(This is the second of a two-parter. The first part is here.)
This is a follow-up to a column that ran in Sunday’s Monitor, where I crunched some numbers from the Traffic Data Management System to quantify how I-93 through Concord gets jammed up on certain days.
Among other things, we found the exact moment to abandon southbound I-93 on a summer Sunday (8:45 a.m., when traffic counts start to soar) and saw why the northbound highway is so bad on Fridays: There were 17 quarter-hour periods during one Friday in July when the traffic count was higher than the road’s theoretical maximum.
Now we’re going to talk about the help that’s on the way in the form of a proposed expansion of I-93. The idea is to add one lane in each direction through Concord and tweak all the exits, including that weird, messy first exit on I-89 in Bow. Construction might start in a few years although that’s far from certain and work will take a decade, roughly.
Many in Concord are salivating at the prospect. They hope it will make the road more usable for locals on weekends and also bring some nice things like extending the Greenway hiking trail, upgrading some adjacent streets and, in the Chamber of Commerce’s words, “improving Concord’s image from I-93, making the city a more attractive stop for visitors.”
All well and good but here’s my opinion: We shouldn’t do it.
First off, widening roads never really solves traffic congestion. Things get better for a little while and then everybody says “hey, it’s easy to use the highway now!” so we clog it up again. Search online for “induced demand” to see a ton of examples.
The one thing road widening does accomplish is to raise certain property values by increasing the number of shoppers, home buyers and other customers who pass by. Hence the enthusiasm from business interests. That might be a good thing but it’s got nothing to do with easing traffic woes.
For another thing, there’s a huge amount of lack of return from a project that will cost at least a quarter of a billion dollars, about 2½ times as much as Concord city government spends annually.
Consider the Friday that I analyzed: July 15, a typical start of a non-holiday summer weekend. Two-thirds of the time during the busy period of the day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) the traffic count was below the road’s theoretical maximum. Adding another lane is a complete waste of money for all those periods, not to mention the 90% of the rest of the week when traffic counts are lower.
Admittedly, that’s a simplistic response because any Concordian knows that traffic doesn’t always flow on I-93 when it theoretically should. Sometimes traffic counts are low because everybody has come to a halt!
But an overcrowded highway is almost unavoidable because of the way I-93 was built here, no matter how many lanes it has. All those exits crammed into a relatively short space mean that from Bow to Canterbury there’s always somebody trying to enter or exit, slowing everybody around them. Add in a fender-bender and you’re doomed.
Putting in an extra lane might help this situation occasionally but paying huge amounts of money to allow some improvement for drivers a few hours each week seems incredibly wasteful — a quarter-billion-dollar Band-Aid rather than a solution.
The one thing it will do, by the way, is create more serious accidents. People drive faster on wider roads, so those fender-benders will become pile-ups.
However, the real reason I’m opposed to this project isn’t number-driven. It’s that we have moved beyond the kneejerk response of always wanting more roads, bigger roads, faster roads.
For my entire life the basic goal of the design, planning and construction of anything whatsoever has been to increase the number of people-carrying vehicles there. Either you want more of them to speed past or more of them to sit empty while parking.
This has helped produce vast wealth and convenience but the drawbacks have become too evident.
Emphasis on roads and highways divides communities (the two sides of Loudon Road might as well be in different counties from a pedestrian’s point of view). It forces everybody to drive everywhere (wouldn’t you love the freedom of doing your daily tasks without getting into the car yet again?). It uses up vast amounts of our public dollars and it warps how we design and build our cities and towns (parking minimums are the bane of pleasant downtowns).
And, of course, it pollutes the world, adding to the accelerating climate emergency.
So far this year the U.S. has seen four — or is it five? I’m losing track — so-called thousand-year floods and right now the entire nation of Pakistan is one-third under water. At the same time the American West, eastern China and western Europe are all withering under unprecedented drought.
These extremes are going to keep happening because we’re putting heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. It would be criminal to spend vast amounts of dollars to make it slightly easier for some people to move around at certain times while pumping out more heat-trapping gases. Surely we can think outside of that box?
Imagine if we could have a quarter-billion dollars to spend over a decade with the goal of helping people to move around Concord but we weren’t allowed to spend any of it on roads! Think of how much could be done with it: Everything from lots of free buses to walk/bike/scooter paths and bridges to new types of zoning that creates a walkable world to who knows what else.
The money would let Concord invent and discover new things to build and new ways to live. It could be positively liberating.
Except it won’t happen. Right now only big road projects get that kind of big money; everything else gets trickle-down leftovers.
We have to get beyond that kind of thinking, even if it means we can’t daydream about being able to zip up and down the highway whenever we want. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.