Perpetual Paving = More Congestion
New thinking about consequences of roads
December 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
In all the years that Al Foster has lived in northern Michigan, every one who knows the 69-year-old dairy farmer describes him as tough, respected, and rational. Foster, the supervisor of rural Bear Creek Township, also is no stranger to a good political tussle.
Now those very same attributes of personality and policy acumen have led Foster to the civic fight of his life. Along with other farmers, local government officials and public interest leaders, Foster is battling to kill a $70 million highway bypass that the state Department of Transportation plans to build through his township, which lies near the coast of Lake Michigan just outside Petoskey. Going further, Foster and his colleagues have urged replacing the new road with a less expensive and less environmentally damaging alternative that uses existing roads.
It wasn’t very long ago that new highways were seen as a prime symbol of community progress, a harbinger of economic development, and a measure of political clout. No longer. In northern Michigan, local leaders like Foster have come to recognize that new highways are no blessing at all. They intensify traffic problems, waste a fortune in taxpayer dollars, and exact a heavy toll on neighborhoods and the environment.
The case against the Petoskey Bypass is an easy one for Foster and other critics to make. They say the new road would cut in half a thriving dairy farm and row crop economy that has existed in rural Bear Creek and Resort Townships for decades. It also would invite the assorted unidentified and ugly flying boxes — the fast food restaurants, windowless superstores, and 10-minute lube joints — that so often land alongside new highways.
But the best reason for opposing the bypass, Foster said, is that it is poorly designed and simply not needed. "This new road doesn’t make any sense," said Foster, whose grandparents arrived in the region in 1878. "If it was built it would be so far out of town that it would take people out of their way. We don’t need it."
In essence, Al Foster and other critics have set out to shatter transportation planning dogma in Michigan. They are intent on showing, right here in the state that invented mass production of the automobile, that the result of 60 years of highway construction has been to fling homes, businesses, schools, and communities ever farther into the countryside. New roads, say opponents, do not solve the traffic congestion that is so frequently used to justify their existence. Rather, more concrete appears now to be perpetuating it.
By no means is the debate in Petoskey unusual. Across northern Michigan, citizens in Traverse City, Alpena, and Cadillac are challenging more than $2 billion in new highway construction proposed by the state, by far the most aggressive and expensive highway expansion in Michigan since the 1960s.
State highway officials say the new roads are needed to improve local economies and reduce congestion. Critics counter that northern Michigan’s economy, with under 5 percent unemployment, is stronger than it’s ever been and that "congestion" is a relative term in a region where most counties can still count the number of traffic lights on one hand.
In other states, and in Washington, similar debates are unfolding. Is it time to dramatically alter a transportation policy devoted to moving cars by building more roads? Is it saner and less expensive to repair existing highways while encouraging other forms of transportation, and even new patterns of development, that coax people out of their cars?
Increasingly, communities are finding that as they develop workable alternatives, the best interim strategy is to stop new roads.
- In southwestern Indiana, farmers and small business owners are battling to halt construction of Interstate 69, between Indianapolis and Evansville. The road is justified by state transportation planners on the basis it would encourage economic development. But the state’s own studies conclude the $1 billion road would bring rural counties just 4 jobs per year, most of them low-paying service positions at the gas stations, fast food restaurants and motels that would be built at new highway interchanges.
- Hundreds of citizens in Lake County, Ill., have turned out at public meetings to oppose a new highway planned by the Illinois Tollway Authority that would ruin 1,090 acres of wetlands, cut through 1,200 acres of parks and open fields, and cause 400 homes to be demolished. Tollway authorities, who initially justified the expensive new road on the basis that it would relieve congestion, have since acknowledged it would have no effect on existing traffic problems.
- In the Cleveland metropolitan region, mayors from inner suburbs have joined with Cleveland officials to pressure the state to stop building new roads and start repairing old ones. They are doing so to end the not-so-hidden subsidy that new roads provide to lure businesses and families out of older communities and plunk them down in the newer suburbs on the fringe. They say the long-term vitality of the entire region is at stake.
