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Monday
Nov212011

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.

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Reader Comments (17)

Chuck, as a Minnesotan I know you'll appreciate my critique of premature generalization: classic rural roads (at least in Pennsylvania) usually also have top speeds of 50 mph or so. Example. In these instances, there is not enough population or traffic to sustain value-capturing development, and the roads link between small towns. (The towns, on the other hand, are knee-deep in this non-value-capturing system.)

Interstates are the ultimate manifestation of roads. All streetlike capacities have been stripped away from them. This is partly why urban Interstates are so destructive to their surroundings.

I've also referred you to a paper that showed that those hideous "stroad" Franken-hybrids (as in Frankenstein, not the Minnesotan senator) are also the least safe, in terms of accident rates, and for much the same reason that these roads fail to capture value: urban levels of access coupled with rural throughput rates. Because they maximize conflicts at speed, in other words. Something that sticks in my mind from that paper was that the American traffic engineering profession has failed so miserably since--in the pursuit of preventing accidents from driver error--they have created a systemically unsafe transportation situation. (The same argument can be applied to passenger trains and the FRA.) Kunstler once colorfully called it something like "creating roads for Saturday night drunkards". I think a less emotive way of putting it is that we have designed the entire suburban transportation system, from culs-de-sac on up, like a highway. We have effectively eliminated any ability to create true streets in land use planning (subdivision codes often require a 40 ft. minimum street, which is already very large for ideal value-capture) and traffic engineering's concerns favor individual safety to a fault.

More and more I think the Dutch approach to surface transit is the best. There they intentionally make roads psychologically unsafe--and it gives the Netherlands the safest surface transportation network in the world.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Chuck on MPR with League of MN Cities Exec Director. Chuck presented highly developed and strong arguments for change. There is a huge business lobby for maintaining the old status quo - take note of those who profited from the old status quo and are big sponsors of the League of Minnesota Cities.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterE Markhart

"We do not have anywhere near the money necessary to maintain our current surface transportation system."

That isn't really true, unless by "we" you mean highway departments. We don't currently collect enough taxes to pay for both new construction and cost-effective maintenance. But consider that the price of gasoline, in real terms, is much lower today than it was when most interstate highways were being built and that the gas tax in most states is lower in real terms.

The other issue is that the cost of new construction in urban areas is draining resources for maintenance of rural roads. As an example, the amount of taxes paid on gas burned while going through the Crosstown interchange on I35 does not begin to cover the costs of the new interchange. That may not be an appropriate measure, but there are many people making personal choices where the cost of those choices is being transferred to someone else. That disparity drove the suburban development model and , not surprisingly, we now have a lot of people who are auto-dependent and rely on a heavily subsidized transportation model.

It is a mistake to suggest that changing that model to a more sustainable one will be less costly in the short run. To the contrary, building alternative transportation infrastructure and developing walkable communities is going to require additional investments. The advantage of those investments is that they are sustainable in the long run and they create much better places to live.

" 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?"

Yes. In fact, its pretty easy to see how it would create more wealth than that over an extended period. And, in fact, your analysis admits as much. Your argument is that the GOVERNMENT doesn't make enough money from its investment. Simply put, that is the wrong question.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

A couple of weeks ago, I would just have nodded in agreement at your post, Chuck. Then I attended a two-day workshop on Context Sensitive Design lead by (and largely for) MNDOT in which I heard everything I had always wanted to hear about designing roads and streets for the specific community context in which that transportation slice is located. Even better, the emphasis was on teaching the MNDOT engineers who were in attendance about communicating with stakeholders in communities to help design said facility and to focus on placemaking. Today, I still agree that we have built ourselves a suburban hell of 45 mph stroads, but that change is both possible and is even beginning to happen.

The financial part of the discussion which you and Strong Towns are carrying on so powerfully is also gathering speed (perhaps it's up to 45 mph now?) so I have become cautiously optimistic about long term change which I will try to remember through the short term frustrations.

