Spring is here, which means it's time to build roads. My local intersection with one the heartland’s main corridors, I-75 in Cincinnati, offers me plenty of opportunities to revive a child’s delight in big digging. Monster trucks and earth-hauling equipment are gauging pieces off the hills along which the road cuts, while concrete form-work rises around what will be the buttresses, pillars, and retaining walls of a widened roadbed and new exit ramps.
The work is, here and along the roads I have traveled in the last few weeks, agonizingly slow and irritating; I have to remind myself of the improvements it will bring, while I sigh, hit the brakes, and try to admire the big toys at work while nor worrying about my next appointment. Traffic offers plenty of time for further consideration: Will this construction really bring improvement?
Countless studies have shown that wider roads and better connections tend to attract more users, so that, in the end, congestion just gets worse (for example). On the other, hand, after a few years of work on I-75 south of here, the three lanes all the way to Lexington—where I teach occasionally at the University of Kentucky—make for smooth sailing. Yet the two lanes to Louisville after I-71 splits off and heads west produce endless irritation and slow movement. Sometimes bigger roads are better.
The real issue is, of course, that the only option I have to get to either of these two cities, each about an hour-and-a-half away, is by car. There is no regular public transportation available, and even bus service is almost non-existent. In most other parts of the developed world, I could hop on a downtown train, do my work while riding, not contribute nearly as much to pollution, and walk from the station to the university. Not only are there no trains or other forms of public transportation, there are no plans for any. Our Ohio governor even gave back the funds offered to help build a high-speed train connecting our major cities.
The dismal public transit situation is conventional wisdom for many (and an opportunity for Schadenfreude for others). What I wonder is why we can’t at least improve the quality of our roads. A recall of Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification campaign, with an attention to careful planting and landscaping, might be a good start. Better would be the use of the kind of open-asphalt paving that can now reduce noise by as much as 70 percent. Most of the rumbling we hear from the highway almost a mile away from our house comes from the friction between tires and pavement, and technology can eliminate most of it. Smart asphalt also reduces spray, so that the highways is less dangerous during rain. Roads can also have embedded heating to prevent icing and smart sensors that can help regulate the flow of traffic.
It is possible to imagine a world in which smart pavement, smart cars, and embedded monitoring and controls would turn highways from gulches that pollute a wide swath of land around them with both particles and noise would become more like rivers. You could even live and work right along their banks.
Instead of any of this, we are just spending billions of dollars to build more dumb roads. Maybe it is time for us to stop being kids playing with big machines and grow up.