Everyone in Norfolk shares the experience of being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to get over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, cursing the traffic engineers who didn’t build the road wide enough. Now, people are getting their wish – the HRBT is getting bigger and better, according to VDOT.
But what if I told you that the massive, $3.8 billion expansion of the HRBT will make traffic worse? But wait, If the expansion doubles the lanes in each direction, shouldn’t that mean that twice as many cars can travel on the highway? Nope, sorry! “People think of traffic like a liquid, and if you widen the pipe, it won’t clog anymore,” says Amy. E Lee of the University of California at Davis. Unfortunately, human beings don’t tend to behave like a liquid in a pipe, “human beings are dynamic and responsive to change in the perceived ease with which they can get places.”
Suppose people think that the expanded HRBT will be easier to travel once constructed. In that case, more people will choose that route at peak times, demonstrating the concept of induced demand, essentially meaning that, by increasing roadway capacity, more people are encouraged to drive, which increases congestion. This concept of induced demand isn’t new; experts have been ringing alarm bells as far back as the 1920s. An engineer named Arthur S. Tuttle warned that the new urban roads “would be filled immediately by traffic which is now repressed because of congestion.” It turns out he was right! Just look at cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and New York – these places have some of the largest highways (26 lanes in Houston!) and some of the country’s worst traffic. Weird how that works.
So, if people have rightly been theorizing that highway expansion leads to more congestion, why are we doing it? The simple answer would be “Capitalism.” A more thoughtful response would be that we live within a political and financial system that rewards new construction at all costs–despite decades of evidence that highway construction is not helpful to cities in various ways (traffic, public health, environmental quality, etc.). Politicians are afraid to reject road expansion projects, so they get an easy win with some of their constituents. State Departments of Transportation wants to increase vehicle miles traveled on highways because the gas tax funds them. Even places around the country experiencing population decline are getting new highways, which exacerbates suburban sprawl and other unsustainable development patterns.
What should we do instead?
There are many options available to us rather than endlessly expanding highways, and most of them are very simple. From a big-picture level, cities should vastly expand transit services and promote denser development patterns that reduce the need to drive. One of the more effective ways to reduce traffic congestion has been congestion pricing. Congestion pricing uses market forces to discourage driving at peak hours driving on specific lanes or roadways by charging more to traverse them and is designed to make alternative forms of transportation (transit, bike, rideshare, etc.) more appealing.
Lastly, VDOT should repair existing infrastructure before building new roads and bridges, and Federal and State transportation should focus on a “fix-it-first” approach.
The famous urban planner and historian Lewis Mumford gave the best advice to those in charge: “These schemes give not the faintest thought to the immediate results (piling more vehicles into an already swamped city). This will not benefit those who look only five years ahead.” He concluded the article with a one-word appeal: “Think!“
Hank Morrison moved to Norfolk in 2018 after completing his Master’s in Urban and Environmental Planning at UVA. He enjoys running on the ERT, Oregon Ducks football, and mid-century architecture. Hank lives in Ghent with his girlfriend and her blind dog, who is also named Paul.