Sharing the Road

In 2006 Texas built what was then the largest highway in the world (the I-10 West). It is 26 lanes across and cost almost 2 billion dollars to build. Less than a decade later it is the 8th most congested freeway in the country. So we are left in a quandary — do we keep adding more and more lanes, and build more highways with our tax dollars?

Studies suggest this is not the solution to traffic congestion, on suburban highways or in urban areas. We continue with the mythical illusion that building more roads for cars and trucks will ease car and truck congestion, but this is simply not true.

Traffic studies actually show the opposite — building roads causes traffic. It pulls development further and further out from where we work, shop, worship and play. It causes us to be in our cars more often and longer.

In a study published in the American Economic Review, travel data was analyzed from hundreds of metro areas in the U.S., resulting in what is called the most comprehensive dataset ever assembled on the traffic impacts of road construction.

The studies confirm earlier data on what is called the “fundamental law of highway congestion.” According to authors Duranton and Turner, “This law may extend beyond interstate highways to a broad class of major urban roads, a ‘fundamental law of road congestion’. The results suggest that increased provision of interstate highways and urban roads is unlikely to relieve congestion of these roads,” (American Economic Review 2011).

The irony is that those regions with the largest highway capacity, have the worst traffic congestion. For example, Houston and LA are more congested than the larger, more densely populated New York City and people spend more time sitting in traffic.

So what is the solution? As our communities in the Rio Grande Valley grow at a fast pace, how can we address potential traffic issues? While road building for cars and trucks is big business for a few large companies, we need to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our limited resources.

Our leaders, local and beyond, must take note of models of economically vibrant communities around the country, and world, and acknowledge the growing trend of developing alternative forms of transportation.

In fact many cities are tearing down overbuilt highway infrastructure and reclaiming lanes on large roads to create human-serving, not car-serving, space, like hike and bike trails, pedestrian infrastructure, park and market space, and public transportation solutions like light rail that move folks in a way that eases, not increases congestion. And then there are the aesthetic, economic, quality of life, health, social cohesion and environmental arguments for increasing non-car, non-road infrastructure.

Cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and even smaller communities are recognizing that in order to attract and keep educated millennials (or in the case of the Valley, prevent them from leaving and not coming back), we must create shorter commutes, hike and bike infrastructure, more downtown amenities, green space and public transport. The transportation paradigm is rapidly changing and there is no reason the Valley should be left behind.

Our leaders are often lured by large state and federal funding contracts to build unnecessary highways and toll roads, in effect selling out our citizens and their quality of life. There are hundreds of reasons to plan and develop our growing communities more thoughtfully, and not do “what we have always done.” It is possible if we work together and look to proven models and strategies.

There is, after all, a huge cost to building and maintaining roads, parking and car infrastructure. This is primarily a land use and economic issue. We have simply lost our space and real estate to our obsession with accommodating cars and trucks. It’s not about taking away vehicles, rather it is about giving viable transportation options and choices to our citizens — a compelling reason to reclaim some of our current road and street space for pedestrian and human, not car use.

An average of 33 percent of space in most towns and cities in the Western United States is devoted to accommodating car traffic. That’s a lot of real estate wasted on vehicular right of ways, and we have overbuilt to create a massive capacity for cars on streets and highways. But the way to address traffic congestion is to reduce it through smart planning and re-designing communities to increase housing options close to existing amenities like stores, schools, churches, etc., and provide alternative forms of transportation to move people to and fro, like light rail, buses, safe routes for electric bikes, bicycles and walkers.

All of the greatest cities of the world have these options and give their people choices. We do not have these choices in most of Texas, especially not in the Rio Grande Valley.

Continuing to do more of the same, build our lives around cars and use much of our space, time and money accommodating them, doesn’t make economic sense and it undervalues the human beings who drive them.

Imagine if we could reclaim even just a small portion of the excess right of way real estate (ie: streets) in our towns and cities presently devoted to cars, and use it to create spaces and destinations that could boost our economy.

For instance, reclaiming just one lane of a four lane road can provide space for a parklike green median, sidewalks, a protected bike lane and a place for shops and restaurants to pull merchandise, tables and shade out onto the street for an experience many of us go on vacation to spend our money and enjoy.

After all, this is good business since we know that cyclists and pedestrians spend more money than do people whizzing by in cars, barely noticing there is a business or town at all.

So when leaders and politicians boast about building more roads, highways and bridges, remember, we all pay for these giant slabs of concrete.

We pay with our taxes, our health, our quality of life, our time in the car, our lost economic potential, our safety and our impact on the environment and future generations.

Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).