To build or not to build our way out of congestion – that is the question

It seems lately like American transportation-infrastructure building has been in a state of limbo. I know it hasn’t; it just seems that way. Why? It’s because as a nation on the move in the transportation and travel senses it appears we are slowing down.

As a matter of fact, the American motorist forfeits an average of more than 40 hours per year of time stuck in traffic and it’s all due to that annoyance construct: congestion.

Where emissions enter the picture, all of that delay, obviously, has air-quality ramifications. Remember, that’s the average: In some localities the figure is one-and-a-half to two times that.

So, understanding that, building our way out of (or past) congestion would seem the most logical step to attack the problem and, by extension, the negative implications stemming from it.

L’Enfant Plan for Washington, D.C.

I think the answer has more to do with increasing capacity in general than just zeroing in on issues related to roadway congestion or roadway capacity and how to solve for that.

One of the arguments I’ve heard from roadway expansion proponents is that building alternatives like transit is ineffective in terms of roadway-congestion-busting. As well I’ve heard similar arguments regarding transit’s inability to create conditions that attract riders and hence lower emissions and that just turns out to be just not true according to the findings of at least one study in this area that was done in Houston, Texas recently. A person, I believe, needs to look at more than ridership data alone.

Take high-speed rail, for example. One commenter EF Hart in a comment to the Air Quality MattersCalifornia high-speed rail: Auditor’s report: Challenges, yes, but not unconquerable” post in response to this remarked:

“Making comparisons to Amtrak on the East Coast needs to have the added thought that it kinda works….because it is one continuous populated region….where as [sic] between LA and SFO, the HST [high-speed train] will find few riders to add.”

My answer to that, however, is to consider what the impact on mobility would be if transit was out of the picture and no longer a factor.

Such a scenario began playing out in this country in the 1930s. Over a period of 30 years most American transit systems closed their doors. In cities where this happened, cars and transit buses took rail transit’s place. On the mobility front, I’m certain conditions were fine for a time. Then, after a while, the bottom started to fall out and bottlenecks began appearing and, coupled with this, noticeable emissions releases into the air from the transportation sector could in no way be denied.

And, while it’s true that growth in driving has both outpaced roadway building and population growth, without rail transit coming back into vogue beginning in the early ’70s, with conditions currently being what they are today, think how much more congestion and delay there would be if that rail-transit element was completely non-existent.

Some would argue this point even, asserting transit utilization is poor and mediocre in the best-case situation. But, I would surmise the same to be true for motor vehicles and how they’re used or, maybe more correctly, not used as 75 percent of all vehicle use trips are made by single occupants.

As a slight aside but relevant to the content presented here, I once took a train from Denver, Colorado to Baltimore, Maryland and back. This was during the 1980s.

Arriving at Chicago Union Station necessitated a change of trains. I’m certain there was a gap between the time I had arrived and the time that the train I was to ride was to depart. When that time finally did come and in making my way to the train on which I was to continue my westward journey, this was during rush hour and there was a flurry of activity. The station was all abuzz with such, so much so, that I spotted a commuter who was apparently in such a hurry to catch an outbound commuter train, that while among the crowd making their way toward the boarding platform, this particular rush-hour train traveler, inserted a coin (a quarter, I presume) into a newspaper dispenser, but fearing that he was going to miss his train, completely abandoned his attempt to take one of the papers.

Based on what I had witnessed, the only thing I could conclude was that this was the last train out that day going where this particular person was headed and just could not afford to miss it – newspaper or no. This experience was one I’ll never forget, nor was the point ever lost that Chicago’s was a busy passenger railroad terminal, meaning it was very well-patronized.

Chicago Union Station, 1924

That was then. Today, and while I’m sure the Chicago train station teems with no less such activity, there is also going on a wave of ride-hailing and ride-sharing. This seems to be all the rage.

In theory, I think ride-hailing and ride-sharing are great ideas. From a practical standpoint where congestion is concerned, through these offerings there is the potential for roadway congestion to be made more intense.

How so? Say, for example, a person who had been a bus transit or train commuter decides to forego such in favor of being part of the ride-sharing set. Well, given enough people swapping one for the other, I think it becomes quite obvious that the potential for roadway travel being further hampered is strong.

So, getting back to the central issue of congestion and what to do about it, to claim that building our way out of congestion by adding more roadway space and/or better managing the space that’s available for vehicle use is, in my opinion, a rather myopic view.

If that’s all it took, honestly, I absolutely believe that we would not be having this discussion right now.

And, that said, ending congestion in my view isn’t just a transportation issue, one for transportation planners and what-not to solve. As I see it, conquering such requires approaches that take into consideration not just transportation (roadway, transitway, walkway, bikeway), but city, regional, land-use, neighborhood (housing), and commercial (goods movement) planning and follow-through. They have to be considered together as the evidence is in regarding how well the more than 60 years of status quo-practice has worked.

The point is, it hasn’t.

Baltimore, Maryland traffic jam

ImagesAndrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles LEnfant, Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 (top); Chicago Architectural Photographing Company (middle); U.S. Census Bureau (bottom)

This post was last revised on May 30, 2020 @ 8:16 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel