Minneapolis-St. Paul traffic isn't a problem. It's part of a solution

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Traffic on I-94 in the Twin Cities looks like this all too often. We should embrace that pain. Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Ask any driver in the Metro and they’ll tell you traffic’s been bad lately.

Big traffic jams on I-94, 35W, and other major arteries are becoming a matter of routine, and for years our highways have been ranked among the most congested in the country.

The culprit, according to most experts, is the increasing Twin Cities population. Minneapolis has grown by nearly 10 percent since 2010, and St. Paul by nearly 7 percent. More folks in the Cities means more cars on the highway. More cars on the highway means more traffic.

But according to conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, the real culprit behind all the backed-up traffic is them damn liberals with their hippie-dip buses, trains, and bike lanes.

All that money we’ve been spending on safer, more efficient, and more environmentally ethical transportation solutions should’ve been spent, they say, laying down more blacktop. Widening the highways is the real antidote for the Metro’s congestion problem.

They’re wrong, of course. The reason is an economic principle called “induced demand.” Traffic engineers have known for decades that the only thing accomplished by widening highways is encouraging more people to own and drive cars.

As soon as congestion in one former bottleneck eases due to the the extra lanes, word spreads. That stretch of road gets a good reputation, and more folks get on it with their vehicles. More cars on the highway means more traffic jams, and the whole congestion cycle begins anew.

Meaning: The prescription of building out more lanes on more roads sounds like a good idea, but it’s actually what got us into this traffic jam in the first place.

The CAE report doesn’t just mis-identify the solution. It misdiagnoses the problem. Traffic congestion is annoying, sure — but it’s also a necessary tool to fix what ails Minnesota highways. Hear me out.

We already have too much infrastructure to keep it all in good repair. Adding more blacktop will do nothing more than create decades of increased maintenance costs — Minnesota winters are hell on highways — and make the traffic problem worse. (Picture those months-long lane closures on I-35 and I-94 for routine maintenance each summer.)

The real solution is convincing fewer people in town to own cars, and convincing people who do own cars to use them less to get around town. Viewed this way, traffic congestion is perfect for driving people off the road.

Think of it like the physical pain of a broken ankle. The purpose of the pain is to bring our attention to the ankle, and get us to lay the hell down, and stop stomping on the injury. We could pop a bunch of painkillers and keep walking around, but before long, the painkillers will wear off, and we need another dose.

We’re still moving around, but each new step is just grinding down the bones, further misshaping the ankle. Instead, we need crutches: Something to take the weight off an already stressed system, let it set itself right, and heal.

Traffic congestion is good. Traffic congestion pushes people — elected officials, engineers, and commuters themselves — towards real, lasting solutions. You won’t find any of those in that CAE report.

Embrace the pain, Twin Cities commuters. We should stop hobbling around, even just for a moment, and listen to what it’s trying to tell us.


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