Posted by: chrismaser | October 28, 2009


When the system of transportation becomes the centerpiece of city’s development, the city is placing its primacy of human relationship on the efficiency of mass movement from one place to another, which, coincidentally, determines where and how the population and open spaces will be situated. Here, a fundamental question might be posed:  Does building more and more roads really relieve congestion, which, after all, seems to be what drives the design of a transportation system?

According to Bill Bishop, editorial page columnist for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky, building more roads only adds to congestion.1 I think he has a good point because I see a parallel in buying houses.

I have often heard people say they have so much stuff that they need a larger house. This statement seems reasonable enough on the surface, but in practice, most people I know who have actually purchased a larger house begin immediately filling it to capacity. Why? I think our American compulsion to fill every nook and cranny is in part a product of not having been taught how to live with empty space, or at least space that is not crammed full all the time. And when the houses are full, then what?

The ongoing parallel can be seen in the continual growth of “self-storage units,” as they increasingly springing up across cities, where they fill the role of “supplemental garbage dumps” for all the stuff Americans are constantly purchasing, but have nowhere in their homes to keep. This compulsive buying is the same as our compulsive road building. The former does not fill the emptiness of our souls and the latter does not relieve vehicular congestion.

If our cities’ roads are congested and we build more roads to relieve the congestion, will we not just fill the new roads again to the point of overflowing? It seems to me one could logically say: like our houses, so our roads.

“Trying to pave your way out of traffic congestion,” writes Bishop, “is like trying to eat your way back into your high school jeans. Cars fill in the new pavement, just like middle age created the market for Dockers.” Although it seems counter-intuitive, says Bishop, building more roads actually leads to more traffic. On the other hand, he continues, closing roads, or even narrowing streets, does not create more congestion—it tends to cut the volume of traffic, especially in cities.

“Lord knows,” says Bishop, “the evidence of this phenomenon is stalled in full view of most citizens. As soon as roads are built, they’re filled. And to relieve the new traffic, we build new roads. You’d think somebody would connect the dots.” What dots? The dots that illustrate the level of consciousness causing a problem in the first place is not the level of consciousness that can solve it. A higher level of consciousness is required—recognizing, accepting, and acting on the evidence under our noses isconnecting the dots.

Some people have connected the dots, quips Bishop. “Adding new roadways and widening older ones was seen as the way to solve the problem,” observed the Texas Transportation Institute in a study of city traffic. “In most cities, this new roadway capacity was quickly filled with additional traffic, and the old problems of congestion returned.”2

On the other hand, researchers at the University College of London, England, examined sixty cases from around the world in which roads had been closed. They found that a goodly portion of the traffic that once used the roads simply “evaporated.” The cars and trucks were not simply rerouted on nearby streets, but disappeared altogether.

On average, one-fifth of the vehicular use, and in some cases as much as 60 percent, went away once a road was closed, and the full volume of vehicles did not reappear once a road was reopened. The Tower Bridge in London, for example, was temporarily closed in 1994, and the traffic dispersed. Three years after the bridge was reopened, traffic still had not returned to its former level.3

Writers James O. Wilson and James Howard Kunstler argued in the on-line magazine Slate that, “we have transformed the human ecology of America, from sea to shinning sea, into a national automobile slum.”4 Bishop, meanwhile, wonders if we just “can’t remember any other way to live?” At this juncture, you might well be wondering what any of the foregoing has to do with the connectivity or the fragmentation of a landscape.

That’s a good question because, if the transportation system is the pivot around which a city’s planning centers, it will hide the night sky with light pollution, disguise the bird song with noise pollution, and foul the air with exhaust while simultaneously precluding much of Nature through habitat fragmentation. These alternatives leave a city only two options in planning its transportation system: ecological constraints that place the greatest emphasis on quality of life, both short and long term, or economic constraints that focus the greatest emphasis on maximizing immediate and short-term profit margins.

If a city chooses to design its transportation system around ecological constraints, it will place the components of the system where they will best honor the integrity and connectivity of the available habitat, including the city’s interface with its surrounding landscape. When a transportation system is planned around ecological constraints (quality lifestyle and effectiveness), the probability of being able to have a relatively good system of open spaces is greatly increased.