Perhaps the most pivotal battle is now occurring outside Washington, D.C., where a plan to construct a new beltway beyond the famous one has caused an uproar. Its justification, say planners, lies in demographic trends. Federal figures show that 13 million of the 19 million new jobs born in the United States between 1980 and 1990 were in the suburbs, giving rise to a new concept of settlement that planners called "edge cities," and causing new commuting and traveling patterns. According to a study by the Eno Transportation Foundation, an independent consulting firm in Virginia, suburb to suburb commutes have quadrupled since 1960 and now account for 44 percent of the nation’s commuting.
The fast-growing suburban counties of northern Virginia and Maryland were among the places where edge cities first appeared. People who live there now are sitting in ever longer traffic lines, spend more of their time behind the wheel some days than they do with their children, and more often than not refer to what they see as a "mess."
Now transportation planners say they’ve come to the rescue with a lavish and disputed plan to build an outer beltway to reduce congestion. The battle has attracted the attention of the Clinton Administration and Congress at a time when lawmakers are debating the renewal of the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the nation’s transportation policy law.
Rep. Bud Shuster, a Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, cites the heavy traffic in the Virginia suburbs and elsewhere as evidence that the nations needs to spend even more than it does on roads. "During the past decade, our population has increased 9 percent, but our vehicle miles traveled increased nearly 40 percent," Rep. Shuster said in a signed editorial in September in USA Today.
Opponents, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat of Washington, insist that more new roads is counter-productive. "The sprawl and drive strategy is a no-win proposition," said Blumenauer in a letter to the Washington Post in September. "In 50 years of concerted road building, we haven’t yet paved our way out of congestion."
The Cost of New Roads
No question, the era of the Sunday drive is over. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of cars and light trucks increased from 72.7 million in 1960 to 193 million in 1995, a 265 percent increase. During the same period, the United States population grew by 44 percent.
Women working outside the home need cars. Working parents, weary of shuttling their kids, are declaring personal Independence Days and buy their teenagers cars. Families spend an average of $5,000 per vehicle per year, yet one in five own three or more vehicles, according to the Census Bureau. The sheer numbers of cars and light trucks have produced what federal and state transportation officials call "inundation" of the highways. Viewed solely from this perspective, it is easy to see why traffic planners are calling for more roads.
At the grass roots, though, the debate has taken on new dimensions. With bumper to bumper tie ups spreading to the suburbs and rural areas, the economic, environmental, and social costs of a car-dominated transportation system is causing a stir in American communities unlike anything seen previously.
Since 1985, the United States has spent nearly $1 trillion on transportation improvement, most of it on roads, and drivers report that congestion almost everywhere is worse than ever.
Meanwhile, cities are spreading out at a rate three to six times faster than population growth. The hollowing out of city centers has destroyed businesses, caused property values to plummet, marooned the inner city poor, weakened public school systems, drastically increased criminal violence, and contributed to the loss of community.
"For North America, the increasingly imbalanced relationship between the car and city is a crux issue — a problem that lurks unattended behind scores of others," said Alan Thein Durning, an author and executive director of the Northwest Environment Watch, an environmental research group in Seattle. "Painful as it is, we must face squarely the fact that unless North Americans can rearrange the furniture of their cities, neither cars nor cities nor North American societies in general will function terribly well."
Road building also exacts other heavy costs:
- In 1996, 41, 906 Americans were killed in traffic accidents — more than by guns and drugs combined. Traffic accidents are now the leading cause of death among teenagers. And the decision to raise speed limits several years ago is leading to more injuries and deaths in some states. In December, 1995, for instance, Texas increased speed limits to 70 miles hour on most state-maintained roads. In 1996, 3,741 people died on Texas highways, an 18 percent jump over the year before, and the highest increase in the nation. In Montana, fatalities jumped 30 percent in the first eight months of 1997.
