Widen Roads or Add Rail?

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In 1950 Cincinnati had a multi-modal transportation system that served a city of over half a million residents.  Following that year, we dismantled our public transportation infrastructure and began to invest almost exclusively in roadways.  In the following decades, our population rapidly declined to its current level of 333,336 nearly a 33% decrease from its peak.

At present we have a system of roads in our city, but little public transportation infrastructure.  As we continue to build our city, the type of future transportation infrastructure investments we select will shape our growth.  We have to decide, if we are making transportation investment along a corridor, do we want to widen the existing roads or add rail transit?

Both options will reduce congestion and increase the capacity of the corridor, but building rail transit provides a host of secondary benefits of the citizens of Cincinnati that widening roads does not.  This chart shows the future outcomes associated with both options:

As illustrated above, adding rail provides numerous secondary benefits not only for those using the corridor, but in the case of higher property values and less pollution, benefits that help the entire city in the form of higher tax revenues and cleaner air.  Support a Better Future for our City–Expand our Transportation Options.

Note: As the roadway system in the city already exists, the modal advantages of single occupancy automobiles (for example, not having to rely on pre-scheduled trips) are already present to automobile users and are not enhanced by the addition of extra lanes. Therefore those items have been excluded from the chart which deals only with future benefits from transportation improvements.


8 thoughts on “Widen Roads or Add Rail?

    Ian said:
    March 10, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Actually, studies have shown that widening roads and highways doesn’t actually reduce congestion. As more cars fill the increased capacity, the traffic actually becomes worse (think switching lanes in a 3-lane hwy vs 4-lane). I believe the statistic is that for every 9% increase in capacity, in 4-5 yrs traffic volume increases 10%.

    Randy A. Simes said:
    March 10, 2010 at 10:42 am

    This is an interesting analysis, and it doesn’t even touch on many of the issues where transit excels when compared to roadway investments.

    The reality is that we are already built-out when it comes to roadway networks in this nation. Our spending should now only be on maintenance and safety improvements…not on additional lanes or widening projects.

    Conversely, transit is woefully underrepresented in America. Our bus and rail systems are no where near built to the capacity or scope they should be in order to meet the demands of a developed, modern nation in the 21st Century. As a result, we should be investing in expanding the reach and capacity of these systems while also doing the regular maintenance and safety improvements we should be doing for all infrastructure systems.

    Ben said:
    March 10, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Ian, from my memory you are correct. The demand for roads is incredibly elastic. The more you build, the more people drive. So increases of road capacity only decreases congestion for a finite time.

    And, more roads doesn’t necessarily increase pollution, at least not in the short-run. The reduced congestion will actually reduce pollution in the short-run.

    The problems with roads are in the medium-run, thus our willingness to build them. Americans aren’t capable of looking very far into the future.

    Al said:
    March 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    One other benefit that was not discussed is productivity. We are becoming a connected society and people can work anywhere.

    Therefore consider the business and societal benefits of these scenarios:

    1) A US engineer drives from Mason to the workplace taking 30 minutes (longer if there are any number of disruptions) during which he is limited (potentially legally) from research or communicating with partners.

    2) A French engineer has a 45 minute trainride, during which time he has full internet access for work or personal reasons.

    Even with the longer commute, the frenchman has 250 extra hours of time per year to work or pursue personal interests.

    If you are a business leader – which scenario do you prefer?

    If you are an international worker – which scenario do you prefer?

    Sean B said:
    March 10, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    We not only have to level the playing field in terms of facts such as what is presented here, we also have to address the bias in language in how we talk about transportation. We often hear about how mass transportation should “pay for itself.” We often refer to any form of transport but cars as “public” or subsidized, which is basically code for evil in this country. Yet the reality is that highways and roads are massively subsidized. Until we tilt the consciousness about this there will always be a certain skepticism from anti-tax, anti-government sorts about anything transit related.

    This is unfortunate. The rational argument is that we need to build our transportation infrastructure to support numerous options, including for cars, but not only for cars. The reality is that congestion is a fact of life in any place that isn’t utterly decrepit. This is true no matter how many highways or trains you have. But building a diverse infrastructure for transportation does give you options and makes for a better place to live, work, and enjoy. As a resident of Boston (I moved from Cincinnati years ago sadly) for example, I can easily take the train when commuting to work and on weekends or for big shopping trips drive (with or without owning a car…we have ZipCar). I can just as easily walk to stores and services from my house or job, and increasingly bicycling is a viable option beyond leisure and exercise. I have choices basically. Boston has its highways (hello…Big Dig) but it also has other transportation choices.

    Unfortunately the rational arguments don’t get through to most people. I have made these points to many people and still get the most contorted counter-arguments of the virtues of cars or evils of “public transport.” I’m thinking we need to start talking-up the evils of public highways, government subsidized driving, or parking welfare. The longer that the general public incorrectly thinks of the car as the capitalistic bastion of personal freedom the longer that we all will be imprisoned to an impoverished auto-dependent society.

    David H said:
    March 10, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Density, Density, Density…. CRUCIAL to having an effective transit system. From afar (I currently live in Louisville, but will be attending DAAP) I dont know the density measurements for the area, but from what I understand there are greater density levels in more areas than in many cities CIncy’s size… keep pushing, but keep pushing for Desnity as well!

    John Schneider said:
    March 11, 2010 at 11:56 am

    The City of Cincinnati is already more dense than many cities that have rail. I haven’t checked the numbers recently, but Sacramento, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Charlotte, and Salt Lake City come to mind.

    Cincinnati’s density is almost equal to Portland’s.

    And it’s not really gross overall density that matters — it’s travel density. Because Cincinnati’s topography confines travel to a few well-defined corridors, we are even more dense if you look at it that way.

    Plus about 20% of Cincinnati is parkland or unbuildable hillsides.

    We don’t lack density to make rail work here. We lack political will.

    Beanyhead said:
    March 13, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    When will cities realize that simply adding more lanes won’t solve all congestion problems?

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