If the rest of I-526 were to be built tomorrow, it would be gridlocked at rush hour. On Day One. And it would only get worse from there.
For proof, just drive down the existing 526 at rush hour. It’s gridlock. Adding a few more miles of freeway won’t change that. It’ll just let more people from more places join in. That’s not exactly an improvement.
On top of that, there’s a really dry but critically important concept called “induced demand.” Basically, it means that when new roads are built or when existing roads are widened, traffic eventually catches up. In fact, it not only catches up but actually gets worse than would be expected otherwise.
In other words, widening a road — or finishing 526 — won’t just fail to fix the existing congestion problem, but will actually make it worse in the long term compared to doing nothing at all. It seems counterintuitive but there are mountains of data to prove it.
Researchers have found four explanations for the phenomenon.
First, commuters might change their schedules. Rather than leaving the house early to beat traffic, they might wait until later, when more cars are on the road. If only a few people do that, it’s no big deal, but if even 10 or 20 percent of drivers change their commute times in response to a new or wider road, it can cause major headaches.
Second, commuters who avoided previously congested roads might switch up their travel patterns to use a newly expanded route. That would certainly happen with 526, so the congestion would effectively just switch from one road to another.
Third, commuters who used other modes of transportation like buses, bikes or walking might decide to travel by car instead. That’s less of a concern in Charleston, however, where about 90 percent of commutes are by car.
And finally, wider, longer roads tend to open up new areas to development that were less desirable previously. Johns and James islands are already developing so rapidly that it’s not clear building 526 would have much of an impact in terms of spurring new growth. But it certainly wouldn’t help things.
It’s frustrating to commuters who are stuck in traffic in West Ashley or on Johns or James islands every day, but building the rest of 526 isn’t the answer. But there are a few other options that might help.
Basically, we need to get cars off the road at times of peak congestion.
Employers should offer flexibility in scheduling. Not everyone needs to work from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day. Some could work from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. or from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Others could adopt even more radical schedules. Whatever works. There’s no reason to stick to a rigid, outdated workday when it causes so much traffic misery.
Employers should also allow more telecommuting. If a job can be done at home, why not let workers do it from home? At least a few days a week.
If we build more roads, they should be something more like a grid system that takes pressure off of major arteries. Freeways like 526 get clogged because too much traffic funnels onto a single road, no matter how many lanes it has. Dispersing traffic would be a better option.
The Charleston region also needs to more heavily invest in ambitious bicycle, pedestrian and bus infrastructure. Not to just throw more money at old solutions, but to get as creative as possible.
Could a van-size shuttle better serve a suburban community than a traditional, fixed-schedule bus line? Would a pop-up bike lane entice riders on a particularly comfortable day for biking to work? Would some kind of “bus rapid transit lite” be faster, cheaper and easier to implement on certain routes than a full-blown BRT system?
The new park and ride system on the upper peninsula, for example, is a pretty innovative solution to help hospitality workers deal with the rising cost of parking downtown. If it’s successful, it could be expanded. We can change things up if they’re not working, or ditch park and ride altogether without losing too much time or money. We need more ideas like that.
We don’t need more freeways. But we don’t have to resign ourselves to gridlock either. We just have to be flexible and creative.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.