- Americans make an average of 10 car trips daily from their home and drive a combined 2.2 trillion miles, more than twice the miles driven in 1970. Though engines are more efficient, there are so many more of them that fuel consumption has increased to 115 billion gallons annually, 40 billion gallons a year more than in 1970. During the first eight months of 1997, Americans consumed a record 336 million gallons a day, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
- The progress the nation has made to clear the water and air is now at risk of being reversed. Half of the air pollution in the United States is produced by cars and light trucks; in Los Angeles, it’s 70 percent. Polluted runoff from roads and pavement now accounts for half of all water contamination in the United States. Releases from vehicles to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide — which cause global warming — have increased to 280 million metric tons annually, 30 percent more than in 1980.
Making the Connection Between Transportation and Land Use
Clearly, a different approach is warranted.
In April, Maryland’s Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, signed legislation that will direct the state’s investment in roads solely to areas that have already been developed, and away from farms and forests.
St. Louis, Sacramento, Portland, and Atlanta have all invested in subway and light rail lines. A survey in 1990 by the Department of Transportation found that households in cities with good public transportation systems take 18 percent fewer car trips and travel 36 percent fewer miles.
Even the Clinton Administration has taken note. It formed an interagency group to study transportation and land use, with a particular emphasis on how to reduce federal incentives that encouraging sprawl. Last summer, the President and Vice President held a two-day conference in Lake Tahoe, California on sprawl and the environment that included discussions about the role new roads play in supporting ever more diverse and far-flung patterns of development.
Not since the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration produced a landmark report. "The Costs of Sprawl," has a White House taken such an interest in transportation policy and its effect on patterns of development.
"In the 1970s, the interest in sprawl and transportation did not lead to a sustained effort to tackle the issues because there were more immediate environmental problems to be addressed," said Harriet Tregoning, the director of Urban and Economic Development at the Environmental Protection Agency, and one of the Administration’s leading experts on the causes of sprawl. "In the 1990s, a lot of those problems — point-source air and water pollution in particular — have been addressed.
"What looms ahead of us now are environmental problems associated with the aggregate effects of individual decisions. How we commute to work. Where we live. What patterns of development predominate. All of those decisions contribute to water pollution, air pollution, and how much energy we use. They also contribute to urban disinvestment and more sprawl."
No region of the country has accomplished more in transportation planning than Portland, Oregon. Until the late 1980s, planning new freeways in Oregon was an internal agency affair. State engineers identified the highway corridor. Their bosses lobbied for money. Rights of way were purchased. "By the time ordinary people were actually allowed to make comments, it pretty much was a done deal," said Keith Bartholomew, staff attorney at 1000 Friends of Oregon.
In 1988, though, everything began to change. That year, Oregon Transportation Department planners proposed to build a 6-lane highway bypass through the wheat and berry fields of Washington County, west of Portland. Citizens flocked to public hearings to champion a fundamentally different transportation plan for the region.
The activists, who included farmers, business people, and home owners argued that one of the primary causes for the increasing traffic congestion in Washington County was how land was being used. As suburban sprawl continued to press outward, residents had no choice but to use their cars for even the simplest errands. The way to solve Washington County’s looming gridlock, the citizens reasoned, was to give people more options for how to live and how to get around.
Among the most prominent proponents of the alternative approach was 1000 Friends of Oregon, a respected land use advocacy group that was founded by former Governor Tom McCall, a Republican. Thousand Friends, as it’s known, realized that fast-growing Washington County could provide the model for the nation’s first 21st-century transportation and land use plan.
Experts from the around the country were invited to help with the plan — among them were Peter Calthorpe, a neo-traditional architect and planner from San Francisco, and ECONorthwest, a consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon.
The visionary program, directed by Batholomew, proposes a future for Washington County that looks very much like the past. Financed by foundations, the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, it is popularly known as LUTRAQ, which stands for "Land Use, Transportation and Air Quality."
The idea behind LUTRAQ was to establish well-designed, compact neighborhoods, with homes, stores, offices, schools, and recreation centers within walking distance of bus and rail transit stops.
