Why Expanding I-94 Won't Work: 3 Better Alternatives

Conisder this: If the backlog of emails in your inbox became so long that it clogged up your server, it's unlikely your employer would simply buy you a larger server in an attempt to manage the problem. It seems more likely that hiring an assistant and cutting back on the junk mail would be the smarter alternative, because we're not just talking about an investment in a server here; there's all those missed messages and productivity issues to think about as well. Especially if the new server was going to cost $2.7 billion.
That's exactly what a number of local transportation advocates feel is happening right now with the potential expansion of I-94 expansion between I-96 and Connor. MDOT proposes that adding extra lanes to the freeway will help ease traffic congestion, but the advocates say there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. 
"It is well established that these efforts to add lanes usually result in just attracting more cars to those freeways," says State Representative Jim Townsend. "The congestion benefits are usually very short lived."
Indeed, studies have shown that nearly every time a road is built or widened traffic volumes increase beyond what planners predict. It's such an established phenomenon, in fact, that it has a name. 
"It's called induced demand, and it's not a radical concept in transportation," says Hannah Kelley, transportation advocate and city planner for the City of Ferndale. "If you're at capacity, people change their trip patterns. If they know there are more lanes, they'll change again. They'll leave later than they used to, or instead of taking an urban arterial, they'll take up the new lane."
A 2011 study conducted by researchers Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner at the University Of Toronto (and published in the American Economic Review) supports this view, concluding that highway and road expansion increase traffic by increasing demand. 
To be fair, the study also indicated that mass transit doesn't cure congestion either. But it does play a vital role in maximizing the value of transportation networks.  Or as the researchers put it: "it's a good way to get more “person-miles” out of roads."
A questionable impact on congestion is only the first concern
"When we widen freeways, it makes it easy for development to move further out to the fringes of the metro space," says Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan Joe Grengs. "I worry about sprawl. Sprawl harms us all."
An apparent increase in the capacity of roadways leading out of the city impacts land values and development behavior, actually incentivizing development farther into the suburbs. And the objections continue: the plan could further bisect the region, pedestrian and bicycle traffic might be negatively impacted and historic properties would be destroyed in its wake, among others. 
What opponents of the plans say is that twenty-first century thinking is needed, rather than a plan suited for development philosophies from the 1960s. Though impatient drivers may have a difficult time imaging how anything other than more freeway could get them moving faster, sometimes traffic behavior is a surprising thing. 
When the bustling Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was damaged by a 1989 earthquake, says Kelley, the city assumed it had to be rebuilt. 
"Everyone thought they couldn't do without this section of freeway," she explains. "But it took them so long to get it get back together that people found different traffic patterns."
Could the solution to traffic congestion on I-94 be similarly surprising? We asked Townsend, Grengs and Kelley what they would do with $2.7 billion to improve transportation in Metro Detroit. Though they all agree that the repair and safety portions of the plan are necessary, they would happily recommend alternative investments for the rest. 
Comprehensive Regional Transit
Bus rapid transit and light rail: definitely one or the other, but maybe both. 
"We need a comprehensive solution," says Townsend. "Traffic congestion is one of the reasons people become interested in riding on rapid transit."
Currently, however, insufficiencies in public transit don't provide local travelers with that option. Hence, all the traffic. 
"I would put [the funds] into a parallel rapid transit route," Kelley says. "For the cost of widening this section or freeway we could probably have an amazing rapid bus system all the way to Ann Arbor."
Thinking comprehensively, rather than taking what Townsend calls a "cars only" approach would allow planners to consider the best type of transit for each part of the region, how each would interact with pedestrian, bicycle and auto traffic. One, multi-modal system would also allow for the convenience of a single-swipe card system for all modes, making public transit more convenient. 
"We might need additional funding," says Townsend, "but we could make some substantial down payments right away - if we decide not to waste our money making it easier for people to evacuate Metro Detroit."
Better central city transit for Detroit
How's this for counter-intuitive? Congestion in Metro Detroit could even be eased by investing in transit inside the city lines. 
"The City of Detroit's bus system is in deterioration, and instead of acknowledging that effect, we're asked to believe it will be more beneficial to the economy to put in this expensive project," says Kelley.
Kelley describes it as Economics 101: The lack of reliable transportation already contributes to job insecurity in Detroit, and it's a deterrent to new residents and businesses looking for a traditional urban environment. Improving transit inside the city would have economic effects that would spread throughout the region, encourage more people to move closer to the city, and -- hey! -- there goes some of that commuter traffic.
For an academic with a focus on social justice like Grengs, it's also the right thing to do. 
"Transportation investments rarely create equal opportunity for all people," he says. "It looks to me like those who will benefit [from the widening plan] are automobile drivers and those who live in the outer portion of Metro Detroit. Those who live in and near Detroit will bear the brunt of this."
Innovative traffic management, like high capacity occupancy lanes
Public transit would indeed be costly, inside the city or throughout the region. That's not the only way cities are working to manage traffic, however. Innovative solutions can help ease congestion without adding lanes. 
"Trucking traffic is certainly a consideration here," says Grengs. "In my mind there is a range of other ways to deal with them, such as HOV or HOT lanes."
High occupancy vehicle or high occupancy/toll lanes give commuters, commercial drivers and those willing to pay access to express lanes. The traffic management reduces merging traffic and speeds up travel. 
On the far cutting edge, IBM has recently tested automobile traffic sensors - gadgets that attach to cars and help manage and direct traffic in real time depending on road conditions. According to The Atlantic, the technology is virtually ready to go.
And then there's this innovative idea: do nothing. For a driver stuck on I-94 every day, it might sound insane, but, the facts are the facts. There is a positive correlation between traffic congestion and economic growth, depending on the actual rates of congestion. It sounds crazy, but bustling, vibrant cities usually do have some regular traffic waiting to filter in. According to one study, congestion only becomes a drag on job growth after it reaches 35 to 37 hours of delay per commuter per year. 
Odds are, few will be satisfied with such a non-solution, but it's certainly food for thought. As is the fact that widening a freeway is essentially the same type of thinking that has contributed to so many of the region's current issues. 
"What we're saying is, 'Please, get in your cars and drive as fast as you can away from our city and inner suburbs," says Townsend. "We've tried that policy, and it all it gets us is more traffic."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode.
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