Comment: What you think you know about highways may be wrong

Do you believe drivers are at fault 94 percent of the time? Turns out that’s one of five myths about roads.

By David Zipper / Special To The Washington Post

Infrastructure Week may have become a Beltway joke, but suddenly highways are a truly pressing subject.

President Biden has made passage of his $550 billion infrastructure package a top legislative priority, and roughly a fifth of those funds could go toward roads. Even if you use a car to get to work — as roughly 85 percent of American commuters did before the pandemic — you might harbor some misperceptions about the pavement you drive on. Here are a few that pop up frequently.

Myth No. 1: Wider highways let traffic move faster.

From Maryland to Los Angeles, transportation agencies list their highway expansion projects under goals such as “Less Traffic.” A Washington Post headline on Oct. 9 stated that widening I-95 in Fredericksburg, Va., would bring “relief for drivers at one of the highway’s biggest bottlenecks.” The idea seems to make sense: If too many cars clog a highway during rush hour, adding lanes will give drivers room to spread out and travel faster.

But that kind of thinking doesn’t reflect how humans respond to expanded roadways. Extra lanes may speed up traffic for a little while, but people rapidly adjust their travel decisions as they notice the faster highway; and in the process, they slow everyone down again. Some who previously beat traffic by driving early or late might shift toward rush hour. Others might stop using transit and choose to drive instead. Ultimately, the highway ends up as congested as before. That’s what has happened in places including Houston, where the Texas Department of Transportation spent $2.8 billion widening the Katy Freeway, part of Interstate 10, to as many as 26 lanes in 2011: Gridlock grew worse than ever. This process is known as induced demand, and it’s so widely accepted among economists that they call it the “iron law of congestion.”

Myth No. 2: Ninety-four percent of crashes are caused by human error.

Some myths have mysterious origins. This is not one of them. In 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a report about vehicle crashes that stated “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94 percent of the crashes.” That figure, often stripped of its context, has had a long shelf life, particularly among transportation agencies. For instance, in 2019, the North Dakota Department of Transportation published a report claiming that “94 percent of motor vehicle crashes can be attributed to a preventable human behavior.” Autonomous-vehicle companies frequently cite the statistic — as Waymo does on its FAQ webpage — when touting the supposed safety benefits of their technology.

But laying blame on the driver lets many other parties off the hook; such as transportation engineers who could have created a safer road. For instance, slip lanes at intersections are intended to allow drivers to maintain speed while making right turns. That design can work well in rural areas, but in cities it often places too much onus on a driver, who must monitor her speed, watch for traffic while merging and yield to pedestrians crossing the slip lane at a crosswalk. If a collision ensues, police will find the driver to be at fault, ignoring the engineers who placed her in a dangerous situation.

Meanwhile, transportation agencies have underinvested in sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods in such places as Boston and New Orleans, leaving pedestrians vulnerable to crashes. Responsibility also falls on automakers that have created distracting infotainment systems and designed SUVs and trucks so tall that children just outside the vehicle are all but invisible to its occupants. As National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy recently tweeted: “Stop with the 94 percent! Simply put: It’s not true. Crashes are more complex than that.”

Myth No. 3: Congestion pricing hurts the poor.

The idea of charging a fee to drive into a dense downtown during the daytime is gaining momentum. It’s already been deployed in cities including London, Singapore and Stockholm; New York is poised to become the first adopter in the United States. One of the most common critiques of congestion pricing concerns its impact on the poor. “Social equity was the conversation stopper when it came to congestion pricing,” Stuart Cohen, the head of the nonprofit TransForm, told the New York Times in 2019. New York Daily News columnist Michael Lawler wrote on Sept. 26 that “it’s regressive, hitting low-income New Yorkers in transit deserts hardest.”

But fewer than half of New York City households own an automobile, and, as in most cities, they have a significantly higher average income than those who don’t. New York plans to spend congestion tax revenue on public transportation improvements, which would disproportionately benefit lower-income residents. As UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville wrote, “Free roads are not a good way to help poor people.” With or without congestion pricing, affluent people drive more. So if you want to help low-income residents, you’re better off improving infrastructure that they use more than most people do, like bus systems and sidewalks.

Myth No. 4: Gasoline taxes pay for highways.

Since 1919, when Oregon became the first state to tax gasoline, gas tax revenue has been a key funding source for highways. The landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 launched the American interstate system, built with funds collected from the federal gas tax. There is an intuitive appeal to charging drivers in proportion to how much fuel they use. “The user fee works because it’s sustainable,” Ed Mortimer, the vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Politico in June. In 2015, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., proposed ending the “diversion” of gas tax revenue to mass transit, saying he sought to ensure “that the Highway Trust Fund can fulfill its namesake duty; to fund highways, without an increase in the gas tax rate.”

Today, the gas tax doesn’t come close to keeping pace with federal spending on roads and highways. It has become so politically sensitive that Congress hasn’t raised it in 28 years. Since 2008 Congress has topped off the Highway Trust Fund with more than $140 billion in general revenue; collected from all taxpayers, regardless of how much they drive. States, too, supplement their gas tax revenue to pay for roads.

The ascent of electric vehicles, whose owners pay no gas tax at all, may force change. Already, states like Texas are considering levying new fees on electric-vehicle owners, while Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has mulled the feasibility of replacing the gas tax with a charge on vehicle miles traveled. But for now, at least, all Americans pitch in to pay for highways; whether or not they drive on them.

Myth No. 5: Americans love cars.

Americans, the story goes, have always had a special relationship with the automobile, cherishing the freedom that a car or truck can provide. University of Virginia history professor Peter Norton has traced the idea to Groucho Marx, who spoke of a “burning love affair” between Americans and automobiles while hosting a television show in 1961. The idea stuck. In 1995, TBS ran a four-hour documentary titled “Driving Passion: America’s Love Affair With the Car.” In 2006 a Honda television ad matched smiling actors with automobiles, concluding, “It must be love.”

The automobile is certainly ubiquitous in the United States. But outside of a few big cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, sprawled development, sparse transit service and a paucity of bicycle lanes often leave automobiles as the only, not necessarily the preferred, transportation option. Without a car, most Americans are at a severe disadvantage: Researchers have found that carless households saw their incomes fall in both relative and absolute terms over the last 50 years (but, intriguingly, not if they lived in transit-rich New York City). So there seems to be more utility than passion in Americans’ enduring relationship with the automobile.

David Zipper is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he examines the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies.

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