A distinctive reason for the program’s success was the creation of computer models that identified flaws in the conventional reasoning for building new roads. The LUTRAQ researchers — including traffic engineers, architects and planners — were able to prove that traffic congestion is lessened by lowering demand, not by increasing road capacity. The LUTRAQ studies further showed that:
Building new neighborhoods around transit stops, reachable by a short walk, lowered traffic congestion by more than 10%.
Transit-oriented (as opposed to car-oriented) communities sharply reduced household expenses by enabling families to function well with one car, instead of requiring fleets of personal vehicles.
The project helped convince state and local officials to substitute a $1 billion taxpayer-financed highway — that also would have needed millions of dollars a year in maintenance — for hundreds of millions of dollars in privately-financed compact home and business development that is a net contributor of tax funds to municipal coffers.
Transit-oriented development allows twice as many children to safely walk or ride their bicycles to school.
The LUTRAQ planners also successfully made the case that just as railroad suburbs in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were popular at the turn of the century, a strong market exists today for modern transit developments. The team projected that during the next 20 years, about 75% of Washington County’s new jobs and 65% of the houses could be supported in such communities.
The computer models were so convincing that the Oregon Department of Transportation last year dropped its plan to build the freeway, and has publicly supported the alternative put forward by 1000 Friends.
The LUTRAQ team also made progress on helping the Portland region implement a new land use transportation concept to begin reversing trends in travel behavior. The Portland area’s regional government, known as Metro, has adopted a land use plan that calls for:
1. Enlarging a highly successful light rail network.
2. Enacting new zoning provisions that encourage homes to be built on smaller lots in new pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods that are within walking distance of rail and bus stations.
3. Investing in new parks, public facilities, and streets that have turned downtown Portland into a magnet for entertainment, new businesses, and jobs.
Early indications from city leaders and public interest groups are that the LUTRAQ approach is working. Buyers are snapping up new homes and shops close to transit stops at prices that are lower than in any other metropolitan region in the West.
LUTRAQ, said Mr. Bartholomew, has proved to be "a rallying point for people not satisfied that a high quality of life necessarily includes acres of parking lots and miles of congested roads."
The Petoskey Experience
There isn’t any mystery about the cause of Al Foster’s discomfort. It’s right there, just below the broad ridge his family has farmed for nearly 100 years. Every evening, like corn popping on a giant skillet, the lights switch on in the subdivisions creeping away from Petoskey. First one. Then another and another; a sudden wash of white light from new homes and cars and street lamps. Each month, it seems, they move farther out, an unyielding advance that hides the stars and threatens to obscure a way of life on the northern coast of Lake Michigan.
For some in the region’s farm community, Petoskey’s sprawl has meant fast-rising land prices and enormous riches when the time came to sell out. Foster never counted himself among those who saw speculative opportunity in growth. The land was a birthright and each conversion of a neighbor’s field for new homes left him feeling diminished. But he kept such thoughts mostly to himself.
Then several years ago Foster learned that the state Department of Transportation wanted to build a 9.5 mile, $70 million bypass through farm land. The proposed route would have carved a 300-foot wide swath through the township’s hay and corn fields. It also would have split up nearly a dozen other farms that make up the core of Bear Creek Township’s thriving dairy, vegetable, and row crop industry. "We don’t need that road. If they had asked us, that’s what we would have told them," said Foster. "But they never asked. They just said this is the way it’s going to be."
Foster and other farmers heavily influence the governing boards of Bear Creek and Resort townships. With the backing of the majority of residents, the townships opened their treasuries to hire lawyers, technical experts, and consultants. They brought forward evidence questioning whether Petoskey had a "traffic problem" in the first place. And they built a formidable coalition with the Petoskey City Council, environmental groups, the Michigan Farm Bureau Federation, and hundreds of residents to oppose the new road as a menace to the farm economy and the small town way of life.
