It has been a week since the collapse of a bridge on Interstate 85 in Atlanta and in spite of breathless warnings that this was the mother of all traffic nightmares waiting to happen, things have been moving along pretty well in north Georgia. Just about everyone seems stunned by this, but they shouldn’t be. Urban planners have been telling us for years that if we really want to solve our congestion problem we need fewer, not more, roads.
It’s not just Atlanta, either. People in Minneapolis saw much the same thing when a bridge spanning the Mississippi River near downtown collapsed in 2007. After a short period of adjustment, traffic pretty much returned to normal. People found other ways to get where they were going. Some took transit. Others telecommuted. Thru traffic went around the city instead of through it. More than a few Minneapolitans bicycled across the adjacent Stone Arch Bridge to their downtown offices. The traffic nightmare that was forecasted never materialized.
In spite of the fact that Atlanta always has traffic, I suspected it wasn’t going to be all that dire. There are two ways to approach the problem of highway congestion. One is to add capacity. That way seldom works. The other is to change driver behavior and nothing changes driver behavior like a closed freeway. While it may be true that if you build it they will come, it is also true that if you close it they won’t. What is happening in Atlanta is that drivers are adjusting. This is the key because drivers will always adjust.
Here’s the problem with the knee-jerk reactionary approach of simply adding capacity. That sprawl on the edge of every metro was only made possible by new, wider roads. People live further from work and drive more miles because of new, wider roads. The sad truth is that none of this highway building is about getting you or I to where we’re going any faster. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh but I still think it’s valid. The primary reason we build new roads is to unlock the value of raw land so that it can be developed and the right people can profit. The reason it doesn’t work for the rest of us is because it was never intended to.
Once I figured this out, it was very easy for me to opt out and move into a community where I could ride my bike everywhere. I’m planning another move, but this time it will be to a place where it’s even easier to leave the car parked. This has assumed the look and feel of a holy mission. There’s absolutely no reason at all that we can’t become a nation of Copenhagens. It could happen if we decide to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.
So I hope that there are courageous people who are looking at Atlanta who will use it as a catalyst for real change. We need fewer new roads and a whole lot more active transportation infrastructure for walking and biking. Money going into roads is mostly misdirected. We could solve a lot of our fiscal woes by just thinking logically. We could look at Atlanta and the lack of traffic and go, hmmm.
I know there’s some of these people in Denver. They’ve proposed a plan that would save Colorado taxpayers a lot of money and clean the air by building a world class boulevard (including bicycle infrastructure) right into the heart of the city. They’d modify an existing freeway a few miles north and funnel all that through traffic away from the core. It’s a brilliant plan, so of course Colorado elected officials want nothing to do with it.
Things are slightly better in more-progressive-than-you-might-think Dallas where a proposal to remove a 1.7 mile stretch of elevated freeway that acts as a barrier between the Central Business District and the incredibly vibrant and eclectic Deep Ellum neighborhood is under serious consideration from all the right people including (believe it or not) TxDOT. Folks there want to replace the freeway with a multimodal boulevard that also includes space for cyclists and pedestrians. They’ve been talking about it for years and it still may actually happen. It’s a start.
Atlanta changes everything for anyone who cares to see things as they really are rather than how they think they’re supposed to be. Building highways will never solve the congestion problem. Replacing highways with bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure will. Robert Moses was wrong. Jane Jacobs was right. The future of cities is not elevated freeways. It’s surface streets with bicycles and people on foot. Those who figure it out the soonest will be the biggest winners.