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As You Sit in Thanksgiving Gridlock, Remember that More Roads is No Solution

New Roads Just Means More Congestion

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and across American people are on the move. According to AAA, 42.5 million people in the United States will travel more than 50 miles from home to spend time with family this weekend. Ninety percent of those — or more than 38 million people — will go by car. And you know what that means: Traffic.

Photo by Oran ViriyincyOur much-celebrated network of roads and highways has failed to make Americans happy, healthy, or,
economically secure.

As you putter along in the traffic jams — either trying to get out of your city or into someone else’s — you might, like many people, be muttering that what this country needs is more roads. But you’d be mistaken. Our intuition, at least as it relates to traffic, is wrong.  Building more highways does not decrease congestion.

Over 40 years of research data shows that building more road lanes actually increases traffic. Within five years, 90 percent of new road lanes are carrying more traffic than they were designed for and the “relieved” roads are back to the same level of traffic that prompted the new construction, the research illustrates. Called “induced traffic” and “generated traffic” by transportation engineers, the appearance of speed and convenience on the new roadway causes more individuals to decide to drive more places more times. That leads to more gridlock, and leaves drivers once again seeking relief through new highway construction.

New road building is a false cure. Data from the Texas Transportation Institute covering 70 municipalities over 15 years shows that “areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn't, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.” Here’s another statistic to make the point: Since the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the average American is spending 33 percent more miles isolated in a car.

An example from Virginia, where I live, helps show how new roads are often pointless. A decade ago, the Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia said that trying to build our way out of congestion was a "futile exercise" but today that's exactly what we're trying to do with a "Western Bypass" through the college town of Charlottesville VA. The proposed road would coast anywhere from $235 to $436 million to construct 6.2 miles of asphalt. Supposedly this is needed to help save drivers time. But I’ve clocked it, and I figure that as the Lynchburg-to-Washington, DC drive on US 29 presently exists, even if a driver caught every red light for its entire time length, she would only save 26 minutes on the four-hour trip the day the new roadway opens.  Of course, no one catches every light, and certainly not for the entire time it’s red, so let’s say the time savings is more like 10 minutes. The Commonwealth of Virginia has already set aside $244 million for this.

That seems like a poor investment. Especially when you include the costs of increased air, water and noise pollution; the increased emissions that fuel global warming; the costs of increased respiratory problems (Albemarle County, Virginia has one of the country’s worst smog problems for small cities); and the costs of maintaining a US foreign policy based on securing affordable oil. It’s almost as if we want our grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren fighting continuously in the Middle East. Or that we want oil lapping the shores of the Gulf of Mexico — and potentially Virginia Beach — forever. Or being spilled from any number of accidents in a massive tar sands pipeline from Canada to Houston. 

I can already hear the technophiles saying that we can keep our roads and cars and have our health and environment, too. But most of our technological wonders in the automobile sector have proven to be boondoggles. Ethanol provides only a gallon of energy for every four used, while decreasing gas mileage and increasing smog. Natural gas tanks take up massive amounts of passenger or freight space. Electric car drivers suffer from “range anxiety” as every single auto analyst laughs at the president’s hope of one million electrics on the road by 2015. Each of these “solutions” would just drive us deeper into our auto addiction.

Our much-celebrated network of roads and highways has failed to make Americans happy, healthy, or economically secure, as a number of studies show. People in cities around the world who have good mass transit and solid bike-pedestrian facilities are happier and healthier than American suburbanites. But we keep spending non-existent public dollars so that we can remain isolated in four-wheeled cocoons.

Of course, there’s a better way to get ourselves around. Light rail is perfect for urban areas and inner ring suburbs. Bike routes make sense for population-dense communities, while rapid transit bus lanes can ease to gridlock in the burbs.

Someday soon I hope we get serious about these transportation alternatives. When we do, that will be something to be thankful for.



Randy Salzman is a former oilfield roughneck and college journalism professor and, at present, tries to convince Americans to curtail our personal oil consumption.

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