"We’ve come a long way from the days when transportation was designed to get farmers out of the mud and allow goods to go to market," said Hank Dittmar, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national coalition based in Washington that is working to reform transportation policy. "Now road investment in rural areas is largely about land conversion, from farmland and recreational space to Wal-Marts and McDonalds.
"That is a process of disinvestment in small towns, and a process that creates a situation where farming is less and less viable. Farmers understand this. And at least part of the fight in Congress is directed at reversing this process."
The surprise in Petoskey, if there is one, is that the debate over transportation and land use didn’t happen sooner. This city of 6,000 is well-known for its tree-lined streets, Victorian architecture, and breath-taking views of the enamel blue waters of Lake Michigan. Just beyond the city boundary, green forested hills as round as a cat’s back overlook miles of prime farm land in Bear Creek and Resort Townships. Industrial and professional families of Chicago and Detroit have sought out the region as a summer playground for 100 years. The problems began when their heirs began to view Petoskey as a place worthy of full-time residence.
The population of Emmet County has now increased to some 28,000 people, 54 percent more than in 1980. During the summer, the population swells to more than 45,000 people. The vehicle population is growing even faster.
Most of the growth has been in the two townships on the city’s outskirts. And more is coming. Houses are popping up on the ridges to take advantage of views of the big lake. Wal-Mart has arrived. A $600 million development is being built along Lake Michigan that could soon add 6,000 more people. In 1996, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named Petoskey one of the most endangered places in the United States.
It is for these reasons, and several more, that Herb Carlson, a retired car dealer and Petoskey’s former mayor, steadfastly supported the construction of a bypass. It would relieve the congestion that he contends could harm the area’s quality of life, and is getting worse, particularly in summer. "We have one main highway, US 31, that goes through town and its carrying more traffic every year," Carlson said in an interview. "We’ve got a problem now with congestion. And we’re going to have a worse problem 30 years from now if we don’t do something. And that’s why we proposed the bypass."
When Carlson and a committee he chaired introduced the idea in the fall of 1987, it caused an immediate ruckus. The local chamber of commerce, the Emmet County Board of Commissioners, and many wealthy summer people in Petoskey supported the road because they believed it would reduce congestion near their cottages. But hundreds of residents, turning up en masse at public hearings, denounced the new road, saying it was unnecessary, a waste of money, and would accelerate sprawl.
"People understood right away what it meant, and opposition has been strong from the very beginning," said Debbie Rohe, a former Emmet County Commissioner.
Rohe and other critics said the bypass plan lacked imagination and foresight. One of the reasons traffic is getting worse, opponents say, is that Petoskey is repeating the mistakes of other regions. A balkanized development pattern has taken hold with pods for shopping, offices, housing, schools, recreation areas and industry springing up across the forested landscape. The only thing that connects one pod to the others are increasingly crowded roads. Moreover, the new housing pods feature cul-de-sacs for streets instead of the traditional square block grid that helps to move traffic. Each cul-de-sac empties its traffic onto a feeder route.
Viewed from the air, northern Michigan’s new subdivisions look biological, like frozen sperm cells surrounding around a central urban egg. Ending such free floating patterns of development, and drawing homes and businesses closer to Petoskey’s downtown, is the solution to the traffic "problems" that the state highway department and some residents perceive.
That is a discussion that has begun in earnest. In Petoskey, the proposed bypass has advanced the civic debate over farmland preservation and the rural quality of life by focusing on the links between road building and sprawl. The persistent response in the region slowed the transportation department’s planning work. By addressing the consequences to the landscape and communities instead of how to move cars, farm leaders found a way to rally their neighbors and safeguard a way of life. It is a lesson that other American communities would do well to learn, and to which lawmakers in Washington, and every state capital, ought to pay close attention.
Five Communities that Resolved their Traffic Problems Without More Roads
Beaufort, South Carolina — In the late 1980s, state transportation officials proposed spending $10 million to turn rural Highway 21 on Lady’s Island and St. Helena Island into a five-lane thruway.
