By Dom Nozzi
For several decades, cities throughout the nation have decided that a highly beneficial way to reduce town center traffic congestion, reduce truck traffic in the town center, and ease regional motor vehicle travel is to spend trillions to build a beltway highway at the periphery of the town center so that such traffic is diverted from the town center. While the idea is seductively a great idea, there are significant reasons why such beltways – or “ring” roads – are ruinous for a community.
First, it is unquestionably true, in my opinion, that trying to solve in-town congestion “problems” with a beltway highway system that by-passes the town center is extremely counterproductive. Such roads inevitably accelerate flight from — and therefore strongly contribute to the death of — a town center. This beltway destruction of town centers has occurred throughout the U.S., primarily because beltways remove vehicle trips (trips which provide life-giving potential customers) from a town center, and promote the construction of big box retail malls with big parking lots in outlying suburban locations that feed on regional customers and in-town customers. These potential customers diverted from the town center are now able to find easy car access to suburban shopping due to the beltway.
Second, beltway highways, in an urban area that already faces traffic congestion “problems,” will inevitably become congested themselves, almost overnight, due to the unavoidable Triple Convergence (see Anthony Downs book, Stuck in Traffic). This is now extremely well-documented. This problem happens primarily because added highway capacity attracts new car trips that would have not happened had the capacity not been added. As Walter Kulash says, widening roads [or in this case, adding a new highway] to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity problems.
Third, town centers need congestion to be healthy. I recall the old saying from Yogi Berra: “The place became so crowded that no one would go there anymore.” “Lots of cars” is not a problem for a town center — if car traffic is managed properly. Town centers need those customers arriving by car. What a town center needs is well-behaved cars. Tactics such as traffic calming, narrow streets, wide sidewalks, on-street parking, fee-based parking, good transit service, high residential density, and transportation choices all help deliver well-behaved cars.
When I see research concluding that road widenings or new highways do not determine the resulting development in the region, I assume the research is coming from people with vested interests, since it is blatantly obvious that transportation modifications such as road widening and new highways are, by far, the key driving force to land use development patterns and suburban sprawl. In other words, either the researcher has personal views or lifestyle that does not allow him or her to conclude that widenings drive land use, or has financial interests that dictate that this not be admitted.
In sum, I cannot think of a more wrong-headed, counterproductive way to use large amounts of public dollars than to widen roads or build new “beltway” highways.
We desperately need to escape the now discredited paradigm of “building our way out of congestion” before we ruin our cities even more.
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