Transportation solutions: Reactive vs. Proactive
It seems to me that we have two options when it comes to transporation. We can act reactively, always trying to fix yesterday’s transportation problems; or proactively, developing a plan that is economically and environmentally sustainable and will meet the needs of the public for years to come.
An article from Mobilizing the Region—an online news source providing ‘news and opinion from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’—critiques the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s (AASHTO) recent reports that call for increased capacity on our roads and highways across the country.
AASHTO’s reports rely on the projected growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and population as the basis for their analysis. AASHTO suggests that the best way to deal with this need for more capacity is to expand roads and highways.
In this critique, the authors contend that the expansion of roads is not the solution. They explain how VMT has actually “flat-lined” as a result of the gas price increase in 2008. Similarly, they explain that for AASHTO’s assessment and recommendations to be implemented, we would have to add 9,641 square miles of asphalt (not including parking lots and road-shoulders) by 2050. And what’s more, most of AASHTO’s recommendations are intended for urban areas. As the authors point out, these urban areas are the most ideal places for transit to thrive.
So, why is AASHTO advocating for the continued shortsighted solution of road expansion to deal with increased transportation demand? Let’s hope it is because all of their findings are based on the logic of this sentence: “All things being equal, more capacity (in relation to demand) means that the roadway is able to ‘absorb’ the effects of some events that would otherwise cause disruption.”
The authors explain why this statement is misleading:
Yes, “all things being equal” a wider road reduces congestion. But decades of research and experience have shown that things do not stay equal — road expansion is almost immediately followed by a steep increase in “induced traffic” as people make more and longer trips, and as development attracts more traffic. As traffic engineers say, “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.”
In the Lehigh Valley, we are dealing with a similar debate between those who believe that widening a road will solve our congestion issues, and those who advocate a multimodal approach to transportation planning. What is it that makes the widening of roads such an attractive option to so many, despite the proven long-term shortfalls? If transportation planners are going to readdress the same issue every several years and spend millions of dollars each time, doesn’t it make more sense to invest now in what is more economically sustainable? Isn’t widening roads really just a reactive measure, when our focus should be on developing a proactive plan?