“It hurts to lose the 405 even for a weekend not because freeways are so valuable or because we love them so much but because we’ve painted ourselves in a corner in terms of mobility. We have left ourselves no escape hatches or viable alternatives.”
— Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, on this weekend’s shutdown of the 405 Freeway
It’s called The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: “If you increase the number of highways in a city by 1 percent, it causes driving to also increase by 1 percent.”
In other words, members of Congress and state and city planners who believe that more highways or more traffic lanes on existing roads is the answer to congestion are only exacerbating the problem.
The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion comes from the title of a 2009 study at the University of Toronto by Matthew A. Turner and Gilles Duranton. The study was cited, and Turner was interviewed, in a July 9 National Public Radio report on plans in Greater Los Angeles to widen one of its major arteries, Interstate 405.
Construction crews for the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project will be demolishing part of the 50-year-old Mulholland Bridge in the Sepulveda Pass area of the 405 to build a new and wider bridge and add a northbound high-occupancy-vehicle lane.
Locals are preparing for what’s been dubbed “Carmageddon.”
The aim of the project, of course, is to ease traffic congestion. But Turner told Guy Raz, weekend host on NPR’s “All Things Considered” program, that the Interstate 405 improvements project will actually make traffic worse.
“What we found,” Turner said of the University of Toronto’s research of traffic in 228 U.S. cities, “was that in cities where there was more roads, there was more driving. In particular, if you had 1 percent more roads, you had 1 percent more driving in those cities.”
So if Americans had more transportation choices — commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, buses — they’d drive less? Right? Well, Turner’s answer was surprising, and an indication of the depth of this country’s love affair with the automobile.
“What we find,” he said, “is that as you increased a city’s stock of light rail or bus cars, that there’s no impact on the amount of driving.”
How, then, do we deal with traffic congestion?
“We have really a small number of possible policy responses to congestion,” he said. “One is capacity increases; one is transit increases. And the third is congestion pricing. And what we’ve shown is that the first two of those policy responses are unlikely to work, which leaves congestion pricing.”
Such cities as London, Singapore and Stockholm have adopted “congestion pricing,” which means that motorists are charged a toll to drive into the centers of the cities. Turner said that Stockholm, specifically, has seen a 50 percent reduction in travel time at peak times because of the tolls.
All of those cities have very good public transportation, which makes possible “congestion pricing” for cars. In Stockholm, many residents commute to work by bicycle. And London, under Mayor Boris Johnson, has been been aggressively increasing the number of bicycle lanes to sharply increase the number of bike commuters.
But many cities in car-centric America lack decent public transportation, and many Americans probably wouldn’t stomach having to pay to drive into city centers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York unveiled on April 22, 2007, a plan for the city’s long-term sustainability through 2030. The plan, PlaNYC 2030, included among its transportation initiatives a congestion fee for driving into or within Manhattan’s central business district. That part of the proposal, which had to be appoved by the State Assembly, ran into opposition and was never put to a vote.
So, in my lifetime at least, the future of transport in America is more roads, more cars, more congestion. As the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times observed, “we’ve painted ourselves in a corner in terms of mobility. We have left ourselves no escape hatches or viable alternatives.”