Keep up the good work.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBetsey Buckheit

Steve - "American traffic engineering profession has failed so miserably since--in the pursuit of preventing accidents from driver error--they have created a systemically unsafe transportation situation." - I sat through a Council meeting once that saw the rejection of a pedestrian median on a busy road in a college neighborhood because experts thought students would drive drunk, hit the median’s designed flower plantings & retaining wall, where it would then be destroyed (and it’d be a waste of money). They saw this as a safety concern, too. Their primary concern was to protect not pedestrians, but the drunk driver who might hit the median? The advocates of this insanity are the very same people you speak of.

Ross - "Yes. In fact, its pretty easy to see how it would create more wealth than that over an extended period." – I have to disagree with you here. Saving people 15 minutes on a commute might save money, but improving a commute on the average of 45 seconds to 2 minutes by creating a $47 million railroad crossing won’t really bring much benefit. Can you imagine if that $47m could have been spent elsewhere, say concentrating infrastructure improvements downtown (or not spent it at all)?

Betsey - "A couple of weeks ago, I would just have nodded in agreement at your post, Chuck. Then I attended a two-day workshop ..." That's encouraging news. I think the building professions are starting to make some changes!

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

Hey @Ross...

Now I know you just read these articles for your own talking points because Chuck addressed your statement in the post.

JohnT

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohnT

Steve -

From the description provided:

" The application that Staples submitted indicated that 4,460 cars per day get stopped at the railroad tracks for an average of 4.7 minutes."

That is about 350 hours of delay each day. There are 52 trains per day going through this intersection. That is a five minute delay once every half hour. Remember that 4.7 minutes is an average. Some waits are going to be much longer than that. And there is no way to anticipate when or how long a train might be running.

Now, imagine trying to do business where half your customers live on the "wrong side of the tracks". Where half your appointments are on the wrong side of the track. Or if you lived on the "wrong side of the tracks" from where you normally do business. How big an impact does this have on the livability of Staples and its property values.

Of course the obvious answer for Staples, as a purely local issue, is to have the trains stop and wait for local traffic. But that would certainly cause a lot of lost value to the railroad and its customers. We have decided, rightly I think, that the trains have the right of way. But that does not mean we have no obligation to the local community to mitigate the burden that places on them.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

"Chuck addressed your statement in the post."

Uh, no. He didn't.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

As always, great stuff Chuck.

The irony of the 45 mph road design is that due to traffic lights, dozens of driveways, and mixing local traffic into commuting, the average trip speed on one of these arterials is less than half of the posted speed. Frustrated drivers drive as fast as they can between intersections and then pile up at the lights; unless they pile up into the back of a soccer mom turning in or out of a big box. Like rice in the neck of a funnel, cars get jammed and spend minutes unpiling at intersections. In the meantime, the livability of the adjacent land use is ruined.

So when are we lemmings going to figure this out and stop blissfully walking off the wider, straighter and faster cliff?

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary Toth

Ross, the TIGER report assumes the value of automobile time to be $13.59 per hour (which is higher than Staples' median income, but I assume is an average of the combined county incomes). Anyway, those 350 hours translate to about $4,757 per day or $1.74 million per year. That makes the $9.8 million price tag of the project seem to have a pretty quick 5.5 year payback period. Of course, as already mentioned, the government captures none of that. Even if they did, that very calculation is distorted to begin with.

We all like to say that time is money, and there is a value for time, but it's not the same throughout the day. While on average, the residents of Staples earn their money for 8 hours of the day, the cost benefits of this project are calculated over all 24 hours of the day. The main point is that this time could be completely for leisure or even wasteful reasons. Does someone really get $13+ per hour in benefit because they didn't have to wait for a train while going to lunch, or for getting home 5 minutes faster? No. This is unpaid time, and while it does have a value to people, to give it a quantified monetary value equal to their salary is very disingenuous.

