The Illinois Toll Highway Authority recently decided to expand the Tri-State Tollway, at a cost of $4 billion, and soon will open the new Elgin-O’Hare toll road. At the same time, the Illinois Department of Transportation plans to widen Interstate 290 and Interstate 55.
No one likes to be stuck in traffic, and at first blush the solution to traffic congestion would appear to be what the state is doing — widening and extending roads.
The problem is that research and experience show that expanding roads in urban areas only makes traffic congestion as bad or worse in the long run by inducing more people to drive.
Economists call this “induced demand.” If you build it, they will come. Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to accommodate weight gain without also changing your diet. You feel relief at first, but it doesn’t last. Traffic congestion is not about too few roads, but about too many cars.
Just as important, highway expansion perpetuates the status quo of building the Chicago region around driving. This makes it that much harder for people who cannot physically drive or cannot afford a car to get to work, school and other destinations, not to mention the environmental impact, health problems associated with not moving our bodies, and injuries and fatalities from crashes.
If you ask people in low-income communities what they most need, the answer often is decent jobs. Recent Harvard University research found that good transportation to jobs is more important than even education for helping people escape poverty.
For decades we’ve seen how highways in cities physically isolate and undermine low-income neighborhoods. Less obvious, but every bit as important, is how the proposed highway expansions in the Chicago area will move jobs further from where low-income people live. This already is a problem, with five of the region’s six largest job centers located in suburbs that are difficult to reach by public transit.
So what can be done to reduce congestion and create equitable transportation?
First, stop wasting money on roads that don’t relieve congestion except in the short-run. Spend that money to make communities friendlier for walking, biking and public transit. Not driving at all is the best way to avoid roadway congestion.
Second, design communities to draw key destinations closer together, make streets friendly for walking and biking, expand transit service, and offer work-based programs to help people commute without a car.
Third, invest in education, housing and transportation in low-income communities, creating more local opportunities that can be reached by foot, bike and transit.
Today, the public is calling for communities that are friendlier to walking, biking and public transit, yet highway expansion undermines these goals and discriminates against people who can’t drive or afford a car.
Those of us who live in the Chicago region have a choice to make. We can continue to pretend that road-building will relieve congestion and is compatible with healthier and greener modes of travel, or we can own up to the truth and choose a path that actually relieves congestion and improves livability and economic opportunity.
Ron Burke is executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance.
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