If you’ve driven on any major motorway in Miami in the past year, you’ve likely come across a slew of construction as orange-clad men work day and night to expand the roads. They toil away every day on projects aimed at alleviating traffic congestion and that have become the target of our frustration as the city becomes an endless construction zone.
Because of the seemingly never-ending roadway expansions that litter the streets,we have more lanes and miles of roads than ever before. But many drivers are wondering why their commutes are not getting faster. The traffic is maddening but surely it can’t be driving us, literally, crazy.
Rest assured, traffic isn’t driving you to the asylum. According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, Miami commuters who drive during peak travel periods spent on average 52 hours stuck in traffic, a number that has stayed roughly the same for nearly a decade.
The reason for road expansions seems obvious. Logic says that with the area’s population growth in past decades, there would be a need for road expansions to accommodate more cars in order to alleviate congestion.
That logic has prevailed in municipalities across the country, including our own, when looking for traffic solutions. Unfortunately, the popular theory that more roads equal less congestion is closer to urban myth than urban problem solving.
A few years ago, a Streetsblog headline proclaimed that building more roads to alleviate congestion was “an exercise in futility.” While that sounds like hyperbolic clickbait, the story cited a study published in the American Economic Review that boasted, “the most comprehensive data set ever assembled on the traffic impacts of road construction.” The findings? When a city builds more roads, more drivers will come and they will travel more miles, meaning congestion will continue to be a problem.
One of the most notable examples is the Big Dig, Boston’s massive underground road infrastructure project that famously took 30 years and $24.3 billion to complete. While the project did alleviate traffic downtown as intended, it created a chain of bottlenecks in suburban areas as more drivers began to take highways to access the Central Artery tunnels. This left some drivers worse off than before the project opened up.
While there’s no doubt some projects are absolutely necessary, such as the ongoing Alton Road construction, which has ripped up roads to install new storm drainage to prevent rampant flooding, many of these projects are likely not addressing traffic woes in a meaningful way.
The cost of these projects is not insignificant either. Among the most notable projects is the massive expansion of the Palmetto and Dolphin Expressway Interchange, whose construction will total nearly half a billion dollars when the project is finally completed. Perhaps this project will alleviate some traffic issues in this area, but those effects will only be temporary as more drivers use those newly expanded roads.
The greatest problem that these large road expansions creates is furthering our dependency on cars. The best way to alleviate traffic congestion is to take more cars off the roads. Expanding roads does the exact opposite, not only by increasing a roadway’s car capacity (which in turn promotes congestion) but also squandering resources that could be used for other projects that would more effectively reduce our use of cars.
What could that half a billion dollars buy? That figure would pay for the westward expansion of Tri-Rail to west Miami-Dade County, including the cost to purchase the CSX tracks, which have more than doubled the original estimated costs of the project.
Dedicating resources to public-transportation projects such as expanding Tri-Rail further west would likely have a more significant effect both short-term and long-term on traffic than any roadway expansion, but unfortunately the county and entities such as MDX continue to be bullish on spending on infrastructure that further deepens the area’s car dependency.
So the next time you’re stuck in endless traffic in construction zones dedicated to expanding roadways, instead of projecting your anger onto the men in hard hats, take out your frustrations with an angry phone call or email to the powers that be who are putting your dollars into projects that will likely guarantee more, not less, congestion on the roads.
Ricardo Mor is operations and programs coordinator for the Miami Center for Architecture & Design.