Citizens by the hundreds opposed the plan. They compiled persuasive evidence that neither population growth nor traffic congestion justified the project. They also asserted that the road would encourage the construction of strip malls, and ruin a sensitive landscape of tidal creeks, farm fields, and African-American historic sites.
Last December, as a direct result of citizens’ efforts, the project was redrawn to eliminate widening on St. Helena, and in the rural regions of Lady’s Island.
The six-year struggle over the road also yielded other benefits. It helped to prompt changes in local views about transportation and land use. Beaufort County now is considering a new land use plan designed to preserve rural areas by confining investments in new roads, sewers, and water projects to regions that already have been developed.
Contact: Dana Beach, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, PO Box 1765, Charleston, SC 29402-9940; Tel. 803-723-8035.
Cathedral City, California — When old state Highway 111 was widened in the 1970s outside the city, it attracted rampant strip development, and most of the downtown shops closed. The city formed a 30-member task force, which hired Michael Freedman, a San Francisco-based planning specialist, to make the commercial area along the highway more appealing to pedestrians, and thereby improve business downtown.
Mr. Freedman’s plan, approved in June 1995, is turning the highway into a handsome tree-lined boulevard with through traffic in the center, parking along the sidewalks, and shops with benches out front lining the street. The "adaptable boulevard" plan, also is designed to accommodate other transit, like bus and rail.
Contact: Michael Freedman, 47 Kearney St., Suite 500, San Francisco, CA 94108; Tel. 415-291-9455.
Middleburg, Virginia — Middleburg lies along Route 50, which connects the suburbs of northern Virginia with Washington, DC. In 1995, when commuter traffic through Middleburg and two other towns
A coalition of citizens opposed the bypass, and hired a consultant who specialized in reducing congestion through "traffic calming." The coalition then sponsored a series of public workshops to design a community plan, which calls for constructing landscaped medians, raising intersections to slow traffic, and erecting gateways to clearly mark town borders.
With strong support from the mayor of Middleburg, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to put the bypass on hold until the alternative plan had been fully considered. In June of this year, the Loudon County Commission voted unanimously to support the plan.
Contact: Route 50 Corridor Coalition, PO Box 1555, Middleburg, VA 22117; Tel. 540-687-4055
Chicago, Illinois — The Illinois Department of Transportation and the state Toll Highway Authority have proposed several extensions of the existing tollway system into the northwestern and southwestern suburbs of Chicago. The new roads would form a second, more distant beltway to downtown.
A coalition of business, environmental, and civic groups is developing an alternative transportation study. It includes proposals for more rail capacity, the widening of existing roads, and building traditional transit-oriented neighborhoods near rail stops.
Contact: Environmental Law and Policy Center, 203 North LaSalle St., Suite 1390, Chicago, IL 60601; Tel. 312-759-3400
Prince Georges County, Maryland — US 301, east of Washington, DC, is a heavily congested route. In the mid-1980s, the Maryland Department of Transportation proposed building an Outer Beltway, a second ring beyond the existing Capital Beltway.
Public opposition to the project was immediate. The transportation department responded with a study of alternatives. Completed last summer, the study called for expanding US 301 by two lanes, and reserving options for future rail transit. Other recommendations included focusing new development in compact planned communities, increasing parking fees, and establishing tolls to discourage traffic. The Outer Beltway now is on hold.
Contact: Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 111 Annapolis St., Annapolis, MD 21401; Tel. 410-268-8833
(Keith Schneider is an environmental writer, columnist, national radio commentator, and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a non-profit economic and environmental policy research group based in Benzonia. Schneider’s work explores the mix of Federal and state policy, cultural trends, and political dynamics that have contributed to a costly pattern of development that has come to be known as suburban sprawl. His articles appear regularly in state and national publications, including the Detroit Free Press, Traverse Magazine, the New York Times and the Institute’s quarterly magazine, the Great Lakes Bulletin. Schneider also is heard on National Public Radio’s Living on Earth.)