Monday, May 18, 2020

The “Congestion Con” – Important new report from T4America

T4America is out with an excellent new report which sets out in well-reasoned, documented, and easy-to-read fashion why building new lane-miles of freeway is foolish and counter-productive.  The report – “The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more traffic” – is available here.

The core of the argument is that adding lane-miles, in addition to being hugely expensive and destructive, is self-defeating, as it only encourages suburban sprawl, longer commutes, and ultimately more congestion.  Now, some of us have known this for a long time (see New Jersey Transportation Plan, 1989), but – remarkably – some state DOTs and others persist in pursuing grandiose new freeway widening projects.  Having been involved in a few of these fights myself (Milwaukee, Maryland, etc.) I never fail to be surprised at how this outdated thinking can drive the potential spending of Billions of dollars on projects of pure folly.

The report argues persuasively that growing the freeway network actually makes congestion worse through stimulating induced demand.  And, even more to the point, focusing on congestion as the problem diverts our attention from what our real goal should be: improving accessibility.  People don’t spend hours stuck in traffic for the fun of it.  They are trying to get somewhere.  If the “somewhere” (work, school, shopping, doctor’s office, etc.) is close by – ideally within walking distance – life gets a lot better.  The land use/transportation relationship is well illustrated with nice graphics.

The report is an easy read, so I won’t attempt to summarize it, but will note briefly the 5 policies it recommends:
1) Reorient our national program around access—connect people to jobs and services,
2) Require that transportation agencies stop favoring new roads over maintenance,
3) Make short trips walkable by making them safe,
4) Remove restrictions on pricing to help manage driving demand, and
5) Reward infill development and make it easier for localities.

Although there is a discussion of the relationship between freeway expansion and sprawl development, the argument is not carried forward to the relationship between sprawl development and the climate crisis.  As I have often pointed out, I feel that the climate crisis by itself justifies a moratorium on Federal funding for all highway expansion.

Ironically, the T4America report was unveiled at about the time the country began shutting down.  Congestion is definitely much less of a problem right now!  There is a lot of speculation about how and when we will come out of the current pandemic and what the long-term effects will be.  The truth is we just don’t know.  What we do know is that we will have an opportunity to examine congestion, accessibility, climate change, and that whole bundle of transportation issues with fresh eyes.  Let’s plan to do it right!