Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yes, we do need to build more....

Last week, the Urbanophile posted an article called "Yes, we Do Need to Build More Roads." He expected that a lot of people wouldn't like it, and that he would come under a hail of criticism. I didn't really see this hail materialize, but hey, I didn't like the piece, and I'm ready to add my criticism.

I criticize a lot of people on this blog. Some of them, like Joel Kotkin and Chris Christie, are dishonest trolls who are not likely to be swayed by any argument here, and the best thing to do is to discredit them and hope they go away. Some, like Roger K. Lewis and Walter Hook, seem to share my goals, but are clueless as to how to accomplish them and too arrogant to realize how clueless they are; I try to point out what's wrong with their arguments, but don't have much hope that they'll change them. Others, like Yonah Freemark and Steven Higashide, I regard as allies who share most of my goals and are generally pretty sharp; I try to be pretty gentle with them and hope they'll see my side of things.

The Urbanophile is definitely in the third group: he clearly cares about cities and the environment, and is always looking to learn more and revise his thinking, so let's all hope that he reads this, doesn't get defensive, and is persuaded that no, we don't actually need to build very many roads at all.

Basically, the Urbanophile argues that the population of the U.S. is growing, and in the last decade the country added more people than were living in the top twelve cities in the country. Future populations will need a way to get to work, but a lot of the jobs are in the suburbs, and building new transit is hard. Therefore, we should build highways to avoid "decades of commuting misery." Let me take each of these one by one.

The population of the U.S. may have grown quite a bit over the last decade, but as they say, past performance is no guarantee of future return. As a specialist in Rust Belt cities, the Urbanophile knows that populations can go down.

Migration is the primary source of population growth in the United States, and it is not some mysterious force of nature. It is a phenomenon whose causes are pretty well-understood: if life sucks in one place, move to another where you think it won't suck as much. When the U.S. economy tanked, a lot of Mexicans decided not to come here.

But let's assume that we will see a significant increase in the population over the next fifty years. Why does that mean we need more roads?

Do we need more roads because there's no room in the walkable, transit-oriented old urban areas? No, because we can just build more walkable, transit-oriented new urban areas. Do we need more roads because the jobs are in the suburbs? No. If more people come, it's because they expect there to be jobs for them, and these new jobs can be located in walkable urban areas. Alternatively, we could transform the sprawl where the existing jobs are into walkable urban areas and build residential developments within easy walking or transit access.

And now the weakest point in the Urbanophile's argument:

But even if we achieve our potential in transit, America still needs to build more roads. We've got an interstate system originally designed for a 1960 population of 180 million and we are now well over 300 million and going up. By 2050 we'll have more than double the 1960 population. This will require a major expansion of infrastructure, and that includes highway infrastructure.

There is nothing that says that a major expansion of infrastructure will require any of it to be highway infrastructure. You might just as well say that since we have a canal system originally designed for an 1820 population of ten million, we have to dig more canals. There may be good reasons to build roads, but the fact that our roads were originally designed for a smaller population is not one of them.

Finally, let's look at the way the Urbanophile frames the whole piece:

Road are clearly out of fashion in urban planning circles. Conventional wisdom now decries roads in favor of public transit, walking or biking in developments designed to mimic traditional 19th century urbanism. Common refrains are “we can't build our way out of congestion” or “widening roads to cure congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” Also frequently noted is the vehicle miles traveled has – at least until recently – outpaced population growth.

But this piece of conventional wisdom is also deeply flawed. It obscures the bigger point that in a growing country we need to expand infrastructure to keep pace.


Thanks to a fortuitous lease of the Indiana Toll Road however, over 50 miles of freeway in the region are now being widened. Without this, the region would have faced decades of commuting misery.
The principle that we can't build our way out of congestion is not "conventional wisdom." It's an established generalization built on observations of multiple events over the course of the twentieth century. It has provided the basis for past predictions that have proven true. It does not obscure the idea that we need to expand infrastructure to keep pace with a growing country. On the contrary, it shows how unwise it is to apply that idea unthinkingly and simplistically.

Sure, it's possible to fail to build adequate infrastructure to deal with a growing population; this has happened in Lagos, Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro. But the assumption that all infrastructure must include a minimum proportion of auto infrastructure guarantees an incentive for people to drive, and is essentially a recipe for decades of commuting misery.

There's a larger point about the relative efficiency of various transportation infrastructure, but I'll leave that for another post. I'm going to close with this request: that the Urbanophile take seriously the principle of induced demand, learn about it, and put the same amount of thought and energy into any critique of it that I put into this critique of his ideas. Dismissing it out of hand as "conventional wisdom" is arrogant, thoughtless and disrespectful. It's the kind of thing I'd expect from Joel Kotkin or Roger K. Lewis, but I generally think that Aaron M. Renn is above that.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I think the proliferation of roads and the idea that we can build out of them is basically a relic of the same thinking that gets us that TTI index every year. It's all about travel speeds rather than accessibility. There's more than enough room to grow, but we don't need to do it with freeways.

