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he issue of road expansion not easing congestion is a well studied topic. But despite decades of theoretical understanding and mounting evidence that it actually exacerbates traffic and associated pollution, new projects continue to be justified on these grounds all over the U.S. Since 1980, total lane-miles in urban and suburban areas, where 70% of traffic occurs, have doubled. As RMI noted in a recent article, “As U.S. leaders consider a dramatic infusion of public investment in infrastructure, now is the time to rethink how we develop our road infrastructure and our solutions to problems like congestion.”
Road expansion projects reportedly move us in the wrong direction, generating more traffic that increases climate pollution, worsens local air quality, and leads to more road crashes. Moreover, vulnerable and frontline communities are the ones who bear the disproportionate burden from these impacts, including health effects from hazardous air pollutants and pedestrian deaths.
An analysis of planned transportation projects in Colorado done by RMI highlighted the risk of continuing to move in the same direction with road expansion. In Colorado, a portfolio of planned and proposed expansions of interstates and other major roads would reportedly lead to hundreds of millions of additional annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on Colorado roads. This poses a hurdle to achieving the state’s goal of reducing VMT 10% by 2030, while spending potentially billions of dollars in the process.
RMI estimated that traffic will increase by a range of 2 to 8 million VMT per year for every new highway lane-mile added in Colorado’s urbanized areas. Additionally, each Colorado lane-mile added translates to about 400 more cars and SUVs on roads every year and generates annual carbon pollution equal to about 200,000 additional gallons of gasoline.
Past research has shown that the congestion reductions associated with road expansions are short-lived, generally fully evaporating after five to 10 years of use. The congestion benefits of road expansions ultimately reportedly cancel out because travel demand increases proportional to the new capacity. Drivers respond to the newly open road space by engaging in more frequent and longer trips. Transportation planning processes tend to underestimate this increase, meaning that decision makers systematically overstate the benefits of road expansions.
“Road expansion projects achieve only fleeting benefits at a time when decarbonization of transportation could not be more urgent,” wrote RMI. As we’ve reported before, in order for the U.S. to meet its climate goals people must drive less altogether. Despite meteoric drops in vehicle miles travelled because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, transportation-related emissions were still the country’s single biggest driver of climate change in 2020.
Per an analysis done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goal. Moreover, on RMI’s analysis, it calls for reducing passenger vehicle travel 20% per capita by 2030, in addition to ambitious adoption of electric vehicles, in order for the country to be on track toward a safe climate future.
But though electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future, it is not the sole remedy. In fact, in order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether — EVs included. In order to reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier, it’s crucial to enhance transit, biking, and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries, and other necessities. Unlike electrification, these strategies could be implemented without having to rely on the U.S. car buyer, the compliance of reluctant automakers, or the long timeframe required to overhaul the national fleet. Not to mention they’d also bring meaningful co-benefits, including saving people money on transportation, improving safety and public health, and reducing barriers to economic mobility to those who can’t afford to drive.