Whenever I hear a politician declare that he or she will “fight congestion” or “cure our traffic problems,” I cringe. Sure, they mean well, but they have about as much chance of succeeding as I do with curing baldness. As with baldness, congestion constantly spreads until the system reaches capacity (or all the hair falls out). You can try to mitigate it with widening roads (or a comb-over), replacing a traffic light with a flyover ramp (or dousing your scalp with Rogaine), or building expensive toll roads and HOT lanes (we’ll call this the Hair Club for Men option). None of it will work in the end.
How do I know this? Fifty years of car-focused transportation policies in the U.S. have proven it beyond the shadow of a doubt. In the 1980s, the Georgia DOT embarked on a multi-billion dollar effort to “Free the Freeways,” as they so optimistically called it. Expressways that were four lanes grew to eight, while six lane roads bulged out to 12 lanes. For brief time, perhaps five years, it seemed to work. After that, the roads reverted to their original level of service, which can best be compared to a Wal-Mart parking lot on Black Friday.
Of course, this project wasn’t built in a year or two; it took 17 years to complete. That’s right, 17 years of construction-induced congestion, followed by maybe five years of improved traffic flow. Your federal tax dollars (and Georgia’s gas tax dollars) at work.
Before you sneer too much at the folks in Georgia, look around Northern Virginia. The Wilson Bridge Project was touted as a way to free up a bottleneck on the Capital Beltway. Rather than simply replace the existing bridge with one just like it, per the demands of nearby opponents, planners and politicians argued for a much wider bridge to accommodate future traffic demand. It’s now been a few years since the bridge was finished, though some of the interchanges were only recently completed. How’s the traffic?
Well, let’s just say at 5 p.m. on a workday, you do not want to be in hurry to get to Maryland from Virginia. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was true BEFORE the construction project began. That’s several billion dollars we’ll never get back. And it will only get worse.
Plenty of other examples of failed road widenings abound in northern Virginia: the Springfield Interchange, I-95 south of the Beltway, the Beltway HOT lanes and so forth were all supposed to fight congestion and failed. I’m old enough to remember the construction of the HOV lanes in Shirley Highway (I-395 for you late arrivals). I saw it again seven years later; traffic was at a complete standstill during rush hour. How could the government spend so much time and money on such a grand failure? I later learned that the cause was simple denial.
Most Americans want to believe we can fix any problem, and so it is with traffic. We deny the obvious evidence relayed by our eyes (and aching backs thanks to sitting in our cars too long) that our ever-expanding road network isn’t working. Worse still, we deny the inevitable result of our good-intentioned efforts: more traffic.
The proper term for this is induced traffic. To put it simply, and to get my required pop culture quote of the day in, “If you build it, they will come.” Connect a suburb with an urban area with a road and people will relocate out to those suburbs and fill that road up. Widen the road, and more suburbanites will appear. This isn’t surprising since most Americans want a big house on a big piece of land. That’s how we got the foreclosure crisis: we want these things so much that we will pay more than we can possibly afford.
So, what happens when those politicians aren’t able to keep up with their indulgences? As the Virginia Governor’s widely panned funding scheme demonstrates, increasing the tax burden to pay for more roads is not always easy. Does failure to continually build more roads to the suburbs and exurbs automatically doom the local economy, as the planners and politicians like to claim in somber tones? No, apparently not.
For more than 10 years, as road construction projects have been delayed or reduced due to budget cuts, those same suburbanites who used to move ever further out from the city have chosen to give up their absurd commutes and move closer in. This means a smaller house and a smaller yard, but they might actually be able to recognize their kids (and vice versa) thanks to less time in traffic and more at home. The proof is in the numbers: home values inside the Beltway in Washington have been relatively stable or grown, while those in the suburbs haven’t been so lucky.
Remember Atlanta? It, too, has seen its close-in neighborhoods hold their value in spite of the housing collapse. Funky bungalow houses aren’t the main attraction. It’s the short commute that pulls them in.
So, what’s the point of “fighting congestion” if the citizens have figured out a workaround on their own? Why waste money on ever more grandiose transportation projects if people are willing to move closer to where they work?