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How Long Can We Wait?

Bus, rapid transit, planning will solve traffic woes in west Michigan

May 24, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A colleague sent an email the other day excitedly announcing the release of “Easing the Burden,” a report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that analyzed the effectiveness of building roads to ease traffic congestion.

“The report contains some amazing statistics,” he exclaimed. “Like the fact that each year Detroiters burn 248 million gallons of gas while stuck in traffic. That’s some money up in smoke and then inhaled into their lungs.”

Indeed, with forecasts of gas prices climbing to $3 a gallon in the United States this summer traffic jams could get expensive, not to mention unhealthy. The American Lung Association recently awarded Kent, Ottawa, and Muskegon counties an air quality grade of “F,” the same marks given to southeast population hubs such as Oakland, Wayne, and Genesee counties. Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Transportation slowly surrounds Grand Rapids with a concrete jumble of roadways so that more vehicles will put more pollution into the air.

More roads, by the way, will ultimately exacerbate, not ease, the traffic burden. We know that. Just look at Detroit. Yet MDOT is intent on building in west Michigan the same costly, ineffective, and soon-to-be crumbling network of expansive freeways and skyscraping overpasses that continue to lead commuters in southeast Michigan into gridlock. As the roads of perpetual repair already run throughout west Michigan, perhaps it’s wise for the region to heed the costly lesson learned in Detroit — building more roads simply doesn’t solve traffic congestion.

This is a lesson state transportation authorities have yet to learn. The department of transportation has added road lanes in Detroit faster than the region has added residents to drive on them. The area’s population has increased by .5 percent, while miles of roadway in the area have increased by 6.5 percent. It didn’t help. The city is the nation’s third-worst congested metro region. The transportation agency proposes a $2 billion project to widen three of the region’s major freeways, and that won’t work either.

This near sighted response to traffic management is currently being promoted in metro Grand Rapids. The 20-mile long, $420 million South Beltline project around the city’s south side is under construction and set to open in 2005. And the 25-mile US 31 bypass around Holland and Grand Haven, a project with a price tag now pushing $1 billion, continues to receive serious consideration.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project finds in their report that constructing more roads is not the answer to traffic congestion. Of the metro areas surveyed, those that added the most road capacity experienced a 6.5 percent increase in rush hour congestion. But congestion in cities that added little or no road capacity increased just 7.2 percent. In other words, it didn’t make a difference whether cities built new highways or not. Moreover, travel delays are actually longer on average in those regions that built the most roads.

“It sounds bizarre,” my emailing associate explained, “but the report finds that adding new highways actually encourages more people to drive.”

While Michigan focuses narrowly on increasing road capacity, the STPP report finds other ways to manage traffic demand. Metropolitan areas with convenient bus and train service effectively provide commuters with a choice; an alternative that helps residents avoid congestion. In places with access to good public transit systems, like San Francisco and Washington D.C. for instance, tens of thousands of people take the train.

“The misery inflicted by traffic congestion is not the same everywhere,” said Barbara McCann, Quality of Life Campaign director at STPP. “The places where commuters suffer the most are the ones with the fewest transportation choices.”

For years, citizen groups in Detroit, the nation’s largest metropolitan area without rapid transit service, have called for improved transportation choices. Most recently, groups such as MOSES, a faith-based metro Detroit social justice organization, urged Michigan lawmakers to boost public transit funding by $10 million in the state’s new transportation budget. As bus agencies across Michigan share this funding, any increase would also help maintain and improve the Interurban Transit Partnership, Grand Rapids’ public transit provider.

Cities like Detroit can breakout out of gridlock by investing in rapid bus and train service. Growing cities such as Grand Rapids, which USA Today recently ranked as the sixth most sprawling metro region in the country, can avoid Detroit-sized transportation burdens. More importantly, Grand Rapids can avoid a Detroit-like appearance with honest efforts to plan and advance public transit initiatives. The question for leaders in west Michigan is ‘how long can we wait?’

Andrew Guy is an environmental journalist and organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published in the May 17-23 edition of
The Paper in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org.



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