April 3rd, 2011

On a recent road-trip to West Virginia, I saw a bumper-sticker that said, Sick of traffic?  Invest in Highways!

(What is it the kids say these days?  I believe the term is FACEPALM!…)

One can’t be blamed for thinking the solution for too much traffic is to provide more pavement for the cars to travel on.  I mean, if the 4-lane highway is too crowded, then wouldn’t 6 lanes, or 8 lanes – or even a shiny new freeway – fix the problem?

Then again, if there weren’t any highways, there wouldn’t be any traffic.

Of course, eliminating all of our roads is about the worst possible solution to solving our traffic problems.  But building a lot more roads isn’t much better.  Roads create traffic. While a highway expansion may eliminate bottlenecks and traffic jams in one location, it increases the number of cars that travel to other locations – typically denser, urban centers or commercial areas into which people commute for their jobs.  Once this “easy access” to the city is built, there’s an influx of people to the suburbs, creating more traffic, requiring more roads, and the downward spiral continues.  The eventual outcome is a sprawling metropolitan area, with a massive network of roads and highways, nearly all of which are constantly clogged with traffic.  (Look at Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC as prime examples.)

No, if you’re sick of traffic, don’t invest in highways.  Invest in public transit. High-speed rail and commuter rail make great alternatives to interstate freeways.  Light rail and buses work well in urban areas.  And in addition to the traffic congestion relief provided by transit systems, we also get the environmental and petroleum reduction benefits.  Additionally, high-speed and light rail offers economic opportunities along their routes.  (Of course, the economic impact isn’t universally agreed upon.  Those opposed argue that no transit system can succeed without massive subsidies.  Then again, what about our highways?  Until every road in the U.S. is a toll-road, that roadway upon which you’re driving is 100% subsidized!)

The Sick of Traffic? Invest in Highways! slogan comes from the American Traffic Safety Services Association, a legitimate trade group representing its members who are involved in traffic control and roadway safety.  Obviously, they’re looking out for their members’ interests, and they certainly can’t be blamed for that.  But the irony isn’t lost on me that the particular bumper sticker I saw was plastered on the back of a Hummer H2, rumbling down I-66 carrying only a single occupant.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we’ve got over four million miles of roads in the U.S.  On the other hand, we’ve got about 21,000 miles of Amtrak, 7,500 miles of commuter rail, and 1500 miles of light rail.  Right now, we don’t need any more roads.

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