The other thing is that avoiding these trains isn't an insurmountable problem. It's not unlike having a river running through town. If you do most of your business or shopping or whatever on one side of the river or railroad line, then you should live on that side. Otherwise, pay the bridge toll, or deal with the occasional delays. This is just like having the government pay for sound walls around highways or for upgraded railroad crossings to make it a quiet zone. Nobody forced anyone to live on the south side of Staples, or to live near a highway or noisy railroad, so why should everyone have to chip in to mitigate the problems they have with their own choices?

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

"Nobody forced anyone to live on the south side of Staples, or to live near a highway or noisy railroad, so why should everyone have to chip in to mitigate the problems they have with their own choices?"

I think that pretty much summarizes the real issue of "cost". This project may well more than pay for itself in benefits, but unless you benefit personally why should you care. Its an ideological argument.

"The main point is that this time could be completely for leisure or even wasteful reasons."

Yes, it could be. So what? That is still a benefit. And it still effects livability. And it still effects property values. It still has economic value. And it still is a reason to put in an overpass.

"Of course, as already mentioned, the government captures none of that."

Which is one of the reasons we have government. To provide services where the provider can't capture enough of the value of all the benefits to pay for the service.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

How much are people willing to pay to maintain our transportation system?

Whatever it is, that is the amount of money we have to work with. I don't know what that number is precisely but I know it is far less than an additional $1/gallon of gas -- let alone the $2-$3/gallon Mn/DOT planners have told me we need -- and it is much less than what a mileage charge would generate in revenue.

We can use fancy equations to tell ourselves that we've created all the wealth in the world with our transportation investments, but if the government does not capture any of that back, it's nothing more than a one-time investment. Look around -- the one time investment approach is not exactly working out.

Where the benefits are mine yet the costs are someone else's, there is no end to what I and my equations can justify. Dead Idea #1: When it comes to infrastructure spending, we have to stop pretending that ROI doesn't matter.

-Chuck

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Chuck -

The problem with your argument is that what people are willing to pay depends on the benefits they receive. The standard cost per mile for driving right now is about $.55 per mile, well less than half that cost is the gasoline. People are already choosing to spend far more than the road costs on transportation. The reason people won't pay more is that many of them don't see any personal benefits from spending more.

The reason people were prepared to pay more in the past is that they did see the benefits - the interstate highways for example. Plenty of people now understand that much of the new spending does not have anything like the benefits those investments had.

That doesn't mean there are NO worthwhile investments. In fact, the current system has serious flaws in that it emphasizes mobility, rather than access. That overpass you complain about is actually a good example of fixing that. It provides direct access to services, allowing shorter trips that are also walkable and bikeable. It is exactly the kind of investment we need to make.

The other problem is that maintenance isn't as obvious. People buy gas because their car stops working without it. Many people fail to change their oil, flush their radiator, etc because there are no immediate consequences for that failure. The same is true of road maintenance. Its only when the potholes develop that they understand the problem. Like waiting for knocking in the engine to change your oil, that is too late.

The result is that road building is largely driven by the benefits to the road builders, both contractors and workers, not the public. And maintenance is not nearly as lucrative for them as big new projects.

Let me express some doubt that someone at MnDOT "ran the numbers" and ended up with a range of $2 to $3 per gallon for maintenance. That kind of result sounds more like a back of the envelope calculation by someone who has an agenda. That is somewhere between $5 billion and $9 billion per year if gas sales remain constant. MnDOT is an agency out of control, choosing projects to maintain the political support of their patrons in the road construction industry.

That amount of money sounds more like how much it would cost to build everything on MnDOT engineer's current wish list, not to maintain current road and transportation infrastructure. I can almost guarantee even that would not be enough. The MnDOT wish list would immediately expand beyond the available capacity. It is still operating in the 20th century, wastefully spending money on expensive new capacity while letting existing capacity deteriorate until it needs to be replaced. Its like handing your car to a new car dealer and telling them to keep it running as long as they can.

