Broad is the Road that Leads to Destruction

Vince Graham is a South Carolina-based developer, urbanist, and longtime friend of Strong Towns. He is the developer of the award-winning New Urbanist community l’On, and the former chair of the South Carolina Infrastructure Bank.

This piece was originally published in the Charleston Post and Courier. It has been lightly edited for Strong Towns.

I do know that we need wider roads, but give us a break.
— North Charleston City Councilwoman Dorothy Williams, The Post and Courier, Aug. 8, 2019

I found it distressing to read of the plight of Dorothy Williams and her neighbors in North Charleston’s Highland Terrace neighborhood. Their homes are threatened by the S.C. Department of Transportation’s $1.1 billion plan to widen Interstate 526 and reconfigure its intersection with I-26. As the Post Courier reports:

In Highland Terrace, some residents are old enough to remember when I-26 was built, right through their lower-income and predominantly black community.

“I do know that we need wider roads, but give us a break,” said Williams, who was a high school student when I-26 was built through her neighborhood. Later, I-526 was built along the south end of the community, and Charleston International Airport grew along the western side.

“Every time they want to make any improvement, they move the black people out,” Williams said. “It’s always been us, not just in Charleston and North Charleston. My sister lives in Atlanta, and she had to move so they could build a stadium.”

But why, having borne witness to a half-century of such destructive plans, does Williams still accept the notion that we need wider roads? Especially when such policy tends to worsen congestion.

Roads are widened at tremendous cost to the many for the enrichment of a privileged few: engineers, road contractors, concrete and asphalt merchants, and associated lawyers and money peddlers. Second-order beneficiaries include those positioned to exploit this traffic-concentrating strategy: land speculators, strip mall developers, auto dealers, fast food franchises, national production home builders, etc.

And, lest we forget, the politicians who collect contributions from these special interests during election campaigns.

Collectively, this group constitutes a sprawl-building industrial complex of massive proportions. Their program does not solve the congestion problem, it perpetuates it.

Here’s the formula:

  1. Lobby for wider roads under the pretense they will ease congestion.

  2. Wider roads stimulate travel, which boosts fuel use, increasing gas tax revenue.

  3. Congestion, temporarily relieved, gradually builds as does political pressure to widen roads again.

  4. Increased gas tax revenue (now supplemented with sales tax revenue) combined with debt issuances is used to fund more road widening, which temporarily eases congestion, while stimulating travel, boosting fuel use and gas tax revenue.

  5. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s a case study for how misaligned incentives foster perverse outcomes.

Broad is the road that leads to destruction. Narrow is the road that leads to life.
— Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14)

Before the road widening craze began in the late 1950s, cities developed incrementally with traffic-diffusing networks of relatively narrow streets.

The pattern goes back thousands of years, but the oldest local example is that 62 acres of Charleston once surrounded by walls. The 1670s-era plan for this area consisted of a simple network of six intersecting streets. Over the next century, 10 more streets were developed, crisscrossing the original six, enhancing connectivity and opportunity. Churches, theaters, stores, offices, banks, restaurants, museums, a city hall, school and about 750 homes now occupy the area. Bonus: it’s beautiful!

Highland Terrace has good bones. Its network of narrow streets represents a continuation of the time-tested tradition of the Old Walled City. Had neighborhoods like it, between Charleston International Airport and Cannon Street, not been eviscerated by the highway building mania of the 1960s, who knows what aesthetic, economic and social value might have been conserved and created?

Spending $1.1 billion to make a bad idea worse would be yet another comically absurd exercise in inducing suburban expansion. Instead, we should redirect funding toward enhancing older networks of narrow roads that lead to life.

(Cover photo by Oleg Kuzmin on Unsplash)