Highway Expansion: The Easy Fix That Will Only Make Traffic Worse

To people sitting in rush hour traffic listening to Jack Lessenberry’s recent report about freeways, larger highways may seem like the answer to their road rage-induced prayers. However, multiple studies have shown that expanding roads may only create new headaches.

Michigan is no stranger to road congestion. It is a shared experience, almost a rite of passage, for southeastern Michiganders to sit in traffic that fluctuates between a complete stop and a slow crawl. Despite seeming like an easy solution to the current congestion problems, widening roads has been proven to contribute to increased traffic on already overcrowded roadways.

We all recognize that Michigan’s roads are in lousy shape, but to rebuild and invest in our current infrastructure does not have to mean expansion. In fact, by expanding a roadway to meet future demand, you may actually increase that future demand. Maryland made massive expansions to I-270 in the early 1990s—up to twelve lanes in some stretches. By 1999 the Washington Post reported that “traffic on some segments already has exceeded the levels projected for 2010.” Instead of increasing fluidity, the added lanes put more concrete on the ground and more drivers on the road.

Interstate 270

Interstate 270

And you don’t have to look hard to find other examples of well-intentioned road expansion gone wrong. Southern California just expanded their 405 freeway to include a 10-mile carpool lane, but instead of decreased travel time drivers now experience an extra minute stuck in traffic during rush hour. Drivers of the 405 are experiencing the Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Traffic volume increases in direct proportion to the increase in highway space and creates a never-ending cycle of future demand.

Highway construction has also proven detrimental to urban neighborhoods, including here in Michigan. In 1964, construction of I-375 displaced a thriving community of entrepreneurial African Americans in the Black Bottom district of Detroit. But this important neighborhood—an entertainment hotspot that drew the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington—and its local businesses were all but destroyed with the creation of I-375. Similarly, Old Chinatown residents were forced to leave the area to accommodate the construction of the Lodge Freeway (M-10) in 1959. The intrusion of highways into these residential areas took away profitable development within the city and instead catered to the more affluent population of the White Flight.

Detroit Chinatown Mural showing how two highways isolate the community

Detroit Chinatown Mural showing how two highways isolate the community

While commuters may clamor for added lanes, many planners promote tearing out freeways to encourage urban revival and build neighborhoods that better meet residents’ needs. Recent proposals to reconfigure I-375 aim to make Downtown Detroit and East Riverfront more pedestrian-friendly by connecting attractions like Eastern Market or Lafayette Park with downtown. “The State has to do major work in the area sometime soon, so this was the perfect time to step back and take a look at how this important gateway to downtown should be developed to serve a revitalized downtown and east riverfront,” Will Tamminga of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation told the Detroit Free Press.

Of course, while removing highways may lead to more vibrant communities, the question of how to address traffic congestion remains. If we choose to define transportation in the narrow sense of roads and cars, then widening might seem like a quick and easy solution to traffic congestion. But transportation can mean so much more. Public transportation encourages economic development in adjacent communities. In 2008, Michigan transit operations sustained 9,200 jobs and $1.3 billion in economic output—not to mention that about one-third of Michiganders are too young, too old, or physically or financially unable to drive. A sizeable portion of the population is in need of options for accessibility, and widening highways is not their answer.

Although increasing public transportation does not directly guarantee traffic reduction— more drivers will always flock to the freeways when some leave—its added benefits are more valuable than adding more lanes. Instead of accepting at face value the idea that we always need a new place for traffic, we should define new alternatives. Another widely proposed traffic-reduction alternative involves charging those who choose to use roads at rush hour, also known as congestion pricing. By charging drivers different prices for driving during different times of the day, the hope is that drivers will begin to drive during less popular times such as early afternoon or later at night.

There are many options for better traffic management on our congested highways. But to continue expansion in the hopes that we’ll arrive at work a little faster will only continue to delay us, and will keep Michigan lagging behind while other states and cities embrace new ways of thinking about transportation.

Written by Hannah Lensing, Trans4M Fall Intern and Elle Getschman, Trans4M Fall Fellow


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