More Highways, Less Traffic?

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Photo by Justin Ulmer. Published in JPG Magazine.

Is building roads good for the environment? The European Road Federation seems to think so, arguing in a recent paper that, “More investment in road infrastructure is needed to remove bottlenecks, avoid city centres and complete missing links which together cost billions every year in lost fuel and undoubtedly contribute to the sector’s environmental footprint.”

At first glance, it seems that the authors have a point; building bigger roads frees up traffic, allowing commuters to reach their destinations faster, which in turn decreases emissions like carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that causes global warming, and particulate matter, a chief cause of smog and respiratory illnesses.

But just a little bit of probing makes you wonder if the authors are engaged in greenwashing, or the duplicitous act of using environmental justifications to supports projects and policies that are actually harmful to the environment. You see, building bigger roads may in the short term free up traffic. But in the long term, building more roads also encourages people to drive more. And encouraging people to drive more drives up the demand for more roads and highways. It’s a vicious cycle with disastrous consequences for the environment.

Instead of spending money building superhighways, as the report suggests, public and private funds should be transferred to transport projects that are actually good for the environment. Many types of mass transport systems, which are much more efficient at moving lots of people – both in terms of time and resources – are the most obvious recipient of funding. But we should also fund well-designed cities, where people can walk or cycle to their desired destinations.

While highways are good for certain things, they are, in almost all cases, not good for the environment.

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