RELEASE: Wider Roads Fail and the Public Knows This


July 11 , 2023

Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director

Bill Pugh, Senior Policy Fellow

Message to DC Regional Officials:
The Public Knows Highway Expansions Do Not Cure Traffic

CSG shares new polls and new fact sheet on induced demand with the region’s elected officials ahead of their annual retreat

Calls for Shifting Funds from Highways to Smart Growth, Housing, Transit, Walking and Biking

With the region’s elected officials gathering at their annual retreat this Friday and Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth continued to urge reform of the region’s transportation priorities.

A national poll of 2001 voters (90% of whom are drivers) released last week by Transportation for America revealed that two-thirds of Americans know highway expansions don’t cure traffic. 67% of American voters polled agreed that widening highways attracts more people to drive, which creates more traffic in the long run, defeating the stated purpose for countless road expansion projects across the country.

In short, the public understands that “induced demand” is real, even if they are not aware of the term itself. Today, when officials in the DC region are planning for at least 900 more lane miles of highway and arterial road expansion and amid the ongoing debate over high-occupancy toll lanes for 495/270 in Maryland and 495 through Alexandria, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) urged officials to reconsider these plans. “CSG’s Induced Demand fact sheet for local, regional, and state officials – released today – makes clear the failures of road expansion,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Induced demand is the widely documented phenomenon in which widening major roads and highways results in more driving (vehicle miles traveled) that generally cancels out any congestion-reduction benefits in as little as five to ten years,” said Bill Pugh, Senior Policy Fellow for CSG and author of the fact sheet which draws upon numerous national and international studies and includes local DC area examples.

“Unfortunately, elected officials in the DC region continue to propose over 900 lane miles of major road expansion, and continue to ignore the reality that it won’t work,” said Schwartz. “They will end up wasting billions of tax dollars and make our quality of life worse, not better.”

The Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board is currently developing its Visualize 2050 regional “constrained” long range transportation plan1 (the existing 2045 plan includes 900 lane miles in road expansion), and in Northern Virginia right now, counties and cities are submitting project applications for funding through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. CSG has previously shown in its “On the Wrong Road” report that the NVTAuthority’s “unconstrained” Transaction 2050 plan would add 1000 lane miles of roads in Northern Virginia alone and induce growth in driving at 1.5 to 3 times the rate of population growth in the outer suburbs. To date, the NVTAuthority has allocated over half of its regional funding to road capacity expansion projects, even though the agency’s own Technology Strategic Plan acknowledges the reality of induced demand.

Bill Pugh continued, “In our research for our fact sheet we note that the expansion of I-270 in Maryland in 1991 from eight lanes to 12 lanes created a textbook case of induced demand as documented by the Washington Post in this 1999 article. Traffic gridlock returned in just eight years. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) later confirmed this finding.”

“As Governor Wes Moore and his Administration consider the massive expansion of I-270 and I-495 with proposed private toll lanes, it is important to note that these too will fail because of induced demand – filling up the general purpose lanes and many connecting roads as drivers seek to enter and exit the much wider highway,” said Schwartz. 

The region’s Transportation Planning Board (TPB) has confirmed that HOT lanes induce additional vehicle travel and greenhouse gas emissions:

When adding capacity instead of converting existing capacity, HOV lanes induce new vehicle travel in urbanized areas. Regional simulation modeling studies suggest that the additional VMT will at least partially offset any emissions benefits resulting from smoother traffic flow, and in many cases will completely offset the emissions benefits. These conclusions are also supported by project-level analyses of emissions impacts of HOV and express lane additions reported in recent project environmental documents.  Climate Change Mitigation Study of 2021, Review of Climate Action Plans and Literature, July 2021, see page 61. 

“TPB’s Climate study also shows that even with a rapid adoption of electric vehicles, our region has to reduce per capita miles of driving by 20% to meet its climate target,” said Pugh. “Unfortunately, the region’s currently adopted transportation plan, which spends roughly double on expanding roads compared to improving transit, walking and biking facilities, would only reduce per capita passenger vehicle vehicle miles of travel by 5% by 2045. But we must do much more and quickly, to reduce the amount we drive.”

“In contrast to ineffective road expansion, smart growth offers greater freedom through travel options and shorter trips centered in walkable, transit-oriented communities, frequent and expanded transit networks and dedicated bus lanes. These measures would reduce the amount we have to drive, provide more effective alternatives, improve access to jobs and opportunity, reduce household transportation costs, and reduce emissions,” said Schwartz.

Americans understand that these solutions work! Again, according to the Transportation for America survey, more than 82 percent of Americans preferred congestion mitigation strategies other than America’s default approach of building bigger and bigger roads for drivers, and were about twice as likely to pick basic road repair and public transportation over building new lane miles.

Add to this the findings from the just released national survey by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) showing the significant demand for walkable communities and better proximity to daily needs:

  • 78% of respondents would pay more to live in a walkable community. 
  • About half of the survey’s 2,000 respondents say they prefer a walkable community and shorter commute, even if it means living in an attached home, such as a townhome or condo, or having a smaller yard. 
  • Majority of survey respondents say they prefer a house with a small yard over one with a larger yard that is farther away from amenities.

“The time is long overdue for our region’s elected officials and transportation planners to change course and to adopt new regional transportation plans that match their expressed goals to focus development near high-capacity transit, provide more affordable housing,  better transit, and safer roads, and slash our greenhouse gas emissions. It’s time to shift billions of dollars from fruitlessly expanding highways to supporting a more sustainable future,” concluded Schwartz.

1 The Constrained Long Range Plan (CLRP) is “constrained” by reasonably foreseeable funding in contrast to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s Transaction 2045 plan which is “unconstrained” (and also unaffordable).


The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington, DC region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Our mission is to advocate for walkable, bikeable, inclusive, transit-oriented communities as the most sustainable and equitable way for the region to grow and provide opportunities for all.