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Roads to Nowhere

Why we wind up traveling to the same place

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Everybody loves to hate highway engineers. None of the roads they design is ever large enough or new enough to please us. The moment parts of Charlotte's outerbelt were complete, a chorus of complaints arose that there weren't enough lanes to suit our driving pleasure.

Our latest grumble involves the lack of new lanes on I-77 north of its connection with the outerbelt, where the two multi-lane highways will merge tens of thousands of vehicles heading north toward Huntersville and Lake Norman. In not realizing the combined impact of two separate projects, widening I-77 and the phased construction of the outerbelt, the North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh certainly seems to be guilty of an alarming faux pas. Much to their chagrin, when the engineers eventually got around to thinking about the problem, they found their computer models of future conditions showed I-77 completely clogged with traffic where multiple lanes were squeezed down to two.

Local media were peppered with acerbic comments about this all too visible mistake. Most complained about poor design, but others griped about the "poor planning" in north Mecklenburg that allowed lots of new development to take place in that part of the county, thus causing more traffic. What these folks really meant was that too much development occurred after they bought their own house by the lake, and why couldn't development be stopped, instead of all these other people coming to live near them and driving on "their" roads?

The first complaint, about too few lanes, illustrates one basic truth that few people seem to grasp: We can never -- repeat, never -- build enough lanes to satisfy our demand. There is no way we can enlarge highways sufficiently to cope with all our driving. The more roads we build, the more we drive on them, and because we allow generic commercial and residential development everywhere, we use these high-speed freeways for local trips, driving for groceries on the same roadways used by long-distance interstate travelers.

Land use is inevitably tied to transportation planning, and our highways would work much better if we limited development along their length, thus restricting local traffic. But the farmer who sells his land for a cookie-cutter subdivision may need the money for his grandkids' education. Who's to say he can't have it?

The complaint about "poor planning" is commonplace across America. In this country, development basically goes where it likes and planning tries vainly to keep up and minimize the damage from ad hoc growth. It's not that planners are incompetent; far from it, our region is graced with some of the best planning talent around. But the ideology of sacrosanct property rights makes integrated planning very difficult, if not impossible. Effective planning means controlling how people use their land, and in some extreme cases, telling them they can't develop it at all.

I do a lot of town planning, and I worked extensively for the three north Mecklenburg towns several years ago. I know firsthand that the planning policies in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson are more advanced and progressive than in many towns and cities across the nation. These policies try to manage growth into a rational, attractive form that can be served economically by public tax dollars while preserving some vestiges of our natural landscape heritage. But this legislation works within a socio-political context that gives everybody the right to develop his or her land. Folks who complain about "poor planning" and want to slow growth, or even stop it, effectively seek to curtail the rights of other property owners.

While this desire to slow or stop growth is understandable, American values make it nearly impossible. Other democracies handle things differently. In Britain, for example, in order to rebuild the nation's shattered towns and cities after the Second World War, the government effectively nationalized the development potential of all land. Citizens still own their land but they don't have inherent rights to develop it. These rights are conferred (or not) by the public authority in accordance with a democratically derived development plan for each town and city. In essence, the community's entitlement to a properly managed environment is more highly regarded than individual rights. This explains how beautiful English villages sit amid their luscious, preserved green landscape, and how by-pass highways have no development at their interchanges, thus allowing town center businesses to thrive.

Brits regard this system as a rational balance of democratic values, but this view is antithetical to most Americans, whose cultural history is vastly different. I can't see this kind of planning happening in Charlotte anytime soon!

So planners here always work against the tide of incremental development, and highway engineers are constantly charged with building ever-bigger roads. The great irony of all this effort is that the developments we build look increasingly identical, and all our traveling gets us to the same place. Truly, we build roads to nowhere.

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