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Road builders admit: ‘We can’t build our way out of congestion’Print

Thriving Communities | August 22, 2013 | By James Bruckbauer

One of nation’s largest road-building firms, HNTB, recently admitted something transportation advocates have argued for many years: “We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion.”

If anyone has an incentive to promote the benefits of new and wider roads, it’s these guys. But, they don’t. Instead they challenge our old assumptions that building more roads will ease traffic.

Here’s an excerpt from their latest newsletter (page 23):

“Conventional wisdom suggests that we simply need to build more capacity. Adding lanes, however, will never fully solve the congestion problem. When new general-purpose lanes are built, they immediately fill up. They may help compress rush hours slightly, but the congestion problem remains.”

The author also argues that, rather than build new roads, planners should focus on commuters traveling at peak times:

“Further, because most cities experience gridlock during rush hours, rather than all day, priced managed lanes address specific congestion problems without saddling the city with overbuilt infrastructure that gets limited use most of the day.”

The company argues for congestion pricing and price-managed lanes. Those are fees charged to motorists for roadway use, like a toll road.

Still, his point is clear: We can’t build our way out of congestion. In fact, every 10 percent increase in road space generates a 10 percent increase in traffic within several years.

So how do you ease traffic congestion in Traverse City?

Reduce commuter traffic: Since most of the region’s traffic is traveling into Traverse City (not around it) and mostly during rush hour, we can reduce congestion by making it easier for commuters to carpool, bus, bike and walk to work. (Our research suggests many Traverse City workers would bike or ride the bus to work if those options were available.)

Improve traffic flow on Division and Grandview Parkway: Make intersections more efficient for motorists and make the streets work better for cyclists and transit riders. Yes, you can accomplish both of these goals.

Improve traffic flow on S. Airport Road: Reduce the amount of driveways, make intersections more efficient, and add service drives and sidewalks with better transit connections.

Upgrade Keystone/Beitner: For the heavy trucks that need to travel around Traverse City, upgrade the existing connection from US-31/M-37 to 3 Mile Road.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at