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What is the federal role?

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Last week I spoke at Cook County Active Living Summit in Grand Marais, MN. Grand Marais is in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, which was represented for nearly four decades by James Oberstar, transportation advocate and powerful member/chair of the House Transportation Committee. 

Representative Oberstar was there to talk about federal initiatives for biking and walking. He talked extensively about the Safe Routes to School program, Federal spending on trails and "alternative" transportation and the need to support the active living agenda. His remarks were well received; the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

While listening to him talk, I made the following comment on Facebook:

Listening to former Congressman Jim Oberstar talking about active living, biking and the safe routes to schools program. I believe that...he has good intentions. 

After a discussion among my friends, where quite a number of them picked up on my cynicism, one of them put forth this question:

What changes would you make to the federal transportation bill?

This is a very fair question and I especially like it because it gets beyond the role that this one individual has had in perpetuating the auto-oriented devolution of our cities, promoting the interests of the highway lobby and genuflecting towards the "active living" crowd with a "we'll do that too" approach embodied in a generation that believed we should be able to have everything.

I think Representative Oberstar is a good man who has represented his district in good conscience and fealty. I'm sure he believes -- as the vast majority of Americans do -- that spending on transportation and infrastructure creates growth and prosperity. I'm not sure if 30 years from now we will look back on all of the four lane divided highways in the middle of nowhere, sewer and water systems and industrial parks he got the funding for and, as they crumble and are slowly abandoned, lament the colossal squandering of resources or pine for the glory days. The America of 2042 will not contain most of those in the room listening to the Representative last week, so it is hard to tell.

Regardless, between now and then we will put together many federal transportation budgets and have, to one extent or another, many discussions on what the role of the Federal Government should be in the realm of transportation.

Let's start by pointing out what both parties agree on: appropriating money for highways, bridges, tunnels, local highways and auto-oriented transportation projects of all kinds is of critical importance. It is a very high priority, particularly new facilities. While there is a one-way (emanating from Washington D.C.) tacit understanding that maintenance costs are a local concern, nearly every elected official seems to agree that there is value in new highways. 

There is good reason for this. New facilities do generate growth, albeit in the short term, with far greater long term liabilities. When that new overpass is constructed, the new strip mall, big box store and residential subdivision that are built all generate growth, something that shows up in an increase in GDP. When current increases in the Gross Domestic Product and current unemployment are your metrics for success, the fact that the "new growth" does not generate anywhere near enough wealth for states and local governments to justify spending money to maintain the overpass is immaterial. It is not that the feds don't care; nobody even bothers to ask the question.

Our Federal Government is much like the company that boosts share prices in the current quarter so that the CEO can retire, cash out his stock options and take some cushy spot on a board of directors, only to have the entire thing explode in the next quarter. Did the CEO know the thing was going down? Maybe or maybe not, but it is far more likely that he was so focused on the current quarter that he didn't even bother to contemplate it.

So the federal transportation bill is going to be filled to the brim with new highway projects, spending that will juice near term growth while making our states and cities insolvent over the long run (and creating a myriad of other social, environment and political problems in the process). And we want a federal transportation bill because.....?

Let me point out one other thing about federal spending: it comes with some pretty bizarre strings, especially when it gets down to the local level. I've written extensively on how, due to federal money and all of the accompanying incentives/standards, my hometown just finished The Last Great Old Economy Project, a $9 million mile of STROAD. The STROAD design was a requirement of the State Aid standards, the mechanism whereby the federal funds are dispersed. The alternative project -- a locally-funded and far more neighborhood-friendly street costing $1.2 million -- was rejected because it actually cost the local taxpayer more (in terms of cash today, that is -- nobody ever discussed future maintenance).

So, all things being equal, I would rather not have a federal transportation bill. Ask yourself why we have one in the first place. It is pure momentum from the early highway days. Our bureaucrats sat down in the 1930's and, similar to Soviet central plans of the same era, designed a national highway system. That this system has been built, expanded, and expanded yet further beyond anything ever imagined (or anything with a financial return) is instructive. We have a transportation bill this year because we had one last year, not because we are worried that Iowa and Minnesota will fail to agree on where Intersate 35 crosses their border.

As a slight aside, this observation goes to a convergence of the arguments of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek. While Marx advocated socialism and Hayek individual liberty, both saw that a capitalist state controlling the means of production would advance the interests of the corporation over the interests of the worker/individual. These observations were also made by the likes of Jane Jacobs (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, in particular) and Ayn Rand, two whose philosophies are not often joined. We live in interesting times.

So if you forced me to have a federal transportation bill, then I would want it to do two things. First, I would want it to place a moratorium on the expansion, extension or construction of any new auto-oriented facilities. No new road miles anywhere. There is no need for this country to ever build another mile, another lane, another overpass or anything -- we have far more than we can take care of now, most of it very unproductive. I would make this exception, however: any state that wants a new mile of highway has to remove two miles of existing. This would allow flexibility for states that wanted a strategic contraction, allowing them to allocate scarce resources to areas that would have the greatest benefit. In short, I would ensure the bill funded maintenance (which would make it politically irrelevant in the current context, but that is beside the point). 

