Increased traffic projections are the tail wagging the dog of DOTs

I took a few minutes to respond to two of the questions posed in the ‘share your ideas’ section of the US DOT “Beyond Traffic” website. The Beyond Traffic report begins with a letter, proclaiming that the document is all about opening “a national dialogue about what our country really needs and why we need it.” It then proceeds with the type of fear-mongering that is typically reserved for organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the other members of the asphalt lobby.

But our lead has slipped away. We are behind. Way behind.

The quality of our roads, for example, is no longer rated No. 1.

We’re No. 16.

And it is not just that our infrastructure is showing its age—our country, in many ways, has outgrown it. If you drive a car, you now spend, on average, the equivalent of five vacation days every year sitting in traffic. If you drive a truck, highway congestion has made you an expert at navigating bumpy side roads—and you are not alone. Every year, trucks are losing $27 billion on wasted time and fuel.

In this report, we not only analyzed the condition and performance of our transportation system today, but forecasted how it will look and perform 30 years from now if we fail to develop a new game plan.

Beyond Traffic reveals that, if we don’t change, in 2045, the transportation system that powered our rise as a nation will instead slow us down. Transit systems will be so backed up that riders will wonder not just when they will get to work, but if they will get there at all. At the airports, and on the highway, every day will be like Thanksgiving is today.

Interspersed throughout the report are reminders about the strain our highway system faces if we don’t do something (read: 2015-10-07 20_09_03-Draft_Beyond_Traffic_Framework.pdf - Adobe Acrobatmore money for more expansions), and prognosticating on the continued suburbanization of the United States. Far from an open dialogue, the rules of the game were set well in advance: You can talk about any transportation idea you want, as long as you talk about increasing the funds needed to keep doing more of the same.


The FHWA projection becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. We project a large increase in vehicle miles traveled, therefore we need more lane miles to stop the congestion. This is the same losing battle we’ve been fighting the past 50+ years to no avail.

We’ve confused cause and effect. The new lane miles we’re building are themselves responsible for the increases in the quantity of vehicles miles traveled. When a good is provided as a common resource and not priced properly, it leads to a tragedy of the commons. In this case, the commons we are talking about is not pasture land, but roadway capacity, and the overgrazing is the congestion we’re experiencing.

Here were my answers to the Beyond Traffic survey. I didn’t spend much time on it because it’s obvious where the report is headed: Another plea for more money to do more of the same.

Question 1:  Are there any additional trends that will impact our nation’s transportation system over the next 30 years?

 I don’t know, and neither do you. That’s why we need market mechanisms to work their magic and allocate scarce resources by using user fees like VMT and congestion fees to price roadways, rather than pursuing engineering solutions such as never ending road expansions.

Question 3: What other ideas do you believe should be considered in the final “Beyond Traffic” framework that will advance our nation’s transportation system over the next 30 years?

 Give a copy of Chuck Marohn’s “A World Class Transportation System” to every staff person, policymaker, and public official involved in this process. Read it and implement its ideas.

The series of essays:

Here is a different set of questions for the DOT to ask, questions that get to the deeper causes of our problems, rather than continuing to steer the Titanic towards the iceberg.

Questions to consider.

  • If more is better, why is all the money we’ve poured into new construction not generating the financial return necessary for system maintenance?
  • Why do our congested roads typically fill up to capacity within several years of adding additional lane miles?
  • Why does so much of what we build end up declining within a 20 – 25 year life cycle? Why is its property tax yield orders of magnitude lower than that of traditionally designed neighborhoods?
  • Is car dependent sprawl really the result of market forces, expressing our desire for an “Anyplace, USA”  monotonous landscape of the same big boxes, chains, and hypersized roadways everywhere?
  • Why is the conventional development that is being delivered opposed so vehemently by anyone who lives near it?
  • The end result of all our spending is completely predictable and plays out everywhere in the same way. The video below is a short clip of such a disposable place; I’m sure you have a similar looking place in your town, likely built within the past 50 years. It’s “a place not worth caring about”, as James Howard Kunstler would put it. Why are we throwing more money at a system that is producing such junk that doesn’t produce enough wealth to sustain itself?

Until DOT (and by extension all highway organizations) comes to grips with its failed strategy, we’ll continue chasing our tail, pursuing more new lane miles in order to ‘cure’ ourselves of the congestion we are in fact creating. Our highway slush fund doesn’t match user demand with a pricing signal to allocate scarce resources, but it does provide instant gratification in the form of increased tax base in the short term from auto-oriented development.  That growth comes with huge financial obligations that are not considered in the election cycle obsessed, ribbon cutting oriented growth model we have been following.

We need an entirely new model, not more of the same.

[For a more in depth analysis of transportation reform, read the book “Transportation in the Next American City” ebook by Chuck Marohn. Lots of great content over at Strong Towns on transportation funding reform and building financially strong places.]


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