Building Your Way Out of Traffic Congestion

... is like trying to lose weight by loosening your belt.

So says a commenter on a DM Register story about the southwest connector now under construction by the Des Moines Airport. This is a great comparison because (though transportation planners will rarely admit) we know that widening roads and adding lanes doesn't relieve congestion. Rather, it encourages additional development leading to more congestion.

The following photo was taken on I-80 just east of Waukee, where the interstate will soon be widened. At 3:30 in the afternoon, traffic was at a standstill.

Traffic Jam on I-80: Traffic stalled on Interstate 80 at 3:00 in the afternoon.Traffic Jam on I-80: Traffic stalled on Interstate 80 at 3:00 in the afternoon.

As I wrote before, Waukee's formerly substantial rate of growth has plummeted in recent years. Even so, it is a fabulous mistake for current Waukee residents to assume that their "crowded" commute to Des Moines will be eased by expanding the highway. Scores of millions of dollars later, what they will likely find is that additional population and higher individual vehicle miles traveled will erase any "gains" experienced soon after the expanded road opens.

It is time to stop shoveling money into the ever-expanding hole of freeway expansion and start redefining transportation planning priorities. For example, the regional Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization should step up and assume responsibility for promoting compact development through transit planning rather than preparing scenarios under which transit dollars are allocated based on projected trip and freight needs.

Transportation investment can guide development! It doesn't have to be reactionary. The downside is that when transportation investment is used as a planning tool, it is necessary to go beyond scenario planning and make value judgments about where it is appropriate to promote development.

As we look forward into 2020 and beyond, it is clear that continued expansion at the western fringe and beyond is neither sustainable nor desirable for a healthy region or a healthy world.

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