If you live in Austin, chances are you drive a car to get most places you need to go. And chances are at least some of the time, you sit in traffic and get pretty frustrated about that. And chances are, you don’t necessarily want more of our city’s precious natural beauty to be paved over, but that’s just what we have to do to alleviate this traffic that’s grown so awful, right?
Not so fast. What if I told you the way to reduce your cookie consumption was to move the cookie jar from the cupboard to the kitchen counter? You’d call me bonkers, because you’d (rightly) expect yourself to eat more cookies if you saw them out in the open more often. That’s exactly what happens when we build more lanes and roads: We use them more, because they’re there (and because they are subsidized so much that we don’t see the actual cost of using them up front — more on that below).
When we use roads more, traffic — which just means the number of trips people are making in cars at the same time — increases, and the more we expand the road system, the more we become dependent on it. As a result, people have few real options but to drive, because our city is built around roads and parking lots — and their scale means the city is so spread out that walking is, by and large, impractical.
For a clear example of how little road building makes a difference on traffic in the long term, look no further than Houston’s Katy Freeway: After an expansion bringing the highway up to 26 total lanes — close to 500 feet wide — was completed in 2011, studies showed that only three years later, commute times on the freeway had gone up by about 30 percent in the mornings and 55 percent in the evenings.
The takeaway: we could pave over the entire earth, and we’d probably still have traffic — but nowhere worth driving to.
The reality is that thriving, economically productive cities are going to be congested, with cars and people, no matter what — so we in booming Austin shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can build our way out of the problem, because cars simply take up so much room. As the Dallas urban planner Patrick Kennedy has mused, Detroit successfully solved its traffic problem by going bankrupt.
Speaking of bankruptcy, car infrastructure is also mind-numbingly expensive: the Katy Freeway expansion chucked away $2.8 billion for essentially a negative return on investment. And for the cost of proposed expansions to I-35 through the Austin metro, projected to cost $8.1 billion of taxpayer dollars for a single corridor, we could fund an entire high-capacity transit network for the city that would give people more reliable alternatives to driving.
Roads are not free, even though you don’t pay directly to drive on them. In fact, they are heavily subsidized by your tax dollars. That’s another reason new roads and expanded lanes often fill up again: because the true cost of driving on them is hidden, and a “free” commodity is way more attractive than an expensive one.
Fortunately, there’s a more productive way to think about this problem. Instead of asking, “How do we move the most cars?” as we mostly have for the past 75 years, we can ask, “How do we move people most efficiently?” and “How do we create places where people really love to be?” If we look at the places people gravitate to, the answer becomes clear: build compactly, prioritize pedestrians and transit, and restrict automobile movement.
There are several examples in Austin: South Congress, the Second Street District, East Sixth Street, the University of Texas campus, Hyde Park — these are walkable, human-scaled areas, with good transit connections, and people love to live in, work in, and visit these places as a result.
Only when we start reframing the conversation about how our transportation system and building patterns interact will we start addressing the underlying problems feeding Austin’s traffic woes — and cultivate a happier, healthier, and more financially and ecologically sustainable city in the process.