Opinion: Address Larger Ills to Reduce Traffic Congestion
As originally published in The Virginian Pilot and Daily Press on January 6, 2023: https://www.pilotonline.com/opinion/columns/vp-ed-column-jordan-0106-20230105-bwbrikgu65ftrgwlthuld7zj3i-story.html
On balance, the $750 million lane widening of Interstate 64 through New Kent County is beneficial for the greater Richmond metro area. Make no mistake, it is a Band-Aid for addressing the systemic issues driving ever greater sprawl. This will continue for the foreseeable future if Richmond continues to keep doing the same things it has been doing.
In his Dec. 27 op-ed, Christian Schick lays out the case that the I-64 widening will cause more congestion problems between Richmond and Williamsburg. He cites research showing that recent investments in Virginia, Texas and elsewhere have led to car traffic growth outpacing local population growth. In Virginia Beach for example, widening led to a 120% growth in congestion despite only a 6% population increase.
To be sure, new roads and lane additions do increase the convenience and attractiveness of living outside the urban core. However, in most cities, the underlying cause of sprawl is the pressure it puts on middle- and lower-class families. Housing stock cannot keep up with the pace of demand, pushing up rents and homeowner prices accordingly. This leads to demographic inversions and gentrification in cities, and suburban and rural sprawl outside of cities.
On the flip side, ask yourself, if you have any money saved up and you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, city services lag behind, and the schools aren’t that great, what would you do? This helps explain why lower income residents are fleeing urban cores in major cities across the country.
According to the U.S. Census, Richmond has barely added 20,000 residents over the last decade, and only 43% of them live in homes that they own. Meanwhile, 150,000 residents have moved into the greater Richmond area and two-thirds of the residents own their homes.
Differences between supply and demand, particularly for under-served residents seeking safer neighborhoods and better schools is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Embracing enhanced access will at least keep people in the area, if not within the city limits.
The overall transportation design of the commonwealth also is driving lane expansion. If the interstate highway system were built today, there is no doubt that there would be an interstate connecting the largest (Northern Virginia) and second largest (Hampton Roads) MSAs in the state. This would take significant pressure off of the I-64 corridor. As it was designed back in the 1950s however, all roads lead through Richmond. This means there is no way to accommodate the current and future traffic burden at least over the next 20 years, except by figuring out ways to improve I-64.
A third lane will also help to support the region’s transition to autonomous vehicle solutions in the future. As Deloitte argues, automation and the digitization of personal transportation is going to lead to re-thinking of the entire architecture for vehicle transportation. Platooning, where autonomous cars or trucks in pods of 8-25 can couple and brake and accelerate simultaneously is just one of the concepts that traffic engineers and auto researchers are working on. If this is the case, the area would be well positioned for a third lane for autonomous solutions, a second lane for semi-autonomous, and a third lane for manual driving when these concepts scale up.
No policy decision is 100% beneficial to everybody but widening the lanes will deliver more benefits than drawbacks. It is symptomatic though, of much deeper developmental challenges facing the city, the region and the state. Richmond, in particular, needs to change its ways and overhaul its housing, education and safety policies if it wants to reduce regional sprawl and improve the quality of life of its residents. Until then, the region needs all the Band-Aids it can get to keep people moving.
Stephen Jordan is the CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Development, a think tank based in Alexandria.
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