Welcome back to the The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter about local climate change stories from Taylor Kate Brown. This week we've got a enough transit info to pack an eight-lane highway.
How do we solve highway congestion long-term?
If you answered "widening highways," you're not alone. 64% of respondents in a recent survey of 600 Americans chose that answer.
It's also wrong.
Studies across the world observe highways filling back up after lanes are widened. The explanation? Induced demand, or the idea that new roads or additional free lanes means more people will use the highway than before.
In the short-term, you might see some congestion relief, but when word gets around, more drivers will want to get on the now clearer highway, leading to more congestion. Repeat forever until you've run out of space to build the highway.
But despite this pattern showing up over and over again in all kinds of places, U.S. states spend billions each year widening highways, a move that also has negative health and climate implications. Why?
This recent article from Governing (yes, it's a website for state and local bureaucrats, but hang with me here) argues its in part because widening highways is a politically popular, "quick-fix" idea, and because induced demand is not an intuitive concept to explain:
"I've talked to a lot of people in my life, friends and loved ones, about this topic,” says Thigpen [the author of the recent survey] "There's almost a resistance to acknowledge that it's a phenomenon that happens time and time again. It's attractive to think we can just build our way out of these problems. But, in fact, we can't."
Worries about policy makers ignoring induced demand is not an academic concern, especially as the U.S. begins spending the hundreds of billions in the recently passed infrastructure bill.
But if widening highways isn't the answer, what is?
The idea of alternatives to induced demand was on my mind while I listened to the excellent podcast, "Ghost Train," by Nate Minor at Colorado Public Radio about the successes and failures of the build out of Denver's mass transit system.
RTD built out its rail system in the aughts and early 2010s, but one of the promised projects hasn't come to fruition, even as a development sprung up around what should have been the train station.
Even if you don't live in or have never been to Denver, I highly recommend listening to it. It takes on what happens when a city votes decisively in favor of transit and then the many bumps along the way to make it a reality, as well as paths not taken for potentially faster ways to get people out of cars and into transit. If you don't have time for all four episodes, I'd recommend the third one.
Several weeks ago I wrote about two studies on real-world experience of building out bike infrastructure. I asked one of the authors, Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute, some additional questions about his report on the cities that received funding to support the building of more bike lanes — but not to the government itself.
The Final Mile cities had some differences in outcomes among the cities. What were the most notable reasons for the differences? Did you see any common issues crop up in multiple cities?
In terms of common issues, all of the cities faced some difficulty dealing with the pandemic — it delayed construction and made it more difficult to hold public meetings. But the cities were able to catch up thanks to the sense of needing to achieve the goals in the program.
Can you talk more about the explicitly political element of the Final Mile program? How does it compare to other philanthropic efforts to increase biking and bike infrastructure?
The program was explicitly focused on getting mayoral leadership on board as a top priority. I think that the program really differentiated itself by focusing on that as the key tool. The argument was that, if you can get the mayor on board, the rest will follow. And it seems like that strategy worked.
If you were going to study bike use in the Final Mile cities after these expansions in infrastructure - what questions would you want to answer and what would you be looking for as a positive sign for the long-term?
Ideally, we would have data on how many people were biking on key streets throughout the city. This would require good tracking technology to see who was using what streets, and this would tell us a lot about whether the investments have paid off. Unfortunately the cities we studied didn't have that data.
Fundamentally changing the way street infrastructure works in cities seems like a long-term project, does anything in this report indicate to you there's opportunities to speed certain parts of that up?
The progress made by the cities we studied really made clear that cities don't have to delay this kind of work. They can move full-steam ahead in promoting better bike infrastructure, and do it sooner rather than later. The excuse that public work takes a long time did not apply here.
The report also notes that equity indicators did not always match up with the increase in sheer numbers of miles - what are some of the missing ingredients in the Final Mile program that you think could help improve that?
Ideally, future programs of this sort would include explicit measures of increasing accessibility to people of color and families with low incomes.
What, if any, takeaways do you have for cities and towns that aren't as dense or have more suburban land-use patterns?
The lessons learned here can apply everywhere! I hope cities of all sorts can take this as a positive example.
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