You Can’t Build Your Way Out of Traffic Congestion

Nbat

Imagine that:
An endangered bat
Got in the way of a highway that
Shouldn’t ever be built.

It’s a lot easier to live with the consequences of bad poetry than of bad traffic planning. When I read that a proposed extension of Interstate 395 could be held up, or perhaps derailed completely, to protect the habitat of the northern long-eared bat, my sympathies naturally lay with the furry little night fliers. It could be a case of the blind leading the shortsighted.

The proposal in question is a bypass that would steer truck traffic away from residential streets in the Bangor, Maine area, by linking the Interstate Highway System to Route 9, a two-lane highway between Bangor and Calais that leads to the Canadian Maritimes. It might seem like a good thing to get the trucks out of town, but like most road expansion proposals, this one rests on a foundation of shaky assumptions.

In 2008, for the first time since the 1950s, Americans drove fewer miles than they had the previous year. Part of this was due to a spike in gas prices, but part of it was also due to a growing consciousness that we cannot continue to saturate the world with automobiles and automobile infrastructure. People are looking for alternatives.

We see evidence of this growing movement in the push for pedestrian-friendly downtowns, bicycle lanes, and improved public transportation. There is renewed interest in train travel. Long-distance trucking companies are having difficulty finding young drivers.

Yet public policy continues to promote more road building, which in turn encourages more driving, which exacerbates already dire environmental and economic problems.

And it’s not that no one has seen this coming. In her seminal 1997 book, Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay wrote:

For decades traffic experts have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic. “If you build it, they will come,” is the bleak truth confirmed by science and history. “Generated traffic” is the professional phrase used to describe traffic generated by increased roads.

In other words, you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion, because as soon as you build a new road, new drivers will show up to quickly fill it to capacity. We’ve seen this happen time and again. Interstate 495 around Boston has worse traffic than the city it was built to steer traffic away from. Building new roads encourages people to drive instead of seeking alternatives. It’s an unimaginative approach that no longer works, and in fact creates its own problems, from suburban sprawl to air pollution to loss of animal habitat to reduced quality of human life.

Instead of paving the way for more cars and trucks, we need to focus on creative, forward-looking solutions that reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and thus reduce the need for new road construction. Were challenged to maintain the roads and bridges we already have. Why add to a problem of our own making?

For similar reasons, the long-discussed east-west highway across Maine is a bad idea whose time has passed. The ports of Atlantic Canada are already linked to the American heartland by rail, over much the same route. Moving freight over long distances is much cheaper by train. “Intermodal” transportation, in which truck trailers can be directly loaded onto and off of rail cars, saving trucks for shorter, local trips, is the wave of the future. The American Association of Railroads has estimated that if just 10% of current truck volume were shifted to intermodal, more than a billion gallons of fuel would be conserved each year.

I remember when a Canadian passenger train plied that route, with stops in Brownville Junction and Greenville in the wee hours of the night. In the morning you’d be in Montreal. Franklin Roosevelt came up to Eastport on the train on his way to Campobello. Cars and trucks haven’t ruled for very long. We should not plan future transportation projects on the assumption that they will rule forever.

More importantly, Maine must not yoke its future to wasteful and costly modes of transportation when better alternatives are just over the horizon. We need to stop building new roads and fix the existing ones. We need to stop yanking up railroad tracks to create recreational trails. We need to continue the movement away from a car for every adult American.

Every road not built encourages us in a better direction. So I say bravo to the bats, for hanging in there.

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