On the other hand, if a city chooses to design its transportation system around economic constraints (maximum population and efficiency), available habitat will suffer far greater fragmentation than if an open-space system itself had driven the city’s planning and its implementation. Under the efficiency mode, open space, as a viable system, will be foregone because fragmentation of habitat is inevitably maximized, as are noise, light, and air pollution. There is also a greater likelihood that exotic and naturalized species would colonize the remaining landscape because the transportation system—acting as a conduit of immigration—puts ever-more outside pressure on the survival of indigenous species.5

Nevertheless, the choice between ecological constraints (with its emphasis on quality of life) or economic constraints (with its emphasis profit margins) is seldom posed. Peter Headicar, Transport Planning at Oxford Brookes University in England, states this perpetual lack of choice eloquently. He says that basic questions about the urban future in the context of transportation are not often asked because “they are both politically uncomfortable and tractable only over the longer term—hence conveniently forever deferrable in the present.”6

In fact, building new, bigger, and faster roads has become the major preoccupation of government at all levels in the United States during much of the past sixty or more years. Billions of dollars have been, and continue to be, spent widening and straightening streets and highways in almost every urban and rural setting throughout the U.S.

An entirely new profession—traffic engineers—has materialized to accomplish this feat, and they now wield far more influence over the planning and layout of communities than do elected officials, business people, and citizens groups combined. Traffic engineers have a single goal—enable cars and trucks to move faster, easier, and cheaper through both town and countryside, which increasingly affects the hydrological continuum.7

Even on a small scale, say a new housing development, roads and streets are paved, creating an impervious coating over the surface of the land. This impervious layer prevents the water, both as rain and melting snow, from infiltrating into the soil, where it can be stored and purified, and can recharge existing aquifers and wells. Instead, the water remains on the surface, where it mixes with pollutants that collect on the pavement.

Because paved roads and streets are lined with curbs and gutters, the now-polluted water is channeled into a storm drain. In addition, each house has an impervious roof that collects water and channels it into gutters along the edge of the roof. Upon collecting water, the gutters channel it, more often than not, out to the street, where it joins water from the street going down the storm drain. It is then conducted either directly into a sewage-treatment plant or directly into a ditch, stream, or river.

In any event, the water is not usable by the local people. Beyond that, the storm water either adds to the cost of running the treatment plant, where it must be detoxified, or it pollutes all the waterways through which it flows, from its point of origin into the ocean.

The effect of roads, streets, parking lots, and the area covered by houses, all of which eliminate the infiltration of water, is cumulative. Enough roads, streets, parking lots, and roofs over time can alter the soil-water cycle as it affects a given community. Remember, the quality and quantity of water is a biophysical variable, irrespective the fact that many product-oriented economists and product-oriented “land developers” deem it an economic constant.

All these effects are hidden for some time in both the invisible present and the ecological lag period wherein work synergistically in shifting the landscape from the more natural end of the continuum to the more cultural end. Beyond some point, these effects upset the ecological integrity and ultimately affect the quality of life, almost inevitably in the negative, and there is no backup system to protect the quality of life.

Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Feedback Loops

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Is Space A Resource?

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Surrounding Landscape

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

• Restoration Of A Specific Condition Is Not Possible


  1. Bill Bishop. To reduce congestion, don’t build more roads—close’em. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. May 20, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: (1) Peter Headicar. Traffic in Towns. Resurgence, 197 (1999):22-23 and (2) John Whitelegg. Sorry Lorries. Resurgence, 197 (1999):28-29.
  4. James O. Wilson and James Howard Kunstler. The War on Cars. Slate. (1998). (accessed January 22, 2009)
  5. Chris Maser. Earth In Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 2009. 304 pp.
  6. Peter Headicar. Traffic in Towns. Resurgence, 197 (1999):22-23.
  7. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: (1) Jay Walljasper. Asphalt Rebellion. Resurgence, 193 (1999):11 and (2) Chris Maser. Ecological Diversity in Sustainable Development:  The Vital and Forgotten Dimension. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. (1999) 402 pp.

© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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