There are Proven Alternatives to Expanding Roads

By: Timothy Hullihan

The City of Palm Beach Gardens recently expressed enthusiastic support a new 45-million dollar interchange at I-95 and Central Boulevard as a “traffic reliever.” Some residents have voiced concern for the impact on their existing neighborhoods nearby, but they appear, unfortunately, to be in the minority even though their concerns are well founded in research and project implementation.

Ironically, The City of Palm Beach Gardens once hosted a lecture by a legendary traffic engineer named Walter Kulash, who was among the first to abandon, and counter with research, the straight-line logic of people = cars = traffic lanes preferred by the road building industry (the “dark side” as he humorously referred to them). The year was 2001, and Florida Atlantic University, and Palm Beach County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization joined forces to create a one-day, professionally facilitated, workshop on regional planning, and Walter was the keynote speaker.

Walter, an entertaining speaker, humorously presented research that showed how “induced demand” is not considered in the simple calculus used to justify road projects. Building new roads, widening existing ones, and adding interchanges actually increase traffic instead of reducing it. People are smarter than the simple straight-line predictive analysis the road building industry prefers. They change their habits to use newly improved roads more frequently, and less efficiently.

Within a congested roadway system, people become more efficient with the planning and combining of errands. They time car trips to avoid peak congestion. They make plans to stay within walking distance of their homes. The straight-line traffic models ignore human potential, and, as Walter showed us, are consistently a source of surprise when newly improved roadways are just as congested as the old ones in a very short time. The new, wider roads induce demand, and soon the projections for relief from congestion are rendered invalid by the realities of human behavior.

The flip-side of induced demand also taps our enormous potential for adaptation, and has proven to produce one of the most positive aspects of wise regional planning practices that shift us away from cars-only roadway thinking, that was dominant during the second half of the 20th Century. The concept of removing freeways and narrowing roads has been implemented across the country since the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake, in 1989. Instead of repairing the elevated freeway, the city chose to tear it down completely and replace it with a street level boulevard. By embracing less efficient roadways, and the numerous positive human responses to them, San Francisco’s waterfront evolved. Neighborhoods reconnected, and became eminently more pedestrian-friendly, thus reducing the need for car-trips over time, and the gloom and doom projections of gridlock never happened. Most significant, property values along the new boulevard tripled in a few short years.

Similar projects in Portland, New York, and Milwaukee followed San Francisco’s lead over the next decade, and, like San Francisco, those cities were not beset by traffic congestion, and more livable pedestrian oriented neighborhoods bloomed once the poisonous cloud of a car-dominated transportation system was removed.

Last month (June 2016), the USDOT got on board, and conducted 3 weeklong charrettes in cities across the country, like Spokane, Washington, to design replacement plans for roads and freeways that have divided neighborhoods for decades. The response was powerful, and the potential to, one day, fully reverse our destructive acceptance of a car-centered world reached new heights.

In an article Mr. Kulash wrote for the City of Nashville as part of a study there, he noted that, “By far, the most interesting response to [traffic] congestion is change in the pattern of origins and destinations. The choice of home location is one of the most volatile in this respect.” Wider roads, and the induced demand that comes with them, also encourage households to relocate to new suburban developments and accept longer commutes. Similar to the adjustments humans make to avoid congestion, inefficient roadways make us more likely to stay put, and continue reinvesting in older urban neighborhoods, and continue enhancing their walkability. Since humans adapt their routines to avoid congestion, and reinvestment in older neighborhoods is essential to their sustainable future, Kulash asks, “Who then is victimized by road congestion that causes residents to stay in place?” In fact, older neighborhoods are often the unintended victims of roadway projects because they are more easily abandoned for the newly accessible suburb.

Mr. Kulash is known for many one-liners, but possibly best known for saying, “Widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” If we build smart communities that capture traffic, and support existing urban neighborhoods with alternatives to car transportation, belt loosening is not necessary. If we rethink poor planning of the past, and inject walking, biking, and transit systems, belt tightening might even be possible.

Perpetuating the antiquated straight-line logic of people = cars = traffic lanes, perpetuates one of the most destructive forces against community building, and environmental sustainability – THE CAR.

Better planning, thinking, and development are happening throughout the United States, and around the world. Why can’t intelligent regional planning happen at Central Boulevard and I-95?

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County

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