In an article on the new-but-dangerous I15 on/off ramp in Provo, my colleague Paige Fieldsted identifies increasing capacity and improving access to downtown Provo as one of the reasons the project was built. Earlier this year, Mayor Curtis wrote something similar:
The nice thing about it is you won’t have to wait for a traffic signal. It’s also designed to improve traffic flow, accommodate future growth, and provide direct access to Draper Lane, which will help with commercial development of that area.
What both Paige and the mayor are reporting on — with phrases like “improve traffic flow” and “increase capacity” — is that the new interchange is supposed to accommodate more cars without becoming gridlocked. In other words, the project is designed to reduce congestion over time, among other things.
But unfortunately, that’s the wrong objective.
In a recent post on Strong Towns called “Embracing Congestion,” Charles Marohn suggests that focusing on alleviating congestion is a misguided approach.
We also know the “solution” to congestion. The traffic engineering profession — a formal pursuit still in the adolescent stage of its development — has conditioned us to the proper response: add capacity. This has become so common sense in our culture that the average person can, from their driver’s seat, prescribe the myriad of complex solutions that will immediately gain societal acceptance.
However, the consequences of perpetually trying to increase capacity are dire, Marohn argues. That approach produces strip malls, stroads, and big box retailers that drive local businesses to ruin. Marohn also criticizes the idea that these developments are merely products of “the market”; in fact, he argues, they’re being subsidized by government efforts to alleviate congestion.
And of course, adding capacity can also create more congestion via induced demand.
Marohn goes on to prescribe a number of possible solutions that would also result in less spending and smaller government — both things that should delight Utah County’s traditionally conservative residents. But to get there he proposes something fairly radical:
To make this happen, we need to realize that congestion is the answer, not the problem. People who want to shop at big box stores can live next to them. That is a choice in the markeplace that I can accept. People that want to live in neighborhoods will also have choices, options that do not exist for them today because we subsidize their competition at every opportunity.
Marohn isn’t writing specifically about Provo’s new freeway interchange, but he might as well be. It’s a costly, bloody mess that at best perplexes drivers. At worst, it bifurcates the city and kills people who erroneously but understandably assume the experts designed something that works.