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Friday, January 22, 2010

The failure of asphalt only congestion solutions

First instinct may tell us that widening a congested highway will help reduce traffic congestion, but the reality is quite different. Highway widening projects not only create additional congestion during the construction work, but also increase the highways usage once work is complete thus contributing to the cycle of congestion.

Cincinnatians are soon to experience what may be the most tumultuous highway construction period ever. Interstate 75 will be reconstructed and widened roughly from the Norwood Lateral to the Ohio River including the Brent Spence Bridge and its approaches. This construction work will cost billions of dollars and create a decade-long nightmare for Cincinnatians with no other commuting options than their automobile.

Brent Spence Bridge approach photo by 5chw4r7z.

Unfortunately the "no pain, no gain" saying doesn't fit here, as the OKI Regional Council of Governments has previously studied and determined that the reconstruction effort will bring I-75 from a Class D level highway to a, wait for it, Class D level highway once it is complete.

There are two primary reasons for this: 1) the work being planned now will take more than a decade to complete and by that point traffic demands will increase and call for additional capacity not being anticipated now, and 2) the completed improvements will encourage additional drivers to take the heavily traveled corridor instead of taking what may be less direct side routes. The second factor is often experienced in its inverse when people take less direct routes to avoid what may be perceived as a more cumbersome route due to congestion or tolling for example.

In 1942 Robert Moses noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously. Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern California Association of Governments concluded that traffic-assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles' traffic problems. -Andres Duany in Suburban Nation

Cincinnatians should learn from Atlanta where they have mastered the art of expanding highways to unbelievable measures. The infamous "Connector" running through Midtown and Downtown Atlanta carries both I-75 and I-85 traffic and currently has 14 lanes of moving traffic which is being widened to include an intricate system of parallel roadways and ramps that bloat the stretch of highway to some 20 or so lanes.

The "Connector" through Midtown Atlanta as it approaches Downtown on a typical evening commute.

But even with the large vehicle capacity, through truck ban, HOV lanes, and parallel roads the highway is still a congested mess each rush hour and often throughout much of the day (including weekends). The problem in Atlanta is that their rail system, MARTA, does not run along either the I-75 or I-85 densely populated and traveled corridors.

When planning for the reconstruction of I-75 through Cincinnati, community leaders need to think beyond the asphalt and realize that additional transportation modes are what will ultimately reduce congestion along the I-75 corridor. Light rail right-of-way is reportedly being planned for in the redesigns and needs to be a serious priority of the effort. It would be short-sighted and misguided to attempt to ease congestion by only addressing one mode of transportation.


Bryon Martin said...

"Widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity." Walter Kulash

Randy Simes said...

That's a great quote Bryon.

CityKin said...

yes, we need a road diet.

N_O_R_T_O_N said...

Nice thoughts, Randy. But: Seems like even if the city (miraculously) decided to construct light rail in the I-75 corridor, it wouldn't be complete before the road widening project was finished. During the construction of a wider I-75 we would still be without alternative transportation options?

Randy Simes said...

The point is that we need to start thinking more comprehensively. If local/regional leaders are concerned about traffic congestion along the I-75 and I-71 corridors then we need to think about much more than an additional lane or two of traffic.

The I-75 project is basically set in stone at this point, but we need to be thinking about how our complimentary street grid, rail transit, and bicycling could help systematically reduce congestion along the corridor.

Unknown said...

Class D to Class D? There is something quite wrong with this.

5chw4r7z said...

I can't wait, instead of 2 ramps of two lanes each stuck outside my window there'll be how many?
Last Tuesday, Jan 19th there were accidents at the same time on the bridge shutting down traffic in both directions for over an hour. More lanes = more lanes of jammed up cars.

I wonder how mad they get as I hold up a beer, wave my cigar and laugh at them.

Venkman said...

All of the plans for the 75 reconstruction are available at these two sites: and

Aside from that, the firm UDA (Urban Design Associates, same firm that worked on the riverfront plan and Ft. Washington Way) is working with the city, and had a public presentation last week. They did urban design framework plans for the areas around the highways. They said at the public meeting that rail was vital to reducing congestion in Cincinnati. It's also good to know that while the highway is being widened (and needs to be) the city is thinking about the implications on the surrounding neighborhoods, and taking advantage of the situation.

Randy Simes said...

The work that UDA is doing is encouraging, and it's great to see the City looking to lessen the impact of the interstate on urban neighborhoods.

With that said, the work that UDA is doing is planning work much like what was done for the riverfront in the early 90's. The actual transportation planning is being done by ODOT and will ultimately reflect their approach to highway congestion. UDA is simply trying to plan for the neighborhoods around several key areas along the I-75 corridor through the City of Cincinnati.

DP said...

What UDA is doing is commendable, but can be considered "mitigation" at best. And as for them saying that rail was vital to reducing congestion, that's not going to move a lot of mountains ($) at ODOT.

Quimbob said...

"Class D to Class D? There is something quite wrong with this."
It's called consistency.

Tony B said...

St. Louis shut down I-64 for 3 or so years to improve a huge stretch but they also completed the second spur of their light rail system around the same time they shut it down.
I don't love their light rail (Atlanta's is horrible) but it gets you from the airport to downtown, to Cards games, Rams games, the Arch, and when I lost my car it got me across the river to Illinois where I worked.
Cincinnati needs something from the airport to downtown, up 71/74/75 would be great too. And to tie it all together a line that goes from the airport or downtown to lawrenceburg and also to Eastgate.
Connect the stops to the streetcar lines (and not all of the streetcar lines need to connect) existing bus lines and park and ride lots. Oh also the high speed rail lines.
I know it's a lot of money, but if you make it a transportation web and not just spurs the city can grow without adding congestion.

Sorry, I didn't mean to go on so much.

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