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More Roads Mean More Congestion: Fact or Myth?

One of the suggested fixes for the predicted upcoming economic troubles is infrastructure updating. Advocates say it is not the time for government to be concerned about deficits. Rather it is time to create employment by repairing, upgrading, and building new roads and bridges. (Does this sound like someone has been reading the history books about the Great Depression, FDR and the New Deal?).

These are hardly quick-fix projects. Massive amounts of equipment, materials and highly skilled labour have to be assembled, not to mention the all-important plan. If Lower Mainland experience is any guide, road construction planning has become one of the thorniest issues of modern existence. Think of the Gateway Project or the Sea-to-Sky Highway project. 
Everyone has an opinion. And today, it seems that everyone is an expert. So we hear increasingly the somewhat counter-intuitive idea that more roads mean more traffic and more congestion.
It is understandable why this notion has become, for some, an unassailable truth. In March 2006, a Vancouver Sun Newspaper article criticized Gateway as an “old-school, 1950s-style urban planning model plopped into 21st century Greater Vancouver.” The article cited examples of cities that “have failed” to solve their traffic congestion problems by trying “the Gateway” model. It described a “vicious cycle” of “sprawling suburbs that become harder and more expensive to service with… public transit.” This, “drives more people into their cars, which feeds into more roads, more cars, more gridlock and longer commutes.”
Last April, an SFU Professor and long-time Vancouver city councilor reportedly told a GVRD-sponsored meeting on transportation south of the Fraser River that, “the Gateway proposal, as it currently stands, will fail… The new capacity will only be quickly filled up, so instead of four lanes of trucks stuck in traffic you’ll have eight lanes of trucks stuck in traffic.” (There’s a cheery thought.)
When you experience sitting in traffic day in and day out, the notion that another lane or two will not make one bit of difference probably does not add up. More likely to ring true is a recent report by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, “Misconceptions And Exaggerations About Road Building In Great Britain. Myth #1: New Road Capacity Simply Fills Up With Traffic”.
The British report says: “New road capacity does NOT simply fill up with traffic. New road capacity will generally relieve congestion and reduce travel costs. This can result in more traffic entering the road from surrounding congested roads. There will also be some entirely new traffic, as a new balance of supply and demand is reached. There may be more traffic than before, but the new capacity does not simply ‘fill up’ as a new balance of supply and demand is reached. The new traffic enjoys benefits which must be set against any ‘disbenefits’ to existing traffic on the unimproved roads.”
The British report goes on to say that social and economic reasons and not the road network itself play a role in creating congestion, as do land use policies and road pricing regimes. To read about the ten other myths that are also addressed go to www.racfoundation.org.

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