The Public Purpose
Number 66 - July 2003

More Maternity Wards Make Babies

By Wendell Cox

Does it make sense to send food and other relief to Bengladesh to help improve people's lives after the regular flooding? It could be argued that, even with the relief, there will still be poverty in Bengladesh, so what's the use? Why waste our resources on such a hopeless task? The answer, of course, is that it does make sense. While we may not be able to eradicate poverty by our assistance to people in need, we certainly can make things better than they would otherwise be. Not trying is the worst answer of all.

One cannot imagine a newspaper considering itself to be respected, or a serious newspaper columnist suggesting such an approach. But it is the very same logic that drives anti-automobile ideologues in the debate about expanding Milwaukee's freeways. The argument was put this way by Whitney Gould of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: "What if, after spending $6.25 billion to rebuild and widen metro area freeways in the name of relieving congestion, we just make it worse?" There seems to be something missing in a logic that suggests that providing more capacity will make things worse.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) has proposed building 127 miles of new freeway lanes over the next 30 years. SEWRPC indicates that this expansion will barely keep up with inevitably increasing traffic demand. Among the rational, this would suggest the need for more freeway expansion than presently planned, not less. It is also important to understand that barely 10 percent of the proposed expenditure will be spent on new traffic lanes --- the rest will be spent to rebuilt the freeways, which are already near or beyond their design life.

The anti-automobile crowd, however, would have us believe that the mere building of new freeways creates new traffic demand. If that were true, then Phoenix, the only major US urban area to materially expand its freeway system over the past two decades, could be expected to have had the largest increase in roadway travel per capita. It hasn't. Not even close. Travel per capita has risen less than average in Phoenix, and over the period, Portland, which prides itself as the Nirvana of anti-sprawl policies, passed Phoenix in average daily roadway travel per capita. Perhaps the anti-automobile crowd should volunteer to assist third world nations with birth rates that are too high, by advocating that no more maternity wards be built. Of course, maternity wards don't make babies and freeways don't make traffic.

From 1990 to 2000, the average peak period commuter has faced an increase in annual traffic delay of 20 hours in the Milwaukee area. That's not as bad as Portland (31), but not an outcome to be sought. If traffic demand keeps rising faster than roadway capacity, then much worse traffic congestion can be expected, and travel delay will be much worse. That the plan does not reduce congestion is not an argument against doing it --- it is an argument for doing more.

And there is no point in romanticizing about moving substantial amounts of demand to transit. SEWRPC estimates that traffic would double in the next 20 years, even if light rail, commuter rail and expanded bus systems were provided. There's good reason for this --- transit does not and cannot go where most people are going. Transit does a good job getting workers to downtown Milwaukee, but less than 15 percent of jobs are there. Elsewhere, automobile competitive transit service simply does not exist, and could not at any price the community would be capable of paying. This is not just a Milwaukee phenomenon. It is the same across the nation and in Western Europe. People who live in the suburbs, as most do, and work in the suburbs, as most do, generally find there is no auto competitive transit service, whether in Milwaukee, Portland, Milan or Paris.

And, as for the view that sprawl is a creation of the freeways, it is a fair question why Australian urban areas sprawl as much as American, yet only recently began to build urban freeways. Or, why is it that virtually all European urban population and employment growth has been in the suburbs in recent decades, even with much less freeway construction? It is that, as people get more affluent, and as populations increase, it is inevitable that more land be used for urban development. Thankfully, there is plenty of it, with 97 percent of the nation's land still rural. Thankfully, also, America's lower density development is associated with higher rates of home ownership, higher rates of African-American home ownership, lower consumer expenditures, less intense traffic congestion, less intense air pollution and faster travel times. This is not to suggest that "sprawl" is a policy objective to be sought --- the issue, rather, is freedom. When people are free to conduct their lives as they please, they tend to be happier and produce more wealth.

For state and local officials, the question comes down to whether reality is more important than ideology. For the Milwaukee area's more than 1.5 million residents, it is more than theoretical. It is about how much time they are going to spend in traffic congestion. A growing community needs more room, not less.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international demographics and transport firm located in the St. Louis area. He is a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris (a national university granting degrees through the doctoral level). Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985). Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to fill the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman on the Amtrak Reform Council (1999-2002).

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