Think Buses and Trains are Empty? Take a Look at Rural Highways

Arian Horbovetz is a Strong Towns member who blogs at The Urban Phoenix. Today's article is republished from his blog with permission.

Public transit skeptics in the United States are quick to point out the “empty buses” and “subsidized regional trains.” The irony is when folks make these statements and then get into their car and drive 15 miles down a highway that is exclusively maintained by tax dollars.

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In all seriousness, we can look at our American highway system like we look at buses at peak and off-peak times. When I board the 23 Bus in the morning, bound for Henrietta, NY in RTS’s system, I’m ususlly standing the whole way. The bus is packed with rush hour riders, even in my mid-sized, car-oriented city. Now, if I were to take this bus at off-peak times of the day, or take a route that’s not as popular, or if you were to look at statistics regarding riders per seats available, the ridership capacity statistics would be invariably lower.

But this is true for our highway systems as well, especially in rural areas. When we look at the incredibly excessive land use, build cost and annual roadway maintenance in comparison to the abysmal average daily traffic counts that they cater to, the reality of the often overlooked and “overbuilt infrastructure” comes clearly into focus.

For example, let’s look at Great Rochester’s I-490 expressway, a major highway that connects I-90 with Rochester and suburbs to the east and west of the city. As you move west of Rochester, traffic counts dwindle to a comparable trickle despite the fact that the infrastructure is tremendously excessive. The reality is that the 3.5 mile stretch between the 33A Bergen exit and the I-90 interchange handles approximately 12,000 cars per day.

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Let’s make a general assumption that 11,000 of those 12,000 vehicles traverse this portion of highway between the 14 hour stretch of 7am and 9pm. That means that during this period, 5,500 cars pass in either direction. That’s 393 cars per direction per hour, or 6.55 cars per minute each way, or 1 car every 9.16 seconds each way. But let’s remember there are two lanes each way. That means there is an abysmally scarce 1 car every 18.32 seconds per lane. That’s a capacity that makes a bus with six people on it look “full.”

So picture it: if a car passes every nine seconds each way on a given right of way, wouldn’t you assume that one lane each way would be adequate? Let’s use this 3.5-mile stretch of road for example. If our I-490 expressway narrowed from four lanes to two, and decreased in speed from 65 miles per hour to the standard 55 miles per hour, the resulting loss of time between these exits per car would be about 30 seconds.

Now let’s look at the savings to the taxpayer. The average 4-lane highway costs approximately $4-6 million per mile to build, as opposed to the average two-lane road, which costs $2-3 million. And the average four lane highway in the U.S. costs a considerable $28,000 per mile annually to maintain, compared to smaller New York State roads which cost between $4,400 and $10,400 per mile.

Then there is the sheer amount of space committed to the relatively low traffic counts, much of which isn’t even roadway. For most of the stretch mentioned above, there is over 250 feet of space from the outside shoulder of each direction, with a large island of grass or trees in the middle.

A Google Satellite view of I-490 near the I-90 interchange

A Google Satellite view of I-490 near the I-90 interchange


Recently, while traveling in Scotland, I saw similar traffic volumes moving freely on two-lane roads under 20 feet wide with no divider.

A typical rural highway in Scotland

A typical rural highway in Scotland


If we look at the square footage consumed by the 250-foot wide right-of-way and island on the 3.5-mile stretch of highway mentioned above, compared to a two-lane road totaling 20 feet over the same distance, the current design takes up 4,620,000 square feet of space whereas the 20-foot wide version would only occupy just 369,600 square feet, a small fraction of what’s currently in place. That’s over 97 acres of space that could potentially become a tax revenue generator instead of a state and federal budgetary liability. And then there’s the environmental encroachment…but that’s a story for another day.

And for everyone who wants to talk about the sprawling space allocated to this 3.5 mile area in terms of safety as opposed to, say, the narrower roads my wife and I traversed in the U.K., it’s important to note that the U.K.’s traffic fatality rate is less than half that of the United States. Our wide roads don’t make us safer. On the contrary, by every measurable statistic, European roads and highways are narrower and safer than ours.

Despite carrying only 12,000 cars per day, this section of I-88 near Oneonta just underwent a resurfacing

Despite carrying only 12,000 cars per day, this section of I-88 near Oneonta just underwent a resurfacing

And while I used this little stretch of road as an “approachable” example, there are far longer stretches of highway in New York State that are just as wide and just as “built” that carry between 8,000-13,000 cars per day. The 77-mile stretch of I-88 between Harpursville and Cobleskill carries between 8,500 and 13,000 cars per day. A 30-mile stretch of I-81 carries between 10,000 and 12,000 cars per day.

I get it: to a skeptic, there are some potentially simplistic (though not untrue) assumptions here regarding spatial usage and cost per road-mile. But these fact-based assumptions are no more flagrant than the argument that public transit is always empty and overly burdensome for the American taxpayer. If our first thought when we see an empty bus is that it is “a waste of money and resources,” we must look at the countless miles of expensive and relatively empty road and highway space in our country’s infrastructure, draining our tax dollars at a rate that is sending this nation, its states and communities into financial peril.

Cover photo via Sam O’Leary.