Last Tuesday, April 7, Lake County Illinois voters approved a non-binding advisory referendum in support of extending state road, Illinois 53 from its current dead-end at Dundee Road north through Lake County to Illinois 120. From there the proposed road would presumably continue east a few miles where it would merge into the existing I-294 Toll Road. Building this road is a very bad idea for many reasons. But the real tragedy is that the road will not fix the problem for which it is intended. In other words, it is a scam that 75% of those who voted believe. Here’s why.
It is entirely logical to assume that if you build a road to move people faster, it will alleviate traffic congestion. If you drive east or south in Lake County in the morning or west and north in the evening, a road that will help solve this problem certainly appears to be a godsend. It isn’t. Unfortunately, we may only find that out after millions of dollars have been spent, strategically bad land allocations have been made and quality-of-life altering habitat damage has occurred.
Here’s the danger scenario. When you build a limited access highway, traffic pressure is placed on the arterial roads that feed the highway. Not only do these roads have to carry the local traffic from those who have no intention of getting on the highway. But it also carries the extra traffic from those who have to get onto this road to get onto the highway. Moreover businesses and residential development concentrate themselves along these feeder roads in an effort to be convenient and appealing. For example, Route 120 or Route 22 get very crowded where they feed into I-294.
We didn’t understand this impact in the mid & late 20th century as urban highways were developed everywhere in the US. But after we built them we discovered this outcome. And we began to search for alternatives. With the advent of computer technology, we learned that we could make our existing surface streets smarter. Cars didn’t have to sit at stop lights for 45 seconds even if there was no cross-traffic. Left turn arrows could be triggered only if there were cars waiting to turn left. In other words, surface streets could carry more traffic more efficiently. And the additional bonus was that traffic would not be required to be concentrated into a limited number of feeder roads to serve the limited number of entrances and exits of the highway. Rather, traffic could be distributed
Today, the concentrated traffic model has begun to share attention with the distributed traffic model. Some communities have gotten the message and are going as far as to actually dismantle their urban limited access highways. Cities like Seattle, Buffalo, Louisville and Washington DC all have programs for dismantling specific limited access roads and replacing them with investment in surface streets and efficient boulevards.
Finally, there are two lies that must be dispelled when discussing alternatives to building urban highways. The first lie is that opposing urban highways is anti-growth or anti-development. The truth is that it is actually the urban highways that are toxic for growth because funneling traffic through an urban highway becomes a choke point while distributing traffic along an efficient surface road grid enhances and distributes traffic much more effectively. The second lie is that opposing urban highways is necessarily tied to a mass transit mandate with the goal of forcing everyone out of their personal vehicles and into buses. The truth is that mass transit works in some places and not in others. And that effective transportation is not one thing or the other. The solution to transit is multi-modal involving all manner of transit solutions. And, for now, this includes personal vehicles.
When I got my masters degree in regional planning in the 1970’s many of these conclusions were speculative. And the tools to remedy the anticipated problems were not available. 35 years later we now have proof after proof that urban highways are not necessarily the solution for solving every urban transportation problem. And we have more tools in our toolkit with which to seek solutions.
I stopped being a regional planner when I recognized that the political leadership were cowards. Today, again, there are professional planners who are steaming in their cubicles with the knowledge that building another highway will not solve the problem for which it is intended. I’ve been there. What we need is leaders at the Lake County and State of Illinois level who will step up and note that the Emperor of Highway Construction has no clothes. Since I have little confidence that will happen, we’re just going to take things into our own hands. Speak up. We can make a difference.