The second thing I would do then would be to work on the one interstate concern that currently exists, that being the resurrection of the country's railroad network. While I would certainly focus on making passenger rail possible (my six hour delay on the Empire Builder this past August was an embarrassment for a supposed "great" economy, made more so by the fact that my experience was the norm), I would also have as my goal a 50% reduction in over the road truck hauling by 2022. Tractor trailers are awesome for the first and last leg of each journey. Hauling my Fruit Loops coast to coast in the back of a semi is only made economically possible by a bizarre connection of expensive subsidies that, ultimately, provide us no great benefit. 

But what about high speed rail? What about Safe Routes to School? What about local Smart Growth Initiatives?

To those asking these questions, I ask one specific question: What is success for you? 

This past year, success has been holding on to the 1.5% of the transportation bill that goes to walking/biking. Would that make "wildly successful" something like a doubling of that to 3%. Rail advocates fight for the $1 billion annual allocation to high speed rail (the stimulus had more, but the regular transportation bill has roughly $1 billion annually). After 68 years, California could build their one project. Double the federal appropriation (as if it all went to California -- it doesn't) and we could cut that to 34 years. Is this success?

In other words, "success" -- even "wild success" -- at the federal level for non-automobile appropriations is so pathetic that it is not worth the effort. This is especially true when one realizes that every $1.50 allocated to a bike trail has to overcome the negative impacts of $95 in auto spending. Table scraps worth of money for trails to be built along the sides of STROADS is still going backwards.

As I listened to Representative Oberstar, I wondered if it occurred to him that, before we spent hundreds of billions on highways and STROADS, we used to have safe routes to school. Heck, before we had government policies that encouraged the closing of neighborhood schools and the opening of campuses on the periphery, we used to have schools in areas where we could actually walk to them. 

I wonder if he understands that, before we had a federal transportation bill, cities of all sizes had ubiquitous local transit within their walkable communities. Even my home town of Brainerd (population 12,000 in 1950) had a trolley line. We used to have passenger rail service too, back before the federal government decided to help us out.

The standing ovation for Representative Oberstar seemed more than a little misplaced to me. I can appreciate the fact that he is a good man who has worked hard doing what he thought was best for his district. For advocates of walking, biking and more local transportation options, however, I don't see an end game in the current paradigm that gets them where they want to go. I don't see how an exchange of $95 in highways and STROADS for every $1.5 in trails takes us anywhere but backwards, while we hasten the rate at which America goes broke.

The answer is not federal, but local. Federal transportation spending could potentially someday support a productive place, but it can't be a proxy for one. The pendulum has swung too far for too long in one direction. It is time to start healing our cities, towns and neighborhoods. We need to start building Strong Towns.

Note: I'll repeat that Strong Towns is a non-partisan organization. For myself, I have met political people of all persuasions that would wholeheartedly agree with this analysis. I have met political people of all persuasions that would vehemently disagree. I don't put this out there to advance any political agenda but to further a conversation on what it is going to take to build Strong Towns.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (19)

Mound has greatly enjoyed the Dakota Trail, a Ped/bike trail that was built through our city a couple years ago. City officials LOVE it, and brag about how many people go through Mound because the trail comes through (though no numbers on how many actually _stop_ in Mound). When it comes up in conversation, many people talk about using the trail. The irony is that a lot of those Mound citizens drive to the trail to enjoy it, as the MSA streets are unbearable to most people.

City officials also brag that they didn't spend a dime on it.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergml4

Hi Charles -

I agree that the Feds should not provide grants for any streets (excluding interstates and US highways). The ridiculous requirements are onerous, wasteful, one-size fits all whether it makes sense or not, etc. However, a balanced approach might be to split Federal aid 50/50 with half going to new infrastructure and half going to maintenance.

As an aside, the Feds don't care about maintenance because every Federal Aid funding agreement has a little clause that the local jurisdiction agrees to maintain the improvements through the end of the life cycle. It doesn't work, but it's in there.

I disagree with your statement about over the road trucking. That is what made this country explode economically since the 1950's and continues to generate economic benefit beyond anyone's vision. The only way systems like FedEx and UPS work is through OTRT. Collecting everything to a common distribution point and dispersing it all to their destinations. Virtually all internet retail relies on this system. This has increased the pace of business and the amount of economic activity possible. I would not support curtailing OTRT.

I also disagree that we don't need to build any new miles of infrastructure. Not all sprawl is bad. Some of that sprawl is real growth and can pay for itself, especially if it's privately built and maintained. I'm concerned your idea of trading unused mileage for new mileage would just result in gutting blighted downtowns in favor of green field development.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Love this entry. It always strikes me as funny to think that there are dozens of "Interstate" highways contained entirely within one state. Some of them may have been necessary, but it's silly for the federal government to pay for it. Of course, there are state and county roads - by definition in one state - that somehow manage to get federal funding too...

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt


What gives you confidence that OTRT provides "economic benefit beyond anyone's vision". Is that your gut impression or are you citing some statistics?

