Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems: Spending money on freeways just causes congestion

The elevator at my apartment is really slow.

I live in downtown Salt Lake City in a new, mixed use development. It’s a cool place to live, but the elevator is worthless. It goes so slow, in fact, that most people don’t bother using it.

Instead, we take the stairs, which is possible because our building isn’t that tall. The stairs are faster, more convenient and obviously healthier. In other words, the inefficiency of the elevator prompted a bunch of people to choose a better, more desirable behavior.

Now lets think of my elevator as an analogy for transportation.

A freeway in Boston.

A freeway in Boston.

Imagine we have a road. For some reason, that road is not conveying vehicles very quickly. In cities, this often happens when roads become clogged with traffic. Then suddenly, people start realizing that the road isn’t the most efficient way to get around.

So, the road ends up a lot like my elevator. In Utah, this happened in recent years as growth and sprawl dumped more and more people onto the freeway, creating LA-style congestion.

The obvious solution — and the one we got in Utah — is to spend more money to “fix” this problem. So, we widen roads, build new roads to reduce the load on existing ones, and generally try to accommodate everyone. It’s an obvious solution because if something is clogged, making the passage bigger usually fixes it.

But let’s return to my apartment building. In my building, we could have collectively decided to upgrade the elevator. That plan would only save us a few minutes (over the course of a long time) and would ultimately remove a big incentive to use the stairs. And  upgrading to a faster elevator also would cost a lot of money.

Upgrading would also mean everyone would start using the elevator. Before long, it’d be making more stops and, despite the faster travel speed, would once again be producing slower trips. In response, a smaller group of people would start taking the stairs again and/or we could upgrade to a still-faster elevator. And the cycle would repeat.

So in the end, the smartest thing to do is to just keep using the stairs.

A new freeway onramp in Provo.

A new freeway onramp in Provo.

The same strategy also often works for transportation spending. If we widen/expand/build highways to accommodate more people wanting to travel faster, we’re really only buying ourselves time; eventually more people are going to get on those highways, slowing them down again. And the cycle would repeat.

But the analogy doesn’t stop there. Rather, much like my elevator sending people to the stairs, slower roads disperse vehicles. If people can only drive so fast on the freeway, some of them will chose to use surface streets. Others will choose public transit. Others may chose not to go anywhere at all. Just like people at my apartment, drivers will find alternatives.

It should go without saying that many of those alternatives are better than driving down the interstate. Walking, biking and public transit all have enormous health and environmental benefits. Driving on smaller streets may not share those benefits, but that solution only works until those streets also become sufficiently congested that they start encouraging people in a hurry to go elsewhere.

If you drive a lot, this probably sounds like a nightmare; basically I’m envisioning a future in which all of our streets are so packed that a significant number of people choose to use other forms of transportation.

But think about the alternative: literally a never-ending cycle of massive spending just to keep up with ever-worsening congestion. In places with high projected growth — like Utah (not to mention much of the developing world) — the future I’m envisioning of clogged streets is probably coming eventually anyway because at a certain point, there’s just no more room for roads.

What I’m suggesting instead of going down that rabbit hole is the same thing we’ve done at my apartment: leaving the existing infrastructure in place, but not devoting so many resources to it.

In other words, I’m not anti-road any more than I’m anti-elevator and I wouldn’t want to see either of those things go away. But just because we need roads doesn’t mean we have to endlessly pour more money into them. Instead, we could pocket the saved funds and pass them on in the form of lower taxes, or to bettering the analogous “stairs”: pedestrian and bike infrastructure, transit, etc.

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