In fighting the waste of taxpayer dollars on the so-called “Western Bypass” of Charlottesville, I met a woman who favored the bypass because her family owns a beach house in Virginia Beach. As best as I could decipher her logic, she was willing to drive 15 miles out of her way to save approximately one minute to bypass congestion north of Charlottesville on her six-hour trip from the Appalachian foothills to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even if the bypass allowed her to drive 60 miles per hour for the entire 6.2 miles, and even if she caught every light along the existing U.S. 29, it will always take her more time to drive the bypass, which is literally taking her the opposite direction from her beach house.

There is no planning model to calculate this kind of “induced traffic” but every time the before- and after- reality of a newly constructed highway project has been researched, “induced traffic” has been found. We drive more times more places with less thought whenever government makes it seem easier or cheaper to drive, which, of course, creates more pollution, more fuel consumption, more global warming, more need to fight in the Middle East, more reason for oil companies to drill in the Arctic and, in the end, more congestion.

Every highway project has slightly different effects, but overall the data show that more lanes of highway induce more people to drive farther until not only is the new roadway oversubscribed but the roadways it was intended to relieve are again backed up. Donald Chen, in a 1998 Surface Transportation Policy Project titled, “If you Built it, They Will Come: Why We Can’t Build Ourselves Out of Congestion,” found that 90 percent of new urban roadways in America are overwhelmed within five years. And those roadways are never cheap. Indeed, an analysis of roadway construction across 70 urban areas over 15 years concluded:

Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. … On average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by [Texas Transportation Institute] just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year.

In the case of the Western “Bypass,” the Virginia Department of Transportation does not even claim that spending $240 million on a locally unwanted highway will make U.S. 29 status and easier to drive. Both before and after spending money the state does not have, VDOT reports U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville will have an “F” level of service.

Unfortunately for those of us who want our tax dollars spent wisely, as a nation and a people we’re invested in outdated, short-term thinking because no politician – or media – dares question the American love affair with the automobile. Because the vast majority of voters are also drivers, we keep denying reality and producing policy that digs us ever deeper into a vast hole.

Just days ago, the General Assembly passed a budget compromise that decreases the Commonwealth’s meager gasoline tax and charges everyone more money for milk, whether they drive or not, primarily in order to ease the cost of driving which will, every economist notes, lead to more driving.

It is not primarily population growth that creates congestion, it is new driving ,which grows at an annual rate of at least twice population, regardless of where the rate is measured. Since 1970, U.S. vehicle miles traveled have increased 121 percent — four times population growth.

Consider: “A 2000 study of 26 years of transportation data determined that one-third of all new road capacity in the Baltimore/Washington area has been used up by new travel that wouldn’t have occurred without highway expansion,” a 2002 report noted. “Between 64 percent and 94 percent of properties in nine Maryland highway corridors were developed after the completion of the highway — a clear demonstration of how highway construction can alter land-use patterns.”

In 2004, a study of the entire Mid-Atlantic region found “changes in lane-miles precede changes in travel” and a meta-analysis of dozens of studies found that, on average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate four percent increase in vehicle miles traveled which climbs to 10 percent – or the entire new capacity – in a few years.

Planners know about “induced traffic,” of course. Transportation thinkers have discussed this phenomena since at least UVA’s Center for Transportation Studies Mike Demetsky’s 1971 work, so projects like the so-called “Western Bypass of Charlottesville” were certainly schemed with knowledge of congestion reality.

Some 15 years ago the Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia said clearly that “it’s a futile exercise to attempt to build your way out of congestion problems by adding more highways.”

“Congestion increases as people move outward from urban centers, and additional lane miles of roads to accommodate the people lead to more development, and more people, and more congestion, and more lane miles,” the Virginia transportation commission reported before adding:
“And around it goes.”

Until we begin discussing the reality of our driving, we’ll never get off this multi-million-dollar Merry-Go-Round. Instead, we’ll continue to tax non-driving mothers for the audacity of putting milk in their children’s mouths.