Note to readers: This is an encore of a column originally published April 16, 2007. It has been edited slightly.
A couple of months back I wrote something that most everyone knows all too well: the choking traffic in Los Angeles is not a mere annoyance. It alters work and life, and not for the better.
You probably know commuters who routinely leave home before dawn or linger at work until 8 p.m. to avoid traffic. Maybe you don’t venture far from home to enjoy shows or restaurants because it can be a traffic ordeal, even in the evenings. I wrote that I eat at my desk more than I should because a lunch meeting can be a day slayer, thanks to the drive.
Of the suggested solutions I’ve gotten since, my favorite is a book sent by the folks at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. The book’s central proposal is a solution so obvious that it made me slap my forehead.
The solution: build more roads.
Somehow, we’ve bought into a kind of conventional wisdom that goes something like this: Driving cars is bad and driving from the suburbs is especially bad. We all must change. We need to remake our cities so we can live in denser, more urban housing and all use public transportation. Building roads only encourages bad behavior.
As a result, we’ve built fewer roads in recent years.
Trouble is, except in extremely dense Manhattan, the dense urban model simply doesn’t work in America. Even though the United States has spent a boatload on mass transit, fewer people use it today than in the early 1960s. The fact is, as any nation’s wealth increases, more people drive. That’s true even in Europe. And most people prefer to live in a single-family house with some grass around them; most don’t want to live in a mixed-use building next to a noisy train station.
It may be politically incorrect to say, but driving is not as bad as it is made out. Cars allow people to go when they want where they want. That flexibility is one reason American businesses are the strongest and most adaptable. Throw in the automotive advances of the recent past, the hybrid technology of today and other advances in the future, driving is and will be far more energy efficient than it used to be, and safer to boot.
Instead of trying to remake American cities into mass-transit hubs, the book posits that it makes far more sense to simply build more roads. It would be faster, cheaper and far more effective.
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