Our intuition, at least as it relates to traffic, is wrong. Building more highways does not decrease congestion. More than 40 years of research data shows that building more road lanes actually increases traffic.
American history since World War II clearly illustrates that expanding roadways precedes population growth. Within five years, 90 percent of new American road lanes are carrying more traffic than designed for and the “relieved” roads are back to the same level of traffic that prompted the new construction, research illustrates. This is called “induced traffic” and “generated traffic” by transportation engineers. The appearance of speed and convenience of new roadways cajoles more individuals to drive more places more times until drivers are again seeking relief through more highway construction.
Since the 1970s oil embargos, American vehicle miles traveled have increased four times population growth and the average American is spending 33 percent more miles isolated in a car.
An analysis of Texas Transportation Institute data covering 70 municipalities over 15 years illustrates that “areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.”
A decade ago the Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia indeed called it a “futile exercise” to attempt to build out of congestion but that’s again what we’re trying to do with the U.S. 29 Western Bypass.
Even if lower estimates are correct and bypass construction costs $40 million a mile instead of $72 million, the chances are slim it will save anyone significant time. Hoping that the Western Bypass might be the exception that proves the rule seems an amazingly expensive and horribly counterproductive way to address congestion.
Besides congestion, over the long term, making driving appear easier increases air, water and noise pollution, global warming, health issues, American foreign policy problems and, in the specific case of Albemarle County, smog — where Charlottesville is already amongst the nation’s worst small cities for smog.
It’s almost as if we want our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to be fighting continuously in the Middle East. Or that we want oil lapping the shores of the Gulf of Mexico — and potentially Virginia Beach — forever. Or that we want oil being spilled from any number of accidents in a massive oil sands pipeline from Canada to Houston.
When do we — individuals, Americans, Virginians — stop digging ourselves deeper into our driving addiction?
Each and every one of our previous technological “solutions” has proven itself a boondoggle. Ethanol provides only a gallon of energy for every four used, while decreasing gas mileage and increasing smog. Natural gas tanks take up massive amounts of passenger or freight space. Electric car drivers suffer from “range anxiety,” and auto analysts laugh at the president’s hope of one million electrics by 2015. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards have worked to decrease American auto industry employment while boosting daily driving.
And if the future is a 1,500-mile oil sands pipeline, look at existing photos of oil sands extraction — mountaintop removal of our beloved Blue Ridge Mountains for coal to turn into auto fuel, a la World War II Germany, is more reasonable.
Overall, America’s transportation paradigm produces less than 12 percent of gross domestic product, yet produces the most greenhouse gasses — 1,960 million metric tons annually — of the four sectors of the economy while we have the second lowest overall auto fuel prices in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. The only country with lower gasoline prices is Mexico, a major oil exporter. America, however, imports almost 70 percent of the oil we turn into gasoline and diesel, at a cost of more than $500 billion annually. Even people as profoundly pro-oil consumption as former Vice President Dick Cheney lament that “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratic regimes friendly to the United States” (“Defending Liberty in a Global Economy,” speech at the CATO Institute, ttp://www.cato.org/speeches/spdc062398.html, June 23, 1998).
We are not, after all, the happiest people, the healthiest nation or the most economically secure. People in world cities who have good mass transit and solid bicycling and pedestrian facilities are happier, healthier and usually richer than American urbanites.
While America longs for the iconic town of Mayberry RFD or the lives depicted by Norman Rockwell, we spend non-existent public dollars to be isolated in four-wheel cocoons?
There is something profoundly disturbing about building expensive roadways that increase our isolation, our problems and, in the end, our congestion.