Why do we keep widening highways? It only worsens traffic congestion.

Why do we keep widening highways? It only worsens traffic congestion.

The New York Times weighs in on one of my favorite topics — the insanity of building ever wider freeways at enormous cost when they only worsen traffic congestion.

Arkansas, and its ill-conceived billion-dollar 30 Crossing boondoggle, is a poster child for this.


The Times article reports that much of the jillions in new federal infrastructure dollars will pour into more senseless head-banging, though the Biden administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have tried to encourage alternative thinking.

The Biden administration has suggested that states should be more thoughtful in their solutions to congestion. Sometimes widening is necessary, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, but other options for addressing traffic, like fixing existing roads or providing transit options, should be considered. “Connecting people more efficiently and affordably to where they need to go,” he said, “is a lot more complicated than just always having more concrete and asphalt out there.”

Some jurisdictions have gotten the message.


A freeway expansion in Los Angeles was canceled. Los Angeles learned, as Central Arkansas will, that widening freeways just contributed to greater demand.

In 2015, a $1 billion project to widen a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 through Los Angeles was completed. For a period, “congestion was relieved,” said Tony Tavares, the director of Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation.

But that relief did not last. Rush hour traffic soon rebounded, he said.

When a congested road is widened, travel times go down — at first. But then people change their behaviors. After hearing a highway is less busy, commuters might switch from transit to driving or change the route they take to work. Some may even choose to move farther away.

“It’s a pretty basic economic principle that if you reduce the price of a good then people will consume more of it,” Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, said. “That’s essentially what we’re doing when we expand freeways.”

Studies prove the linkage between freeway widening and increased traffic. If facts mattered.


The article also examines New Jersey (air pollution from those vast freeways, anyone?) and Houston and the fabled Katy freeway, which is now 26 lanes wide. Please, nobody tell Mayor Frank Scott Jr. or the Arkansas Department of Transportation, who love to widen freeways to speed people to suburbs, about the Katy freeway. We’ll only have 10 or so lanes gutting downtown Little Rock when and if the 30 Crossing boondoggle is completed,  Houston is still building wider freeways, rejecting the induced demand theory. It is destroying poor neighborhoods in the process, just as Arkansas highway builders have done in Little Rock.

But I repeat myself.

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