Will Handsfield said...

Mr. Renn uses a bit of hyperbole in describing our interstate system, which is unfortunate. The interstate system was originally conceived in the 50s and built from the late 50s through the 90s. The entire system has seen multiple enlargements as it was being built and in the decades since. The planners in '56 didn't plan 12 lanes of I-405 through the Sepulveda pass in Los Angeles, it has been expanded from 4 lanes to 12, and is a twice daily traffic jam despite all attempts at increasing capacity. Induced demand is the reality, not some sort of fad thinking among planners.

Alon Levy said...

More to the point, the US has a highway network suitable for a billion people, not 300 million. Medium-sized American cities, such as Seattle and San Diego, have larger freeway networks than London and Paris, and their freeways completely carve up downtown whereas the European ones stay out of it. And those freeways are more overbuilt, with more lanes, and more massive interchanges. The 610 beltway in Houston has 7 four-level stack interchanges; the entire UK only has 3 such interchanges.

The Urbanophile said...

I think you'll find that European countries like Spain have been building freeways at a fearsome rate, even as they make other investments in roads. European cities are smarter about going into the city centers, but they are also more historic than US cities as well.

The most aggressive plan for increasing population in transit served areas is PlanNYC, which only anticipates another 1 million New Yorkers by 2030. In theory it might be possible to build large new urban areas around transit. In practice, it isn't realistic. I think urban transit oriented development can gain market share, but that still leaves the bulk of the world in an auto-dependent state.

Keep in mind too that transit, unlike freeways, doesn't carry freight. (Even Jane Jacobs liked trucks)

Yes, I believe there's such a thing as induced demand. Yes, I believe we need to more rationally price roads - and with ETC we've got the technical means to do it. Even so, I believe there's legitimate demands for net new highways in many cases.

It's not a popular stance in urbanist circles and I always welcome disagreement. But I can't see the highway going away any time soon.

Alon Levy said...

Aaron, a few points:

1. Aggressive TOD can and does happen when the incentives are done right - for example, in Tokyo.

2. The smaller freeway networks of the EU are adequate even though the trucking mode share is higher there. And mainline rail carries plenty of freight as well as passengers in Switzerland, Russia, and China.

3. What I'm saying about smaller urban freeway networks is true not just for Europe, but also Canada, Australia, and even South Korea. Look at how few freeways exist in Vancouver or Sydney.

4. Outside tiny medieval cores, European cities grew in the industrial revolution, just like American cities. There's nothing about most of London or Vienna that's more historic than Boston or Philadelphia.

Alai said...

Well, why not rationally price first, since it's much easier to do that than to build entire freeways. Then, if the prices paid for travel justify new freeways, then we can build them, and make a profit doing so.

Additionally, the parking should be rationally priced, so that you don't artificially stimulate the demand by providing under-market parking.

MB94128 said...

Urbanophile - "Keep in mind too that transit, unlike freeways, doesn't carry freight."

Let's use the outlier case of the CarGoTram* in Dresden as an object lesson. How could a transit system carry freight ? By designing shared facilities - tracks, conduits, and stations. There is one class of light-weight cargo that has traditionally been rail borne - the mail (see below for Wikipedia articles).

So what if a transit station were designed with a post office at one end ? Wouldn't that be a reasonable condition for Federal funding ? Most of the mail these days travels in compact carts that, generally (I've handled them at a food bank during a mail carrier food drive), roll right along. So loading / unloading a bunch of these carts doesn't take a lot of time. That opens the possibility that a mail car could be added to a consist at the end without disrupting the dwell time of that consist. That's in addition to after hours deliveries of non-urgent mail to the secure holding area under / next to the post office.

Another option is a sort of PP partnership that adds trackage to a system. The transit system gets reduced-cost route miles while the private partner gets a rail-based route that connects a facility (transfer spur, factory, lab, etc.) in the boonies to an in-town distribution center. Said connection could also be used for an employee shuttle.

Then there is invisible cargo - data. By designing in conduits and cable vaults for more than the transit system needs that system future-proofs itself. Those pipes and chambers could be rented out to various parties to house fiber optic cables and the assorted black boxes that route the signals. If you live in a city with a subway tunnel take a look at a map of it. See what all is adjacent to that tunnel and could use a fast network connection.

P.S. The Urbanophile is based in a city - Chicago - that used to run cargo through its tunnels.

Wikipedia articles :
"Tram" - "Cargo trams"
"Travelling Post Office" (U.K.)
"London Post Office Railway"
"Railway post office" (U.S.)

Helen Bushnell said...

To the Urbanophile: Within the European Union, the greater the percentage of energy usage is supplied by petroleum, the worse off financially that country is. Spain is in financial trouble because they have been aggressively building highways.