdown and decrease in housing prices. Neither prediction has yet been borne out. Most recently, Downs has involved himself with transportation economics. His book Stuck in Traffic (1992), which detailed the economic advantages of traffic congestion and proposed road pricing as the only effective means of alleviating it, was denounced by traffic engineers for its insistence on the futility of congestion relief measures. However, enough of his gloomy predictions about congestion were proven right that he successfully published a second edition, Still Stuck in Traffic (2004). Downs' recommendations are starting to see implementation, largely in the form of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in the medians of crowded American freeways, and through congestion pricing, already implemented in several cities around the world: Singapore (see Area Licensing Scheme and Electronic Road Pricing); London (see London congestion charge); Stockholm (see Stockholm congestion tax); Valletta, Malta; and Milan
Simon Fraser University's City Program has a podcast of a presentation by him called, Shaping the Region’s Future: Connecting Land Use and Transportation.