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Mayor Gimenez Mocks Woman for Correctly Pointing Out New Highways Create More Congestion
Photo by Alejandro Herrera / Flickr

Mayor Gimenez Mocks Woman for Correctly Pointing Out New Highways Create More Congestion

Few pockets of Miami-Dade are more hellishly clogged with hair-rending traffic than West Kendall. So passions ran hot when Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimemez held a town hall there yesterday. Fresh off a trip to China, where Gimenez cooled on his dreams of a new high-tech bus system, the county mayor was there to sell a much more old-fashioned idea to alleviate that congestion: more highways. Specifically, he wants a 14-mile, $600 million extension of the Dolphin Expressway.

The idea was mostly met with support, the Miami Herald's Doug Hanks reports, but one woman stood up to challenge the mayor by pointing out building new highways tends to actually create more traffic in the long run.

Gimenez's response: "That's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard," Hanks reports.

Myriam Marquez, the mayor's spokesperson, says Gimenez's point was that "the development rules for this proposed highway do not encourage growth" because the Urban Development Boundary would prevent new housing from being built near the road. As a result, the expansion "would draw cars from Kendall Drive, Killian Parkway, SW 120th Street, and many other now-clogged East-West roads" without adding new residents to the area.

Sorry, Carlos. But you're dead wrong on that one. The mayor has stubbornly fought efforts to expand Metrorail, which has languished with delays and decaying cars despite voters' efforts to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the system. So maybe it's no shock that Gimenez has never bothered to read any science on traffic. 

Yes, it seems like common sense that building more highways with more lanes would ease traffic jams. But scientists who have studied the problem for decades have found the opposite is true.

The idea, explained by two scientists in a seminal 2009 paper in the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, is called "induced demand." The scientists looked at the number of new roadways built in major U.S. cities over a 20-year period and the number of miles driven in that time, and they discovered something very weird.

“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Matthew Turner, a University of Toronto scientist who co-authored the paper, told Wired.

In other words, if a city built 5 percent more highway, the number of miles driven increased by exactly 5 percent. Cities that laid down 15 percent more asphalt saw 15 percent more miles driven.

Either city engineers were building exactly the needed number of new roadways — which seems highly unlikely — or drivers naturally filled up whatever highway is built, keeping traffic congestion at a maddening constant. The scientists found the latter is much likelier and proposed the "fundamental law of road congestion": Drivers meet whatever supply cities create in terms of new roads.

Other scientists have found the same with such reliable consensus that by 2015, California's Department of Transportation even admitted in new proposal documents that all available research showed new highways don't ease congestion.

In fact, cities have also found the opposite to be true. Major cities such as Paris have actually shrunk highways in recent decades and found little difference in terms of daily congestion. That's probably because drivers instinctively make choices about where and when to drive and whether to use public transit instead based on the severity of traffic jams.

So what's the answer? It sure doesn't seem like Gimenez's latest scheme, which could involve moving the Urban Development Boundary — the line preventing developers from building on the vital wetlands to Miami's west — to lay down more miles of highway. Gimenez says new tolls on the road would pay for the work, though those kinds of projections have failed elsewhere in the state.

A better option would be expanding public transit so residents in places such as West Kendall would have reasonable choices other than driving every day. Improved bike lanes and safer roadways might get more people out of their cars for shorter trips.

Scientists who have studied congestion also found that — gulp — congestion pricing during peak hours and more expensive parking can discourage excess driving; those options hardly seem fair for West Kendall residents, though, unless they have a train or reliable bus to choose instead of price-gouging toll lanes.

(Marquez says the highway could eventually lead to better public transit as well. "The Kendall Parkway is designed with the highway making room for a train or other mass transit that could be added in the future without having to spend money on buying right-of-way. And it will have a commuter express bus lane with satellite parking," she says.)

Either way, Mayor Gimenez was wrong to mock the resident who suggested new highways aren't the answer to West Kendall's problems.

Even ignoring the environmental and urban-sprawl worries of a new megahighway so far west, science suggests the expanded Dolphin would be, at best, a temporary fix. In a few years, those 14 new miles of roadway would soon be just as clogged as the hundreds of miles already built across Miami-Dade.

Update: Michelle Garcia, the woman who confronted Gimenez about highways creating more traffic, says she believes the mayor was trying to silence her.

"People tend to mock other people to shut them up when they say something they don't want to hear," Garcia says. "I said something the mayor didn't want to hear. But I'm right, he's wrong, and he isn't going to shut me up."

Hanks also tweeted out the transcribed exchange between the two:

Garcia is actually a political candidate — she's running as a Democrat this fall in state House District 119, which is currently held by GOP Rep. Jeanette Nuñez. But Garcia says she didn't attend yesterday's meeting as a candidate and never mentioned her political run during the Q&A session with Gimenez.

Garcia lives in West Kendall and commutes to Miramar every day, so she lives the gridlock Gimenez was discussing at the meeting. She says she first pointed out the county was wrong to schedule the town hall at 6:30 p.m. on a workday.

"I was able to leave work early, but the vast majority of residents affected by this traffic were never going to be able to make it on time," she says.

She says she told Gimenez that West Kendall needed commuter rail access, not more roads, and argued the highway expansion would ultimately make traffic worse. Gimenez's dismissive comments only made her more passionate about the argument, she says.

"It was a bully tactic," she says. "But I'll see him at the next commission meeting. I'm not done speaking up about this."

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