State Admits Road Construction Is Often Just a Waste of Your Time

Your instincts are right.

Those maddening road-construction projects, many of which promise to add lanes and improve traffic flow in America's congestion capital, are just stealing time from your stressed-out life.

An Inrix study of traffic following the now $1.3 billion, freeway-closing expansion by Metro of the 405 through the Westside and Sepulveda Pass shows all that work resulted in traffic that's the same or even slightly worse than before construction began in 2009.

Caltrans, criticized in the past for failing to acknowledge it, recently admitted in a policy paper that "adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion for long because it actually increases vehicle miles traveled (VMT)."

Wait, what!?

All that time wasted? All that frustration? All that fuming as you crawled by hardhats working on lanes closed for Metro's construction? For nothing?

The Caltrans paper reviewed numerous studies on "induced travel," the idea that adding lanes and miles only adds new drivers to fill them, and concluded the research is fully legit.

The agency said that, in general, expanding a road's capacity by 10 percent leads to increased vehicle miles traveled by 3 to 6 percent initially and 10 percent in the long run. Do the math. Money is spent. Lanes are temporarily closed to facilitate construction. And we end up even.

Seeing the fresh lanes and longer roads, drivers tend to either take new long trips or more short ones, Caltrans says.

"Longer-term effects may also occur if households and businesses move to more distant locations or if development patterns become more dispersed in response to the capacity increase," the Caltrans paper says.

New lanes and miles will usually fill up to normal capacity in five to 10 years, the agency says.

OK, but this is good for "economic activity," right? New roads create new strip malls and new jobs at that new Ross, right? Wrong, says Caltrans.

"Most studies of the impact of capacity expansion on development in a metropolitan region find no net increase in employment or other economic activity," the agency says.

Sigh.

The folks at CityLab note that Caltrans is now under legislative mandates to start thinking about reducing vehicle miles traveled instead of just about expanding roads.

Pennsylvania provides one way forward. Under Gov. Ed Rendell, the state  "basically stopped building new highways and diverted resources to upkeep and non-car modes," Eric Sundquist of the State Smart Transportation Initiative told the publication.

Does this kind of change in thinking support the city of Los Angeles' own Mobility Plan 2035, which seeks to stop facilitating car traffic so much in favor of trains, buses and hundreds of miles of new bike lanes?

We believe it does.


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