Last month, we called out the American Highway User’s Alliance (AHUA) for trumpeting the Katy Freeway as a congestion-fighting success story. The Katy, as you will recall, is Houston’s 23-lane freeway, which was recently expanded at a cost of $2.8 billion.

Although the AHUA hailed that expansion in a report as the kind of project that cities could undertake to reduce traffic bottlenecks, after the freeway opened, congestion became even worse than before, according to traffic records compiled by Transtar. In just three years, peak hour travel times increased by more than 50 percent; a trip that had taken 42 minutes in 2011 took 64 minutes in 2014. We also pointed out that the images of the freeway produced by the Texas DOT and recycled by the US DOT, which portrayed the world’s widest freeway as a pedestrian-dominated greenspace, are a profoundly Orwellian greenwashing of auto-centric policies.

Let's take a walk!
Let’s take a walk!


Predictably, freeway apologists emerged. Houston blogger Tory Gattis maintains that the expansion of the Katy freeway was “not a mistake,” arguing that congestion just means that the government investment was being fully utilized. He added: “Just imagine how much worse it would be if we hadn’t widened to 23 lanes.”

That freeway moves way, way more people than it did before as well as offering the congestion tolled lanes which didn’t exist before. Bottom line: the government invested in a piece of infrastructure that has proven extremely popular and highly utilized—isn’t that what we want from government investments of tax dollars? [emphasis in original]

In short: not in this case. Why? Because, in a context where drivers are vastly undercharged for the costs of their automobile usage, drivers will tend to use their cars such that the total social costs of car use—most of which they don’t see—exceed the benefits. Building more freeways, and inducing more car demand, means digging further into that hole, exacerbating social problems like pollution, deaths and injuries from car crashes, and, yes, more total hours waiting in traffic.

And then there’s the counterfactual: what would have happened if Houston had not just not built the Katy Freeway, but perhaps had spent that same $3.2 billion on other investments, like better transit or denser housing? The evidence from cities that have torn out freeways is that reduced capacity reduces demand. And ultimately, transportation investments shape urban form, which in turn profoundly affects transportation demand. Houston has built a self-perpetuating auto-dependent growth model.

Gattis has constructed a kind of rhetorical perpetual motion machine for justifying highway construction. Step 1: Our highways are full and congested therefore we need to expand them. Step 2: The expansion generated more traffic, and the highways are full, therefore the expense was justified. Step 3: Repeat, infinitely.

A chief effect of the expansion of the Katy Freeway has been additional, sprawling low density development 30 miles east of Houston’s downtown—and trips from these suburbs have flooded the expanded Katy Freeway. With this kind of logic, it’s little surprise average commutes in Houston average commutes in Houston are 42 percent longer than in other large metro areas—ranking second only behind Atlanta, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

Credit: Brookings Institution
Credit: Brookings Institution


This Sisyphean philosophy of transportation planning was perfectly—if unwittingly—captured in a recent Washington Post headline, from its traffic columnist, “Dr. Gridlock”:

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Maybe it’s just that highway engineers have their own perverse spin on that mantra that “It’s about the journey, not the destination”—especially when it comes to building more roads. The inevitability of induced demand in urban settings means that trying to reduce congestion by widening highways means you’ll end up chasing your tail, forever. Which to some is a feature, not a bug—if you’re in the asphalt or concrete business, or are a highway engineer, that’s not a bad thing—it’s a guarantee of lifetime full employment. So little wonder that the asphalt socialists are really indifferent to whether multi-billion dollar highway projects have any effect on congestion at all.

But for the rest of us this worldview is costly, unsustainable and undermines livability. When we prioritize “getting there” over “being there” we sacrifice the quality of urban space. As our friends at Strong Towns have pointed out, optimizing urban streets for auto traffic eviscerates walkable neighborhoods and main streets. The sprawl and decentralization produced by freeways hollows out urban space—each addition highway through urban center was associated with an 18 percent decline in city population—plus it’s an increasingly bankrupting the public sector.