Adding extra lanes to highways to relieve congestion makes traffic worse.
That bit of wisdom has been known for years, yet transportation authorities keep doing it anyway, said Edward Humes, author of “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.”
Hume, who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, was the keynote speaker at the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual transportation forum Thursday at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem.
“You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion,” Humes told the audience.
Los Angeles’ $1.3 billion project to widen Interstate 405, the busiest, most congested highway in the country, not only failed to ease traffic jams, it actually increased after the project was completed, he said.
Contrary to the “carmageddon” that was predicted, traffic and incidents of road rage and accidents improved when a 10-mile stretch of the 405, as it’s called, was closed for three days for road work.
Removing lanes improves traffic because people change their behavior, either by finding alternate routes, using other modes of transportation, carpooling or by staying home, he said.
Humes lamented the United States’ fall from once having the best transportation system in the world to No. 16. He said the country has not invested in major transportation projects since the Depression era and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, and it has not raised the federal excise gas tax since 1993.
“Fixing our traffic systems is going to fall on the shoulders of groups like this,” not from the federal or state government, he said.
In a panel discussion that followed his presentation, Humes said Americans want great roads but they don’t want to pay for them.
He recommended replacing the federal gas tax with a usage fee based on a driver’s mileage and establishing more road tolls.
But overall, he said, Americans need to change their behavior: drive less. While studies show most people use their cars for trips that are 3 miles or less, communities also need to make it easier for people to walk or take alternative transportation.
Driverless cars are “inevitable,” he said, but few transportation planners factor them, or ride sharing services, into their studies.
Hume noted the Lehigh Valley’s increasing traffic woes are starting to resemble what happened in Los Angeles. The Valley is experiencing continuous population growth and it has become the new so-called “inland empire,” – the major network of warehousing and distributions centers and developed transportation routes that are located here – driven by the growth of e-commerce.
“Every time you click ‘buy it now,’ ” Humes said, it puts a truck on the road.