Road Widening Myths that Impede Climate Action

The five myths set forth below came from an excellent article by Urbanist Executive Director Doug Trumm, published in Streetsblog USA on December 29, 2020. 

“If you’ve  pushed back against a highway project, on the basis that catering to single occupancy vehicles is driving carbon emissions………………you’ve probably heard a few of the following myths about road widening and how good it is for the climate and environment”.

Myth 1: Car idling is bad for the environment so wider roads with free-flowing traffic is good for the environment.
The federal Department of Energy estimates that 2 percent of auto emissions come from idling. This means that if all idling were eliminated by making the traffic free-flowing, it would take just a 2 percent increase in the traffic using the newly unjammed roadways to equal the idling emissions saved.

Read more here

Myth 2: Relieving congestion allows buses to travel faster — an investment in public transit which is good for the climate.
Faster and more reliable bus service would offer a more attractive alternative to driving than the current model which often features buses torturously bogged down in mixed-flow traffic congestion along with everyone else. But expanding the highways is not the way to achieve this objective. While widening or adding lanes may provide relief from congestion for a few weeks or months, because of “induced demand” these benefits soon disappear. The inconvenient truth is that we can’t widen our way out of congestion. Rather than widening roads, dedicated space could and should be set aside for buses. A fast, reliable and well used bus system is a surefire way of using roadway space more efficiently and reducing the per person production of greenhouse gases.

Myth 3: More people moving to the city means more motorists needing to get around.
The idea that a growing population automatically requires more highway space has been used in the Bay Area ever since the 1950’s to justify bigger and “better” highways and look where it’s gotten us. Until the pandemic hit, the Bay Area’s massive 8 and 10 lane freeways were more backed up than ever. A growing metropolitan population does not need more roadway, but it does need to be more space-efficient and leave a smaller environmental footprint by focusing on better public transportation, as well as more walking and biking.

Myth 4: Once all cars are electric, road widening won’t be a climate issue anymore.
If and when electric cars are ever put to use in sufficient numbers they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they will  neither reduce wear and tear on the roadways nor ease traffic congestion and backups. The opportunity and the challenge is to develop alternative modes of transportation that are safer, more reliable and more conserving of our public open spaces.

Myth 5: It’s a chicken/egg dilemma; we can’t give up the car while everything is so car dependent.
In low density and remote areas most travel will likely continue to be by automobile. However in built up metropolitan areas there are many opportunities to create effective non-automotive ways of getting around. It is up to everyone to demand that our local, regional and State politicians and transportation agencies accelerate the development of these non-automotive travel modes. It should be clear by now that the continuing acceptance of highway expansion is helping to crowd out the investments needed to facilitate better public transit, walking and biking.

Overseas examples show that many car-dependent cities have taken the leap and that once they did that amazing transformations occurred. This can be our path too, but we have to choose it. We can’t wait for our overly auto-dependent society to magically change itself.

For the entire Streetsblog article click: Five Road Widening Myths that are Delaying Climate Action

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