Freeway congestion: Billions have been spent on expanding freeway capacity just to increase traffic delays


Most people would think that if their freeway was congested every rush hour, adding an extra lane would reduce congestion. They would be wrong.

And an uprising against the Oregon state government’s plans to widen the I-5 freeway here in Portland could end up changing how cities across the country decide to use the hundreds of billions of dollars in highway funds from the law on investment and employment in infrastructure.

A recent study of 100 US cities found that between 1993 and 2017, billions were spent to increase the capacity of road networks by 42%, much faster than the population growth of cities. But instead of reducing congestion, traffic delays actually increased by 144%.

The key to understanding this phenomenon is what is called “induced demand”. Basically, it’s the idea that when you give something cool to a population, lots of people show up to use it.

Aaron Brown of described the demand induced in my program to me as being like when Ben & Jerry’s offers free ice cream and suddenly a quiet storefront area lined up around the block. When highways are enlarged, more people decide to use them, which produces even more congestion.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, along with the NRDC and four other environmental groups have even posted an extraordinarily detailed induced demand calculator online with databases for cities across the country.

Thirty percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles, and for the city of Portland (like many cities) it’s 40 percent.

Widening our freeways will only get more cars on the road and increase our production of greenhouse gases, which has become the basis of a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) by NoMoreFreeways and aligned groups.

Portland youth activists organized a Youth Against ODOT Instagram site, aligned with the Portland Sunrise movement, and there are now weekly protests at ODOT offices by local high school students and others.

And they have an impact. As Bloomberg News Noted:

“On Jan. 18, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded a key approval for the controversial freeway widening that has been a primary target of young protesters, the Rose Neighborhood Improvement Project along Portland’s Interstate 5. The FWHA has also asked the state to redo its environmental study.”

Environmental groups and activists concerned about the future livability of their cities are taking notice, and Colorado is also leading the way by now requiring environmental issues to be considered in all transportation infrastructure decisions.

Meanwhile, there’s a huge trend for cities around the world to take action to reduce their own car load: from London to Bogota to Beijing, traffic lanes are being replaced with cycle lanes, parts of downtowns -cities are for pedestrians only and tolls or fees are charged for entering or driving in the city.

Here in America, decisions are being made this spring on how to spend the hundreds of billions coming to the states in new highway legislation, and the auto, tire, and fossil fuel industries are large and well funded.

Since the Supreme Court legalized political corruption with Citizens United in 2010, these industries will be able to pour unlimited amounts of money down the throats of state-level politicians across the country.

And now that hedge funds and billionaire investors have bought or killed so many local American newspapers, this legal corruption (“lobbying” and “contributions”) would probably not even be reported in the local media.

Meanwhile, the industry of companies that make mass transit vehicles like buses, trams, and subway systems is relatively small, specialized, and doesn’t have an army of lobbyists or hundreds of millions for political bribes now legalized.

It’s going to be a hell of a fight, and our local voices could be the deciding factor in whether our dirty highways are widened or, conversely, if that money goes to bike lanes, public spaces and public transit. Now is the time to get active in your community.


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