Widening crowded highways: Bigger isn't better



Solving the ongoing traffic nightmare that has frustrated Southern California's commuters for decades is an issue that fascinates drivers across the country. But a recent New York Times investigation that examined congestion found that widening highways may not be the answer to improving traffic flow.

While the story focuses on a famously clogged freeway in Los Angeles — Interstate 710 between downtown L.A. and Long Beach — it also looks at traffic problems in New Jersey and Houston.

The conclusion is that, while adding lanes can ease congestion initially, that so-called remedy “can also encourage people to drive more. A few years after a highway is widened, research shows, traffic — and the greenhouse gas emissions that come along with it — often returns.”

Houston's Katy Freeway is a world-famous example of this — within five years of a massive expansion of up to 26 lanes of traffic, the congestion became worse than it was before.

Although enormous amounts of federal funds are earmarked over the next few years for expanding highways through the President Biden-supported infrastructure package, the Times found that some opponents think the money is better spent elsewhere. In a report last year by the Department of Transportation, the agency said it would seek to prioritize funding for safety of pedestrians, motorcylists and others outside of cars rather than paying for road widening — and based on the latest NHTSA data showing increased pedestrian and motorcyclist deaths, that sounds like a good plan.

After $60 million was spent on design and planning over two decades, the Route 710 expansion was canceled last May. The paper quoted James de la Loza, chief planning officer for Los Angeles County’s transportation agency, who said, “We don’t see widening as a strategy for L.A.”

The Times story, titled "Widening Highways Doesn't Fix Traffic," also looks at emissions issues, air quality problems and public transit alternatives. In a section of the Times story assessing a $10.7 billion project planned to widen part of the New Jersey Turnpike, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, commissioner of New Jersey’s transportation department, says she is in favor of the plan.

“Congestion is not safe,” Ms. Gutierrez-Scaccetti says. “I don’t advocate widening roads just for the sake of widening.”

But historically, when commuters realize that traffic improves somewhere, they’ll alter their existing routes. Then the backups shift with the increased flow.

Certainly, there's always another option for those working remotely or with access to public transport: Drive less.

As Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop notes at the close of the Times piece — Jersey City has some of the worst air quality in the nation — “There are other types of mobility that people value instead of just cars.”