Does Destroying Highways Solve Urban Traffic Congestion?

Aerial view of collapsed sections of the Cypress viaduct of Interstate Highway 880 in Oakland, California in 1989. (H.G. Wilshire, U.S. Geological Survey)

Strange how the traditional laws of supply and demand go out the window when it comes to traffic. Studies over the last decade (like this one, this one, and this one; plus the book Suburban Nation) have pretty much dismantled the theory that more roads equal less traffic congestion. It turns out that the opposite is often true: building more and wider highways can increase traffic congestion. If only people like Robert Moses and Le Corbusier had known this before their grand urban plans left our cities clogged with traffic, and carved up by ugly, value-destroying highways.

As part of its series on urban transportation, the Mother Nature Network has this recent post, which includes a nice rundown of the evidence against highways as congestion relievers, plus a discussion of the latest idea taking hold in urban traffic management circles: destroy highways to reduce congestion.

A particularly dramatic case in point comes to us from traffic-clogged Seoul, Korea, where a few years ago a handful of “crazy” visionaries in the transport department somehow managed to sell a new mayor on the demolition of an elevated downtown highway. Fast-forward to today: the highway’s gone, a formerly paved-over river has been rehabilitated, the resulting green space is a source of urban pride, and — wait for it — motor vehicle travel times have actually improved in the neighborhood of the old highway.

The MNN piece reminds us that highway tear-downs have had similar results in New York City and San Francisco, but that it took natural disasters for those to happen: New York’s West Side Highway collapsed under the weight of a cement truck in 1973, and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway was removed after suffering damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

One final tidbit on the economic costs of traffic: according to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion costs us $87 billion a year in wasted fuel. And that’s not even counting all those hours lost (and road rage)!

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  1. Andrew says:

    Think you meant MNN, not MMN there.

    But an interesting piece!

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  2. MRB says:

    I’m a complete believer in “induced demand” – that is, more freeway capacity actually generates MORE congestion; by encouraging more people to use the highway now that it’s “not as congested”. Additionally, new highways also prime the pump for suburban home building, which creates new strain on the highway system.

    That being said, “in the neighborhood around the old highway” isn’t the place to look for increased congestion.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2
  3. David says:

    Summary of article:
    “If no one can get to a neighborhood there won’t be any traffic congestion in that neighborhood”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 5
  4. Dave says:

    So, neither your summary nor the article really provide an explanation for why there is no reduction in traffic if you remove capacity. It would be interesting to see what the economic costs in terms of a lack of employment, delivery, etc are when road capacity is reduced. If traffic “just finds a way” as the linked article suggests, then we should be seeing increased congestion in other areas.

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    • assumo says:

      That is true – the test cases were mega-cities that had existing transit and road infrastructure to absorb demand. The highways that were demolished were also intra-city highways, which would not be expected to supprot interregional traffic.

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  5. Clancy says:

    Nobody drives there anymore, there’s too much traffic.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2
  6. AaronS says:

    I call “bull malarkey,” at least in part…. You’ll note that the excerpt read, “…motor vehicle travel times have actually improved in the neighborhood of the old highway.” Well, OF COURSE they have improved in the neighborhood of the old highway–THERE’S NO MORE HIGHWAY!

    Over time, if there is road capacity, market forces will likely work to cause people to keep buying cars, moving to the area, the local gov’t to continue to allow more people to live there, etc. BUT when you take away the roads, several things ripple throughout the system. The “market forces” get to work on making people prefer public transportation, living elsewhere, making the elected officials try to curry favor by not allowing businesses or what-have-you that increases the ire of their constituents.

    From my own (I think, thoughtful) observations of roads and traffic, it is seldom a case of not enough road(s), but of poor planning/design…and poor driving. For instance, you would think that an eight-lane interstate highway would never get clogged. But when a slow driver gets in the wrong lane, or someone doesn’t think ahead, then has to stop traffic so they can get into the right exit lane, or exits back up because the red light at the bottom is poorly timed, etc., you start thinking, “Hey, we need another road.”

    I could HAPPILY drive across country on a two-lane road…if everyone did the speed limit…if speed limits made sense (none of this from 60mph to 35mph in the middle of nowhere just to give out speeding tickets)…if the red lights in small towns allowed you to get on through the town without long delays, etc. In fact, I purposely use such roads many times to avoid the interstate–better to enjoy scenery and calm than then dodging, ducking, high-speeds of the interstate sometimes.

    Too much road causes gov’ts use it to sell their towns/cities to business (“Relocate here–we have great roads with lots of capacity to support your business), which brings in more people, which does X…Y…Z…until people hate the place.

    With good design and absolute zero tolerance of poor drivers, rubbernecking, etc., a city could probably get by on far fewer roads than they have (after making the necessary design changes). But, indeed, at some point, even if you DID have perfect design, it cannot handle infinite growth. That’s when you DON’T BUILD ANY MORE ROADS!!!–which eventually causes equilibrium…usually at the hands of mass transit, I imagine.

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    • Dave says:

      So basically, you are saying that if we could stop “bad” human behavior (drivers driving slower than you like, making mistakes and being in the wrong lane, rubber-necking, etc), everything would work better?

      That’s great for ivory tower thinking, but it fails in Reality.

      So instead of trying to design the perfect system that works only when people don’t make mistakes, we need to focus on solutions that (a) help people make the “right” choices, and (b) recognize that people will screw up (and somehow we need to accommodate that).

      My personal pet peeve is poor traffic enforcement. Speed limits aren’t enforced for safety, they are enforced for revenue (so says my bias). If speed limits actually *meant* something — eg people actually respected them, that would be tremendous! As it is, I tend to go +10 over on most high-traffic roads (even intracity), since everyone else seems to do it, and my fear of being stopped for doing it is very low (not zero, but close).

      If there was a high risk of severe fines for doing +10, and the papers published daily or weekly reports of people getting stopped and paying huge fines, you think I’d change my behavior? In a heart beat! Do you think we’d have less traffic congestion if more people went a consistent speed (aka AT the speed limit, instead of some at it and some +10 over and weaving in & out)? My theory says yes.

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  7. jd says:

    A splendid example of what passes for thinking among so called urban planners. If you tear it down, they will not come.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3
  8. Joel Upchurch says:

    My take is that the proponent of the scheme is saying everything is great but doesn’t supply any statistics. Everything is peachy and we shouldn’t get all analytical; this is, we should act like economists. I just want the the answer to one question, “where did the cars go?”. Did people switch to public transportation? Did they move or change jobs so they didn’t have they commute that way? Are they just taking a different route to work? Unless there is some evidence that commuting times actually decreased, then all I see is a park build at great expense on some really valuable real estate.

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