Before we begin, let’s get one thing clear: Freeway expansions do not alleviate traffic congestion. I have to make this as clear as possible—and I’ll cite plenty of data—but this is the crux of this commentary.
The side note to the crux is this: Just after plans were announced that OCTA and Caltrans would expand the 405 Freeway from Route 73 in Costa Mesa until it hits the wonderful bottleneck nightmare that is the 405/22/605 junction in Long Beach, Metro Los Angeles and Caltrans have decided they want to expand the 605 freeway from Rosecrans Avenue up until it hits the 10 Freeway near Baldwin Park.
While the plans were announced a while ago, time is ticking on the release of the EIR, expected by this fall, and Metro has been hosting an assortment of meetings to discuss aesthetics—hey, we’re gonna get decorative fencing over bridges!—and other unimportant things while altogether forgetting that they are expanding a freeway in 2019.
This comes after the disastrous expansion of the 405 at the Sepulveda Pass led by Metro and CalTrans in 2010: Taking six years and costing $1.6 billion, it has worsened traffic. Like freeway expansions do.
Now, let’s not get into the possible impacts the expansion of the freeway has south of Rosecrans—mainly Long Beach—because we already know what the city will do if impacts are determined when the EIR for the project is released later this year: When it was determined that the 405 expansion, the project which ends at the 405/605/22 juncture, would also impact our roads, Long Beach settled for $12 million from the project in a lawsuit. That’s right: The $1.9 billion expansion gave $12 million to a city who would be dealing with a hefty brunt of that project’s implications: more cars and more pollution and more traffic.
The 605 project, a $4 billion update to a freeway Metro says was “built for the needs of the 1960s,” is a major blow to livability, transit, and urban advocates who cite those pesky, academically-backed research papers which show time and time again that expanding freeways exacerbate traffic, congestion, and pollution.
Here are the proposed alternatives:
Firstly, there is a general misconception that traffic acts like a liquid: Give it more room to move and it will flow more freely. But traffic is like a gas: It will occupy any space you give it unless you condense it. And we can condense it through things like mass transit, be it buses, trains or more buses and trains.
Want direct proof? Texas poured some $2.8 billion into expanding the Katy Freeway—it spans 26 lanes at its widest point—which connects Downtown Houston to the outward suburbs about 30 miles west. Initially, the project was hailed as a success; however, data later led to precisely what was predicted when it was being built: If you give drivers more room, more people will drive. And now, traffic congestion is just as bad as it was pre-expansion.
Portland is also trying to pitch its $500 million Rose Quarter Freeway expansion as a good thing despite the fact that the evidence suggests entirely otherwise.
But how can that be? How can traffic get worse if capacity is increased? Well, induced demand is the culprit.
As with the Katy Freeway expansion, adding increasing capacity on arterials simultaneously creates new demand to use up the capacity. The result? Traffic congestion remains the same, if not worse. When you provide more of something—and, given we rarely offer tolls for our roads, provide it for free—people are more likely to use it.
In this sense, freeway expansions are exactly what Metro claims the current 605 freeway is: a design ideal of an archaic community.
In fact, according to research from the National Center for Sustainable Transportation that was supported by Caltrans, noted that “numerous studies have examined the effectiveness of this approach and consistently show that adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion for long because it actually increases vehicle miles traveled.”
Some of those studies, all of which are nonprofit, nonpartisan, academically-sound research?
But who cares about data, right? Go ahead. Let’s expand another freeway. Because every freeway expansion before this has worked out all our traffic problems, right, Metro?
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