Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Misconceptions of high-spreed roadways

On the front page of the Dallas Morning News today was the story of the President George Bush Turnpike extension from the current terminus in Garland to I-30 opening today. Sadly, it is behind the paywall so I can't quote it directly, but there are certain things mentioned, and in some case not mentioned that I want to discuss.

The fourth paragraph quotes Rowlett Mayor Todd Gottel, who loves the idea that the tollroad is opening in his city because every time a Best Buy or major retailer opens, it is in nearby cities, not his. True, but is that a bad thing for Rowlett? They actually have a vibrant and active downtown. I'll be interested to see how long it lasts. The reason will be evident in a moment.

The sixth paragraph quotes a potential user, who says it takes him 30 minutes to get to work, and figures it will be 15 when he can take the new roadway. A Rowlett resident is quoted as being for the new road because it should take time off her commute.

In describing the process, the author, Ray Leszcynski, described how the road has opened in segments, the first few linked Garland with I-35E.

Near the end, we see the reasons for the construction. A Garland City Councilman describes how the process began decades ago when the land was donated for the ROW in return for increased access to the property. A cafe operator expects a 15-20 percent increase in sales at the Firewheel Town Center location. The Rowlett resident mentioned earlier that she expects to spend more money in the area now that it is easier to access.

Now permit me to knit these disparate ideas together. Combining the first part with the last, I wonder if downtown Rowlett will stay active because this new roadway section is not generating any new wealth. This Best Buy that the mayor wants does not come into an area like this and all of a sudden generate new dollars. Perhaps it may for the city, but certainly not the region. The reason is that people will spend their disposable income one way or another. That expected 15-20 percent increase is going to come at the expense of somewhere else, which when combined altogether, will lose 15-20 percent. If it comes at the expense of local downtown merchants, that money has now left the region for the corporate headquarters.

This is the exact reason inner city neighborhoods suffer from a lack of retail. They had it at one point, until new freeways were built and wealth moved to the fringes. Now the suburbs are doing it to themselves.

Now to the commute section. I am not surprised at all the induced traffic principle is left out and not given a mention. In absence of my promised post on the issue, let me get into it a little here. As soon as the new roadway opens, there will be traffic. Some of that traffic, like the first commuter, will come from a different route. That, in theory, will lower congestion on existing corridors. But, it ignores human behavior.

On a personal level, we can all relate to this. At some point, almost everyone has not taken a trip or a route because it would be too full. Even when we get stuck in a jam, if you weren't one of the ones doing it, we have all seen people exiting and driving in the ditches to exit the freeway. The increased congestion has actually lowered the number of cars. So the space created by the commuter who left the existing route could quickly fill up by other cars who feel the trip can now be made at this time. And this is just the short term.

What happens when all that promised development happens? Tada, new car trips. Also, consider what happens when the closer in businesses close because they lost too many customers to the new places. Then longer trips are made by those customers, further adding to congestion. Now the nice thing is that some of this will be mitigated because this is a tolled highway, meaning it acts as a suppressant to congestion (introducing pricing and market forces usually does). But anyone who has traveled on the Dallas North Tollway above LBJ can attest it isn't the only factor that controls congestion.

Driving is not a simple supply and demand function, but more nuanced. The average person's threshold in traffic is stop and go. Too much below that, they do one of three things, take an alternate route, go at an alternate time, or avoid the roadway altogether.

I added the I-35 linkage comment to show the redundancy of our highway system, and to some degree our transportation, thinking. It said the new Bush section will link I-30 to I-35E, similar to how the previous Bush section linked Garland to I-35E. Is there already a freeway that does that? LBJ seems to fit that bill. But transportation planning shouldn't just be about linkages. In fact, I daresay that should be a low consideration because if you are truly doing transportation planning right, you should plan to take people from where they are to where they need/want to go, and by doing so, these links will take care of themselves. Building transportation infrastructure to link A&B does everything in between a disservice.

Finally, by burying the development section in the end, we finally get to the heart of the issue. This is not a transportation tool. This is not a commute tool. This is a development tool. Not one of the elected officials quoted, and my experience shows this to be true outside of the ten second sound bite, said anything about those issues. They mentioned economic growth. New freeways are about development first, second and third. And since they really only encourage a reshuffling of the regional economy, rather than a new creation into it, this is the real reason our auto-centric focus is failing us today. Research has shown that new freeways do not add to the economy like other transportation projects do, in large part because it is so built out. It is the economic principle of diminishing returns.

In essence, I thought this article really exposed the dynamics in society that exist when it comes to new roads. The local person saying this is going to save me lots of time, when it may in the very near term, but it will slowly creep back later. The elected official saying this will be great for our city to grow. The businessman saying this will increase our bottom line, and ignorance to induced traffic and actual economic growth. Though I'm sure that wasn't the intent, it sure painted that picture very clearly.

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