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. The recent 2010 Census results put this in stark relief. The rate of growth from 2000 to 2010 slowed considerably from the previous decade, but still at a robust 9.7%, or 27.3 million new Americans. It would have been physically impossible to house all those people in traditional urban communities well-served by transit. The 27.3 million number is more than the combined 2009 population of the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.
In fact, this national growth is greater than the combined population of the 12 largest municipalities in the country.
That's just one decade's worth of growth. America's traditional urban areas couldn't contain this, even if they were emptied of all their current residents. And the United States is projected to add an additional 90 million people by 2050. Where are all those people going to go? And how would they get to work even if they could live in these cities, given that much of America's job growth has been suburban?
Keep in mind also that much of this urban and transit infrastructure must be seen as more legacy than a reflection of modern choices. It was largely compete 50 or more years ago. Only Portland and Washington, DC have really managed to build new transit friendly urban core cities in the modern era. And despite their growing populations, these two places can only absorb a relatively small amount of new population every year. In Washington, it’s less population growth than gentrification – the replacement of largely poor African Americans with more affluent whites – that is the most outstanding demographic trend.
That's not to say America can't invest more in transit or build more transit friendly cities. It can and it should. In particular, large, already dense urban areas like New York, Chicago, and Washington with large core area employment require major investment to upgrade their systems.
Even smaller cities need better transit options and more urban neighborhoods. They are simply not well positioned to compete head on with newer suburban areas built from the ground up to support an auto-oriented lifestyle. But this will be difficult since they will have to build transit largely from scratch, and given anticipated cutbacks in new federal transit funding. this suggests they would be well-advised to avoid costly boondoggle mega-projects in favor of unglamorous but basic activities like running a quality urban bus system.
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.
Just as one example, consider a moderate growth area like the Indianapolis-Carmel MSA. Its interstate system was mostly designed and completed circa 1970. The region had a population of a bit over 1.1 million then. Today it is over 1.7 million, an increase of 52%, or 596,000 people. A county the size of that increase would be the second largest county in the state of Indiana, well exceeding that of today’s #2, Lake County, a heavily urbanized county in Northwest Indiana.
Yet until recently there had been almost no expansion of the Indianapolis freeway system. Fortunately, it was over-designed when built, but that is no longer the case. 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.
Unfortunately, that’s the bind where most cities now find themselves: managing growth with funding for roadway expansion and even maintenance running dry nationally.
Keep in mind that tomorrow's roads need not resemble yesterday's monstrosities. The days of simplistically adding lanes while neglecting basics like enclosed drainage, sidewalks and paths, bus shelters, and aesthetics are likely over in many parts of the country. We need to provide room for the traffic we need to accommodate without excessive over-designs for a 15 minute peak of the peak, or dehumanizing roadway design approaches. Reform of our civil engineering educational system is eminently doable as plenty of great examples of suburban roadway design already exist. Federal standards need a revamp as well. We need to build not just more, but also better roads.
With a botched stimulus, huge deficits at the federal and state level, and a public that has decisively turned against those deficits, a major construction program seems unlikely at this time. But in a couple years the economy should be back and a plan for fiscal recovery put in place and under execution. If not, we'll have much bigger problems than roads.
But assuming we get past this moment, we need to be laying the groundwork for a major continuation of the long history of American investment in infrastructure, from the Erie Canal to the interstate highway system. This includes not only a significant boost in urban transit spending where appropriate, but also a major program of both roadway repair and quality expansion, particularly in our growing metro regions. And as the Indiana example of a Toll Road lease shows, this doesn't all have to come from tax dollars. Without this investment, our critical transport networks will ultimately seize up and America cannot hope to be competitive globally over the long haul.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.
Photo of a suburban road in Carmel, IN by author.