17 July 2011

Carmageddon: Short-Term Pain to Prolong the Agony

This weekend's disruptive construction event on the I-405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles will, theoretically, increase the capacity of this vital artery. More cars will use it to take advantage of that increased capacity until it is as crowded and choked as it was before. The result of this expensive project ($1 billion in direct cost, plus the costs imposed on society by the delays and inconvenience of having the road closed for 53 hours) will be to encourage more people to make more automobile journeys, measurably increasing the consumption of petroleum and the emission of greenhouse gases.
"There's nothing wrong with you that an expensive operation can't prolong." -- Surgeon (Graham Chapman) to Mr. Notlob in Monty Python sketch.
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Making More Pollution Possible

When highway construction is undertaken "to ease congestion" the additional capacity is always absorbed by additional usage. Congestion stays the same, but there are more cars traveling and thus more pollution. (This L.A. Times piece has some good info on this well-known effect.) (For more detailed analysis see "The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion" by Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner here.)

This billion-dollar multi-year construction project will enable more people to commute to jobs far from where they live. This is what causes global warming, among other problems.

A substantial part of such a project's environmental impact comes from the larger and more isolated homes that people commute from when they have more highway capacity. These homes require cars for every errand, have thirsty lawns, and are larger and more energy-intensive than city dwellings. So the carbon impact of such lifestyles goes far beyond the gasoline burned during the commute. (This is why Leafs, Volts and Priuses don't reduce their owners' carbon footprints very much--they still live in the suburbs.)

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