…By Investing in Infrastructure that Serves Quality of Life, Needs, and Ecosystems

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Questioning whether to build or not to build begs something of us humans that we may not be capable of mustering the energy or frame of mind to address. Building new roads or “new anything,” as with most human construction activities, has always had some allure and fascination to us. This appeal may be tied to deep genetic coding in the very makeup of our species. Road construction proposals seem to take on their own lives, even when technical analyses and economic, regulatory, environmental, and cultural impacts suggest there are better and less costly alternatives that would improve mobility while eliminating myriad negative outcomes. Repairing and upgrading old roads doesn’t seem to have the sex appeal that building a new one does, as demonstrated by the thousands of road miles and bridges that still need hundreds of billions of dollars worth of repair, replacement, and upgrading in our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

But if we reflect upon and gain a systems perspective to guide future decisions, it is imperative that we think more broadly about our mobility needs and the available range of solutions! During this moment of circumspection, we should frame the assumptions and proposals for our future mobility needs with questions, such as those posed below, and evaluate these questions with objective performance criteria.

Is it possible to envision future roads and road improvements that:

  • stitch together a broken landscape and invest in the repair and restoration of impaired landscapes, ecosystems, neighborhoods, and communities?
  • are not based solely on expediency?
  • are more humane for people?
  • honor the uniqueness of a place and don’t all look the same everywhere?
  • turn hundreds of millions of our unproductive hours stuck in traffic into enjoyable, enlightening, enriching times?
  • cleanse and restore by fostering land conservation and ecosystem improvements?

Can we envision real needs, affirming those needs with technically accurate analyses, and not allow myths to continue to guide our decisions or designs? Should we continue to disregard or not truly weigh the following facts?


High-speed highways are killers!

    • Highway speeds greater than 60 mph account for over 90% of fatal accidents to our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, and community members. Cars and roads are designed for higher speeds, which are supported by automobile-industry marketing and advertising. Insurance costs rise in direct relation to the hazards created by high-speed roads.
    • Highway speeds greater than 60 mph kill or maim an estimated 20-30 million wild animals per year, including large and small mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, and amphibians. In addition, they kill an even larger number of butterflies, moths, and solitary bees that provide a free crop-pollination service estimated to be worth $200-400 billion annually. At speeds of 45 mph—compared to 60 mph or greater—road-kill rates and human fatalities are reduced by more than two-thirds, apparently reflecting the value of the additional seconds of reaction time for both drivers and wildlife. Many other practical and cost-effective strategies have demonstrated this kill rate can be even further reduced.

Higher highway speeds and larger roadways do not equate to a road being able to carry more vehicles, especially when it matters most, during rush hour. In addition, there are significant hidden environmental and economic costs created by increasing speeds and road sizes.

  • Four-lane roads with average speeds of 45 mph can at most times carry as many vehicles as roadways marked for speeds of 65 mph. The exception is during rush hour, when regardless of the posted speed limit, both roadways carry about the same number of vehicles.
  • Higher average road speeds require more paved areas to provide for wider turn radii, longer on- and off-ramps, and longer stopping distances.
  • Higher-speed roads and bigger roads generate more combustion-related contaminants, more polluted runoff, and more storm-water runoff from increased imperviousness. Because of the faster movement, increased aerosol dispersal of contaminants has been documented at distances of as much as a thousand feet.
  • Higher-speed roads generate more noise and larger zones of impairment bordering roads. The impacts to humans are well known. Standards exist for safety near homes and communities, but no standards exist for the well-documented wildlife impact: a precipitous decline in woodland and increasingly rare grassland-breeding bird nesting success within approximately 900 feet of these roadways.
  • Free flowing roads, designed to minimize stops and fast accelerations when a light turns green, have the lowest rates of combustion-related chemical contamination per mile.
  • Posted speeds and enforcement do not do as good a job at regulating speed as the design of a roadway does.  Effective design elements include purposely changing a driver’s view where the roads curve, narrow, or undulate; creating non-distracting terminal views; and changing conditions to keep drivers alert.

Designs that provide mobility options improve “systems optimization efficiency” compared to the addition of faster roads and more lanes! Embedded within the failing performance of many transportation networks may be the most important solution for our future investments.

  • Limited-access highways provide no options when their capacity limits are reached.  Remember all those hours of sitting in traffic while you could not reach the exit ramp a mile ahead? A limited-access model provides one option—sit and wait.
  • Multi-modal strategies improve overall mobility, allowing drivers to take advantage of secondary roads, or to park their cars at a bike trail and peddle to a destination.

Total costing is needed to assess needs, benefits, and costs—and to identify those who benefit from or are disadvantaged by roadways.

  • No roadway has been evaluated within a total costing analysis framework, and as such, many unanticipated consequences and deleterious impacts are not accounted for during the decision-making process. Decisions have been based on recycled, standard, formulaic analyses approaches. Each new roadway perpetuates the benefits mythology, which we know provides an incomplete and biased understanding of the value (benefits and impacts) of the road.
  • No roadways have been designed to fully compensate for the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts they create or to which they contribute.  Many communities have experienced very costly impacts, including flood damage, the contamination of potable drinking water, widespread tree mortality, and declining agricultural crop yields from road salt.


Moving Beyond Standard Highway-Design Thinking

Millions of acres of formerly productive ecosystems, farmland, and viable neighborhoods in America are now covered by the pavement of highways and secondary arterial roadways. Yet, in the same way that problematic flooding is increasing along our nation’s waterways, traffic levels and the numbers of drivers and cars are increasing on our roadways. Our primary solution—to build bigger, faster, and more roads—is too often accompanied by a blindly blissful sense of satisfaction.  That is until we rev up our cars and get out onto the road, only to become stuck in the same traffic problem we sought to solve. Oops!

We now possess powerful tools and knowledge to help us contemplate a different future for our transportation systems. We can link real needs and guide compatible land-use changes with achievable solutions, while alleviating many problems caused by standard highway-design thinking. Some new models for highway design, framed as “right sizing” and “multi-modal transportation designs,” have begun to reflect this more comprehensive perspective.

Illinois may become one of the leaders in modeling this kind of approach, as evidenced by the recent proposal to the governor and Illinois State Toll Highway Authority for an extension of Highway 53 and Route 120 in Lake County, Illinois. Developed and adopted by a blue-ribbon panel of experts, this plan proposes a downsizing from a normal six-lane Illinois toll highway (plus 4 additional paved, 12-foot-wide shoulders) to a four-lane roadway with reduced shoulders and a conceptual design that comprehensively addresses noise, contaminants, water, wildlife, and visual impacts. Additionally, the plan fosters connectivity and reinvestment in community revitalization, rather than the typical outcome of dividing or fragmenting communities through which such a roadway passes.

I for one applaud the rigor and robustness of the conversation and conceptual planning involved in this new way of contemplating our transportation systems. As we move forward in similar conversations—and if we commit to using the current monetary investment in existing and future transportation infrastructure to repair and restore many of the unanticipated impacts from our past decisions—the question before us will not be framed as “to build or not to build” a particular road. The question will be how we invest to improve our quality of life, which has little to do with the speed at which we move between points A and B on a highway.

Featured image credit: I-96 Accident Scene 1/21/2009 4:34 pm. By Ray Dumas courtesy of Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

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