A Half-Century of Data Says Widening Highways is Expensive, Wasteful, and Will Only Worsen the Problem it Purports to Solve

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) is considering a plan to widen I-265 (the Gene Snyder Freeway) from I-71 to Taylorsville Road and is asking the public to weigh in.

The cabinet has created a project overview page with info on the proposal, as well as a survey for interested parties to fill out. KYTC will be holding a public meeting on the project Tuesday, May 8, 5:30 to 7:00pm, at Ascension Lutheran Church on Shelbyville Road.

A project overview image provided by KYTC.

“Widening I-265 is the State’s top priority,” KYTC says in an online statement about the project that, if implemented, would add a single 12-foot lane in each direction over an 11.5 mile stretch of the interstate. “During 2017 KYTC implemented a statewide ranking system of highway projects based on needs: including traffic volumes, congestion, safety, economic benefit, and other factors. The widening of I-265 from four lanes to six lanes ranked as the highest priority project statewide.”

Simply put, this plan needs to be stopped. It’s fiscally short-sighted, environmentally negligent, and comes wrapped as a solution that will only perpetuate the problem it purports to solve.

Induced Demand: The Fundamental Rule of Traffic

Adding lanes has not been shown to alleviate traffic congestion. On the contrary, there is, in fact, a 1-to-1 ratio between lane miles built and miles traveled — meaning, any additional miles built will simply lead to more driving and more cars filling that extra space.

Admittedly, this concept is counterintuitive. But it’s called induced demand and it’s a well-understood economic principle that has repeated itself again and again on America’s roadways — from New York City during the Robert Moses era to more recent highway expansions in Los Angeles and Houston. The idea is that if you give a resource away for free — whether it’s cheeseburgers or highway lane miles — you are creating demand that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

After years spent widening the interstate 405 freeway in Los Angeles, travel times are slightly slower than before.

Any office worker who has a communal candy jar has felt the pull of induced demand. You probably wouldn’t have gone out of your way to eat that Snickers Mini, but it’s there so you do. That’s induced demand.

City planner Jeff Speck calls it “the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon.”

On its own, here’s nothing inherently good or evil about induced demand. The Big Four Bridge induced demand for bike and pedestrian access across the Ohio River — and I for one am not complaining.

But as it relates to public works project on this scale and with these potential consequences, then, yes, induced demand becomes concerning. The project in question will undoubtedly cost tens of millions of dollars, if implemented, and possibly run into nine figures.

The question then becomes, Is this how we want to spend our public money? On a project that will subsidize suburban sprawl, further our city’s auto-dependence, and degrade our environment? No doubt, it will have an economic impact on the region — but is it an effective use of funds that will generate the type of economic impact we as a city want?

(One expects that within Metro Government, the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Planning, and the office of Economic Development would have opinions on this matter. After all, Metro released its Move Louisville transportation plan in 2016, and a widening of Gene Snyder wasn’t on its list of the city’s top 16 transportation projects for the next 20 years. Yet, not two years later, KYTC is stating that this project is the top transportation priority for all of the state.)

When discussing the fiscal responsibility of a project like this, a practical type of person might argue that the economic benefit to the city and the state will make a project like this worth it — health, environmental, and aesthetic concerns be damned. People like to drive, and they like houses in the suburbs with their safe cul-de-sacs and soft, green lawns. Why deny someone a lifestyle they want based on a subjective value judgment, especially if it drives economic development?

The answer is: Because this type of development places a huge cost on society. It requires us to build new sewage systems, new schools, and new roads, while existing sewage systems, schools, and roads literally crumble. An honest analysis of this project would mean looking at exactly what this project means: it’s a $100 million bill to expand a roadway that already carries 90,000 cars per day…so that it will have enough excess capacity to incentivize more sprawl…so that one day it can carry 150,000 cars per day…which will lead to another nine figure bill to expand the roadway.

A recent New York Times editorial made the argument that “Cars Are Ruining Our Cities” based on projects just like this one.

The authors — one an expert on climate change, the other an executive for an alternative energy firm — wrote: “The problem, as experts realized starting in the 1930s, is that as soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity. The phenomenon is so well understood that it has a name: induced traffic demand. … The bottom line is that the decision to turn our public streets so completely over to the automobile, as sensible as it might have seemed decades ago, nearly wrecked the quality of life in our cities.”

Better Solutions, Better Roadways

There are smarter ways to move people and there are smarter ways to drive economic development.

The Times piece puts it this way: “Simply building more lanes is not the answer. .. The smart [governors and mayors] are shaking off their obeisance to the automobile and thinking about how to create city streets and transport systems that work for everyone.”

One way is to invest in streets designed for people, not cars. The East Market Street project, the “Dixie Do-Over”, and the plan for Bardstown Road are three examples of projects currently in the works with traffic calming, multi-modal redesigns. We need more projects that pivot our arterials in that direction. The Olmsted Parkways, New Cut Road, Broadway, and Frankfort Avenue, among others — all would benefit from people-friendly reworkings.

Ultimately, though, the smartest way to move people within a city is not to have to move them at all, but to create neighborhoods where people can live, work, and play.

Say what you will about the proposed “Soccer Stadium District” or the projects underway in East Broadway and Paristown — there are valid concerns around gentrification and neglect of the poor. But ultimately, these developments aim to create dense, mixed-use, and (hopefully) mixed-income areas where transportation costs are mitigated by the fact that people are traveling 1-2 miles on foot, bike, or transit, instead of 10-20 miles in two-ton single-occupancy automobiles.

These are the kind of economic development and transportation solutions we should get behind. Ones that are environmentally sustainable and fiscally responsible, while also promoting healthy living habits and building better public spaces that invite human interaction.

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