Environmental Reviews Fail to Accurately Analyze Induced Vehicle Travel from Highway Expansion Projects

Induced travel is a well-documented effect in which expanding highway capacity increases the average travel speed on the highway, which in turn reduces the perceived “cost” of driving and thereby induces more driving. This increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increases congestion (often back to pre-expansion levels) and air pollutant emissions, reducing or eliminating the purported benefits of the expansion. Yet highway expansion projects continue to be proposed across California, often using congestion relief—and sometimes greenhouse gas reductions—as a justification for adding lanes. These rosy projections about the benefits of highway expansion projects indicate that the induced travel effect is often not fully accounted for in travel demand models or in the projects’ environmental review process.

With this problem in mind, researchers at the University of California, Davis developed an online tool to help agencies estimate the VMT induced annually by adding lanes to major roadways in California’s urbanized counties. The researchers also applied the calculator to estimate the vehicle travel induced by five highway expansion projects in California that had gone through environmental review within the past 12 years. They then compared their estimates with the induced travel analysis completed for the projects’ actual environmental impact assessments. This policy brief summarizes findings from that research, along with policy implications.