My argument with you is not that the current system is working or that we should continue to waste money on new auto capacity. Its that the alternatives are not going to save any money. That doesn't mean people won't pay for them. Those light rail lines in the Twin Cities are very visible and even people who don't use them see benefits in getting other people out of their cars. It leaves more room for them on the road and makes it easier to find parking in densely developed areas. It provides business opportunities.

I don't believe that transforming our transportation system to reduce auto-dependency will save money in the short run. We agree on the need to change the way we spend money. The difference, I think, is that you believe the country is in decline and we should adjust to that new reality. I don't believe that. I think we can and should keep investing in making people more productive.

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

What Chuck said. We have government to provide services where the provider can't directly capture enough of the value of all the benefits to pay for the service. Government's role is to capture the value indirectly. Building a short streetcar line in a run-down dense urban neighborhood for instance may not be able to pay for itself out of fares, but it will pay for itself in the long run through significantly increased property tax revenues from all the redevelopment that takes place because of it. Police and fire protection don't bring in any money to the government directly, nor does education, but they pay off in the long run through having a more educated populace that earns more money and can pay more taxes, and buildings, businesses, and people who stay in a place to keep the tax base up because they haven't burned down, been robbed blind, or been killed.

Note that it's all ultimately about taxes. Capturing value is basically collecting taxes. If the value of something like the Staples overpass can't ultimately be captured in taxes, then it's not the government's place to be funding it. I'd say this is Chuck's whole strong towns philosophy in a nutshell. The value that's created by such projects is completely intangible, if even legitimate at all, yet we're spending real cash money on these things. It's public debt, private profit. Except in this case, the private profit isn't reflected in increased property values, incomes, or anything else that can be captured by the government. You can then ask, if these benefits don't create any tangible monetary increase in the value of anything, then is it really a benefit at all? The answer is probably not.

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

"but it will pay for itself in the long run through significantly increased property tax revenues from all the redevelopment that takes place because of it."

Not hardly. I don't know how all the funding was put together for the Central Corridor light rail, but the federal government paid a big chunk of the cost and it doesn't get any money from property taxes no matter how much redevelopment takes place. In fact, I have never seen a light rail line that penciled out based solely on projected increases in property taxes. You are talking about imaginary projects.

"they pay off in the long run through having a more educated populace that earns more money and can pay more taxes"

Only if those people live in the same place they were educated. Otherwise those local schools get no benefit from having taught a child except whatever extra value people buying homes place on the quality of education. And, given open admissions, where you live is no longer tightly tied to where your kids get their education. And the notion that the more you spend on police, the higher the local property values doesn't match reality either.

I agree they "pay off in the long run", but they hardly pay off directly with increased revenue for the government that provides the service.

"You can then ask, if these benefits don't create any tangible monetary increase in the value of anything, then is it really a benefit at all? The answer is probably not."

And yet, people invest millions of dollars every year on home improvements that don't increase the value of their home by as much as they cost. This is essentially an engineers vision of the world, if you can't quantify its benefit it doesn't exist. Its the reason we have sidewalks right next to roads with no buffer from traffic and no street trees for shade.

"It's public debt, private profit. Except in this case, the private profit isn't reflected in increased property values, incomes, or anything else that can be captured by the government."

One of the things from the Staples description is that the town is maintaining two fire stations, one on each side of the tracks, because of delays for emergency vehicles. Another is that two to three school buses are delayed each day by trains. There are a lot of benefits just as tangible as your examples for police, fire and schools. Your argument seems to be that if those benefits can't be monetized to pay for an improvement, they aren't real. I think that is flat out wrong.

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

STOP FEEDING THE TROLL

What are the odds our troll gives me that last word?

And by the way, all of you are WRONG (not to mention stupid).

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohnT

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