A 45 mph world

We've built a 45 mile per hour world, one that moves too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a platform for value. Our transportation system embraces mediocrity, not from a lack of resources, but from a lack of focus. We must quit fooling ourselves, understand what it means to really create value in a transportation system and commit ourselves to building Strong Towns.

I'll be a guest Monday morning on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning show. MPR has been doing a lot of work on their Forced to Choose series, which is taking a look at some of the tough choices that cities are being forced to make in economic down times. The multiple occasions I've been interviewed by MPR staff in this series I've tried to introduce the idea that our problem was not just getting ahead of ourselves in irrational exuberance but that the post WW II model of development itself is fatally flawed, particularly from a financial perspective. That's a bigger leap than they've been able to make in their reporting to date, but I'll keep trying. You can listen live or download the podcast later directly from their website.

Seems like I've offended someone from every group at least a little bit with my commentary questioning the pedestrian friendliness of the Diverging Diamond Interchange (or DDI for short, as I've found out they call it in the biz). I'll take one comment from @cartographer1977 as representative of the criticism I think most important to address:

The problem is not the concept of the DDI but rather the poor pedestrian and bicycle facilities at this particular DDI. 

The Diverging Diamond Interchange may be a fantastic way to move more auto traffic in less time and with more safety than using a standard interchange. One could also argue that the modest pedestrian facilities -- ridiculous afterthought though they may be -- are a step in the right direction, acknowledgment of the need to safely accommodate the long-neglected non-auto traffic. 

The problem with these observations is that they are rooted in a fantasy world, one we've created for ourselves, complete with false metrics and all the confirmation bias necessary to avoid reality. It is tough to have an intelligent discussion on the DDI because, in order to do so, we need to step way, way back and truly understand our transportation system.

Let me start by pointing out one cold, hard fact: We do not have anywhere near the money necessary to maintain our current surface transportation system.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund is broke. Projections give it dimes on the dollar of what is necessary to maintain the systems we have created. Those problems simply roll downhill, and so our states are in a position just as difficult, if not more so. States, not having the revenues to maintain their systems or the ability to raise more revenue, have turned to debt to forestall the day of reckoning. Just look at Texas -- allegedly one of the country's most prosperous, as well as auto-obsessed, states -- and see how they have used debt to kick the can down the road.

As governor, Perry advocated the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, an ambitious transportation scheme that relied on foreign investment and tolls for financing. It was abandoned after the outcry from property owners whose land would have been claimed by eminent domain.

Since then, the state has relied heavily on issuance of bonds to build highways. For the first time in history, the Texas Legislature this year appropriated more cash to pay for debt service than to pay for actually building new roads: $850 million per year versus $575 million.

Lawmakers also approved the use of $3 billion approved by voters in 2007 for road construction, but the Texas Department of Transportation estimates the state must pay $65 million in annual financing costs for every $1 billion it borrows through the sale of bonds.

The state began borrowing money in 2003 to pay for roads and will owe $17.3 billion by the end of next year, contributing to the rapid escalation of total state debt, from $13.4 billion in 2001 to $37.8 billion today.

The money will cover just a fraction of the transportation needs identified by planning experts. The Texas Transportation Institute two years ago placed the state's highway construction needs through 2030 at $488 billion.

The second fact that needs to be acknowledged is this: The system we've built is financially inefficient and unproductive.

This is where I'm going to lose a lot of engineers who believe that each part of "The System" can be inefficient and dumb yet, somehow magically when combined, "The System" overall becomes this awesome engine of American prosperity. This is the fantasy part I referred to earlier. What gives us this belief?

It can't be the numbers. We reported earlier this year how the American Society of Civil Engineers' own report showed that the costs to maintain the current surface transportation system at "minimum tolerable conditions" far exceed any of the benefits, even as they massively inflated the benefits.

And do we really believe, as just one example of many, that saving a few thousand cars from having to sit at a railroad crossing each day translates into $47 million worth of wealth created? We deliver ourselves a derivation of this lie every time we make a major transportation investment.

But go beyond the numbers. We build an interchange on a highway -- diamond or otherwise -- and what happens? We get a Wal-Mart, a couple of gas stations and a Pet Smart. Does anyone believe for a second that, without this investment, people wouldn't find a way to buy cheap imported goods, gasoline and dog food? The United States has six times the retail space per capita of any European country! There are diminishing returns here. We're long past anything that makes economic sense in a true market economy.

Go ahead and argue that if we simply paid more in taxes we could afford our surface transportation system. That is ASCE's argument -- we're a wealthy country, after all. Well, besides the fact that you would be living in a fantasy world (because it's not going to happen), it wouldn't help if it did.

Raise the gas tax enough to make a difference (we're talking $2 or $3 per gallon in Minnesota, according to people I've spoken with at MnDOT who have done the calculations). What would happen? People would drive a lot, lot less. We would then have the money to maintain a bunch a roads that people wouldn't be using -- not a viable long-term policy. Okay, how about switch to a mileage tax. Again, when you charge people by the mile you'll find that people will avoid paying the charge by reducing their trips, at least if the charge is anywhere near high enough to reflect the cost. Maybe you think people driving less is a great solution, but if you do, you can't be arguing that our money currently is well spent by expanding the capacities of "The System".

So maybe we should just take money from the general fund (incidentally, this is what we have been doing). In that case, there would continue to be no connection between what people want (more capacity) and what people are willing to pay (little to nothing) and we go right on building more in the current, unproductive model. The lack of productivity -- the lack of an ability to capture any financial return -- would ultimately catch up to us again (as it has now) and we're right back to where we started, only with even more of "The System" to maintain. 

This leads to the third fact about our surface transportation system: Americans do not understand the difference between a road and a street.

(My recent TEDx talk was on this very topic, although there is only so much you can say in 15 minutes' time. I'll elaborate more here and in an upcoming report we are working on.)

Roads move people between places while streets provide a framework for capturing value within a place.

The value of a road is in the speed and efficiency that it provides for movement between places. Anything that is done that reduces the speed and efficiency of a road devalues that road. If we want to maximize the value of a road, we eliminate anything that reduces the speed and efficiency of travel.

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create capturable value. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

These simple concepts are totally lost on us, especially those in the engineering profession. If you want to start to see the world with Strong Towns eyes and truly understand why our development approach is bankrupting us, just watch your speedometer. Anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return. 

In the United States, we've built a 45 mile per hour world for ourselves. It is truly the worst of all possible approaches. Our neighborhoods are filled with STROADS (a street/road hybrid) that spread investment out horizontally, making it extremely difficult to capture the amount of value necessary for the public to sustain the transportation systems that serve them. Between our neighborhoods, towns and cities we have built STROADS that are encumbered with intersections, vehicles turning across traffic, merging cars and people taking routine local trips. These are not fast, safe and efficient corridors.

At best, the Diverging Diamond Interchange is putting lipstick on a pig. At worst, it is a continuation of our delusional fantasy that somehow we can sustain prosperity without building places of value. The Death Star pedestrian trench is despotic and demeaning. In the big picture, it is also an utterly meaningless waste of money.

We need to build places of value. We need to start building Strong Towns.


Coming up on the Strong Towns Blog:

  • What the Springfield, MO, Diverging Diamond Interchange would look like in a Strong Towns world.
  • Beyond fantasy: How we change our approach to create value.


Last week was our Give to the Max fundraiser. Many thanks to everyone that made a donation in support of the Strong Towns movement. It is never too late to direct some of your end-of-the-year giving to Strong Towns. Just go to our donations page. We appreciate all the support.