In the debate over toll lanes to fix traffic problems on parts of I-77, we should be addressing a larger question: Why is it that after decades of stressed-out Americans dealing with clogged roadways has traffic congestion never been solved?
I lived in the D.C. and Baltimore area for more than eight years before moving to Charlotte more than four years ago. I had awful commutes and I tried the usual methods to avoid traffic, like leaving early, finding back roads or shortcuts to work but the commute was still aggravating.
Since then I have become involved with neighborhoods and organizations that work to make Charlotte a better place to live, work and play. This has driven me to start researching problems like congestion. Many decades of empirical data prove a principle known as induced demand. This principle speaks to how road engineering combines with the human condition to increase the amount of traffic instead of decreasing it. It is this human piece that is usually left out of the discussion of highway engineering.
Once a road is expanded two major things occur. At least initially it is easier to commute from point A to point B, which of course is the whole point of a multi-million dollar highway project. However, what eventually happens next is that people start changing the routines they had once created to avoid congestion. They no longer drive to work early, take that back road, carpool, or take the light rail to work. These short term changes in behavior can lead to longer term changes like living farther away from the urban core. If this is happening in an area like ours which has an increasing population, eventually we will be back to dealing with congestion.
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The true solution is to get more people off of the roads. There is no end to the cycle of widening or building new roads when the result will be to put more cars on the road.
It’s like a cell phone plan. When you have unlimited data and a phone with faster download speeds you use and consume more data than compared with having a limited data plan and slower download speeds. Driving works the same way.
We need a balanced approach, one that involves moving drivers into other modes of transportation and giving people an equal choice in getting from point A to point B. The key word is equal. Compared with driving, the choice must offer an equal or greater level of convenience, comfort, affordability, safety, and/or other benefits. This would require sizable investment in infrastructure and adoption of smart growth principles.
Where should the money come from? Few people question spending of highway dollars. It is just expected that we continue to throw money at highways. Do you know that in the next 10 years there is more than $788 million committed to highway/road projects in the Charlotte area alone? That amount doesn’t include the Monroe Connector/Bypass which is an additional $813.5 million. Do we need all that money going to a solution that will not fix the problem?
An example of a state setting aside transportation dollars for items other than highway projects is Pennsylvania, where legislators passed a funding package in 2013 that created grants for projects spanning from roads to rail to bicycles.
Building only highways while neglecting the needs of residents who either cannot drive or who want to travel more sustainability will put us further behind in the race for the future!
Eric Zaveral is a UNC Charlotte student studying Urban Design. He is president of the South End Neighborhood Association. Email: email@example.com.