Don’t Use Infrastructure Funding to Make Traffic Worse

By Rick Cole

One trillion federal dollars are about to be distributed among states to rebuild our aging and broken transportation systems. It’s a historic investment that can reimagine ways of getting around, but many states are lining up to spend their share doubling down on the wrong approach: massive highway expansions instead of repairs. With the Department of Transportation launching a new $6.4 billion program to reduce the climate impacts of infrastructure projects, it’s never been a more critical moment to think beyond cars. Beyond fixing the decrepit roads and bridges that are currently going begging, these funds would be best spent investing in mass transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian infrastructure that can support economic development, cut pollution, and improve public and environmental health. If we don’t, we run the risk of locking in more carbon emissions, air pollution and transportation inequities.

From top to bottom: The cities of Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Rochester, N.Y. before and after freeway removals. Credit: Congress for the New Urbanism

Across the country — in Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Nevada, and beyond — highway lobbyists say adding more lanes will relieve traffic congestion. Hogwash. Real-world evidence shows just the opposite. Highway expansions create induced demand, a familiar pattern where the more we make it easier to drive, the more people drive. In other words, if you build it, they will come. Highway expansions might temporarily alleviate congestion, but by incentivizing more people to take more and longer car trips, we spend billions to increase congestion.

The drawbacks of highway expansion go far beyond worsening traffic: more cars on the road means more people killed by cars (which are already a leading cause of death in the U.S.), dirtier air and increased carbon emissions when we face a climate emergency. Low-income and communities of color are especially vulnerable to these health risks. Highway expansions can also destroy neighborhoods, like one proposal in Texas which would cut right through Black and Latino neighborhoods. In fact, ruthless highway building has displaced a million Americans from their homes and businesses.

Our dependence on cars hits us all in the wallet. Beyond taxes, transportation expenses can take up nearly 30% of a household budget — often the second-biggest household expense after housing. Cars are also getting more expensive every year. The average price for new and used cars is now over $47,000 and $28,000, respectively. Nearly one in ten U.S. households don’t have access to a car (that rate is double for Black households). Yet having a car feels mandatory for Americans — further dividing us along lines of race and class.

An economist once noted: “Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.” There is a growing resistance to mindless highway building. Local campaigns across the country are fighting highway expansions and advocating for reconnecting communities divided by highways. The Freeway Fighters Network tracks over 70 local freeway fighting efforts across the country that call for centering people before highways. The emergence of new freeway fighting coalitions coupled with a historic infrastructure investment presents the perfect opportunity to rethink the status quo instead of perpetuating a broken system that will demand more trillions to maintain and repair in the future.

The good news is that much of the new infrastructure funding is flexible — states are not forced to use it on highways. Instead, it can be used to expand public transit service and make service more frequent, equitable, and accessible. We have a lot to gain from investing in public transit: it’s ten times safer per mile than riding in a car, more energy efficient and much less polluting, and helps support economic growth. The more people use it, the greater the benefits; the fewer people drive, the more lives saved.

These benefits could be even greater if public transit investments are paired with investments in bicycling infrastructure and more walkable urban areas. By creating alternative transportation options, Americans can kick their car dependence, save money, grow economies, improve air and community health, and take steps to address the long-standing inequities that have defined our transportation and infrastructure policies for generations.

The less we spend on highway expansion, the more communities can thrive. Right now we have a historic opportunity to improve transportation across the country by investing in community-friendly alternatives. Let’s make sure we get it right.

Rick Cole is the Executive Director of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a national non-profit championing people-centered places through a unique integration of design and social principles that legalize walkable urbanism, design for climate change, and diversify neighborhoods.



I Heart Climate Voices is a blog about the people and scientists who stand up for our climate. #StandUpforScience #ClimateJustice

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I ❤ Climate Voices

I Heart Climate Voices is a blog about the people and scientists who stand up for our climate. #StandUpforScience #ClimateJustice