.

TrafficSnark: How to Succeed in Transportation Without Really Trying

Transportation planning and reversing baldness are actually quite similar. Both typically result in failure, but not before increasingly-ridiculous solutions are attempted.

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?

Why, indeed.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeff Yutzler January 14, 2013 at 02:43 PM
IMHO you've gone way overboard with the snark here. The Wilson Bridge project has made a huge difference in quality of life for Alexandria. Ten years ago Old Town would be gridlocked every morning and afternoon. Now it isn't Sunday morning, but it is navigable most of the time. The new Telegraph and Eisenhower interchanges make a number of destinations much easier to get to. It isn't just Alexandria. The new Mixing Bowl is much better for people who live in Springfield or have to go through it. The HOT lanes give you an option to avoid much of the traffic on the main route and I predict that we are only beginning to explore the best ways to make use of it. Meanwhile the (absurdly narrow) stretch of I95 from Occoquan to Fredericksburg remains a bottleneck not just for VA but for the entire east coast. Think of how many people are forced to change their travel plans to avoid the multi-hour delays every holiday weekend. I agree with you that many of the proposed transportation projects do not hold up to scrutiny. However, some of them most certainly do.
OT insider January 16, 2013 at 01:29 AM
>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. Huh? The 1961 Wilson Bridge was handling traffic many times over what it was designed for way back in the 1990's. The six lane crossing was one of the worst choke points in the region and it needed to be widened to accommodate traffic back then - not at some time in the future. >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? Orders of magnitude better. You obviously don't use the beltway. You are also wrong about the mixing bowl redesign. It was sorely needed and like the WW bridge has resulted in dramatic traffic improvements.
Kevin H. Posey January 18, 2013 at 04:34 PM
Jeff and OT, you both make good points. However, my assertion is that these improvements degrade over time at a rate that calls into question whether the massive expenditure and the construction-induced congestion were worth enduring. Was there some other solution that was more efficient? Was there an entirely different and unrelated area (education, crime, etc) on which those dollars would have been better spent? Funding in this constrained environment works out to a zero-sum game, so we have to be more thoughtful about how, or even whether, we tackle a given issue.

Boards

More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »