Death of the Suburbs
THE TROUBLE WITH ROADS
We are drowning in a sea of traffic. A recent article in The Washington Post confirmed what everyone suspected- D.C. Metro area traffic is the worst in the country. America is the most car dependent country on earth. The average American spends 67 hours annually sitting in traffic and it’s not likely to get any better in the future. By 2020 the average driver is expected to spend an additional seven hours per year stuck in traffic and one recent study estimates that by 2030, the cumulative economic cost of traffic congestion in the U.S. will be a staggering 2.8 trillion dollars. The inability to get around will inevitably affect the way we live and work, but the impact upon the homebuilding industry will be especially severe because traffic is the most common objection raised to new development.
As Jane Holtz Kay wrote in Asphalt Nation, “The Nation is in ‘lifelock’ to the automobile… It is in its grip so securely that we can barely perceive how the quality of mobility and the quality of life have diminished.”
There are several causes of the huge increase in traffic but one is our low density, spread out form of development. Paradoxically, low density development actually creates traffic - the more spread out we all are, the more we must drive to fulfill the basic functions of life. Not so long ago, kids simply went outside to play but now, they must be chauffeured to school, piano lessons, soccer, and everywhere else and this generates a lot of traffic.
The usual solution proposed to cure traffic congestion is to build more roads, but that is a failed strategy for two reasons. First, it’s simply too expensive. There isn’t enough money to maintain America’s existing aging roads and bridges, much less to build new ones. But second, roads built to cure congestion actually create it because new roads change behavior in ways not usually considered by traffic engineers.
Take for example Interstate 795, the Northwest Expressway. One of the first freeways conceived in Maryland, its planning dates back to at least 1947. The highway was originally designed to relieve congestion along Reisterstown Road, a main thoroughfare out of northwest Baltimore. After years of planning, the Expressway was finally constructed and fully opened in 1987. Initially, it reduced traffic on Reisterstown Road as expected but by reducing commuting times, it encouraged development in Owings Mills, Reisterstown, Westminster and even further out. Before long, Reisterstown Road was as congested as it was before I-795 was built. Today the road is overcrowded, used by up to 60,000 cars per day, and widening it is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Another paradox about roads is that roads designed to be “safe” aren’t.
The remainder of this article can be read on page 35 in BUILD Maryland magazine May/June 2015. Be sure to follow the Death of the Suburbs article series, coauthored by David S. Thaler, P.E., in BUILD's bimonthly magazine publications!