I don't have any at my fingertips, but I'm wondering if you do. I did receive a research paper this weekend suggesting that the subsidy for trucking is double per mile that for residential commuters. Not had a chance to dig into that assertion, but it doesn't shock me.

And as we both know, the rate of deterioration of pavements is increased dramatically from OTRT -- little commuter cars do little damage beyond rutting.

I think there is a common perception that what you are saying is true, but I just don't see it. Yes, it is beneficial to the Wal-Mart to have the warehouse on wheels and thus drive down costs and drive out competitors that can't leverage the interstate system to this extent. Has this created wealth and prosperity in amounts sufficient to justify propping it up?

If my Fruit Loops took a week to reach me instead of 48 hours, would my life be impacted in any noticeable way (except an increase in price for transport, an increase that would more accurately represent the real cost)?


November 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

That is what made this country explode economically since the 1950's
Actually, I'm pretty sure that that economic explosion had a lot more to do with the fact that the rest of the world conveniently bombed all their industry back into the stone age shortly before that. When nobody else still has any factories that have been left standing, and has cities that have burned to the ground, of course the countries that have been left untouched are in the best position to make and sell things to them.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymouse

Anonymouse - Though I disagree that trucking was "the key to expolosive growth" (paraphrase); I also disagree with your assertion that the US did well in the post-war boom because Europe was struggling. Our industries did well selling to ourselves as we entered the largest expansion of the consumer economy that the world has seen. This was due to both our pent up demand after years of war/rationing and a baby boom (babies are expensive). Paul Krugman recently addressed this: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/19/the-europe-in-rubble-excuse/

I also think that the Federal subsidy to roads is past time to be ended. However, maybe a significant portion of that money could be shifted towards local maintenance if there is enough demand from localities. I can imagine a scenario in the near future where most local govts are asking for maintenance type projects and the rules get changed so that each road is not upgraded to a highway. In addition, I am concerned about the wisdom of dropping $105B in direct government expenditures during a poor economy. Luckily, this is just a thought exercise and not a policy that anyone is actually going to carry out.

Finally, if you plan to explore this more in future blog posts, we should figure out a more nuanced breakdown than
$1.50 for ped/trails/bikes
$3.50 for trains
$95.00 for autos
I'm sure some of those auto projects will be good ones. One trick is identifying the bright spots and repeating those.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilJ

Hi Chuck -

You must not be looking very hard. Here are a few references. The first probably supports my statements the most. The second is more data oriented. I am not sure of the authors' credentials, but they do document their work The third is a very interesting summary of the comments at the time the interstate system was being legislated (1955-56) which recreates (in my mind) the context in which the system was originally developed.


Big cities would struggle to survive, and certainly would be limited in size without OTRT. Yes, your fruit loops may not spoil in a week, but a lot of materials (fresh produce, ag products, etc.) would. Also, time is money. The longer a shipper holds a product increases their liability for product damage and financial loss not to mention the shipper can't retask their containers to ship other products because your fruit loops are rotting in them waiting in line. As a producer, the faster I can get my product on the shelves, the quicker I get my money from sales. That's the faster I can recover my investment and retask the money to whatever I need to do for my business. Faster is better in every economic sense.

If you read the third reference I cited, you would see the interstate highway system was conceived (and still serves) as a national defense highway system. That's was one of its primary purposes. No one ever envisioned the economic boom that was an unintended consequence of this federal action.

The point of all that is we still need a national defense highway system. It still has to be federally subsidized. It still has to be designed to transport heavy trucks and missiles and other war equipment (ever wonder why 16' was the minimum clearance under an interstate overpass?) As long as we have to expend the money to keep that system in place, it's foolish not to reap the economic benefit as well. If the trucks are beating it apart, some of the maintenance cost should come from commercial shipping. No argument. But there is a huge public benefit to the interstate system. As such, the bulk of its cost should be shouldered by the public.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Thanks Jeff, I will read these and get back to you. Might be 2013, but I will give them a thorough analysis.

One thing to think about....as that produce is rotting on the train, locally grown produce becomes more profitable. A lot the economic gains referenced in extolling the virtues of automobile mobility are really exchanges of resilience for efficiency -- local producers of lettuce are replaced by agribusiness producers of lettuce who can be competitive through quantities of scale and subsidized transportation as an example -- and are akin to arguing that consolidating banks has made us wealthy. It depends on how you measure it and over what period of time.

I've looked at Randal O'Toole's work on this and his arguments are predicated on the massive productivity gains of the early auto-era. While those are unarguably real (and I've made that argument many, many times), there is no acknowledgement of the diminishing returns. It is like saying that my daughter has grown enormously between birth and eight years because she eats food. While true, her rate of growth slowed dramatically after 18 months and, in another decade, she will stop growing completely. The correlation between her eating and her growth breaks down in the out years, but you can always juice the numbers by including the high growth phase.

And for the record, I agree that we benefit from a great interstate system and that it is in our interests to keep it running in top order. I would contend that means that we need to consolidate our resources on those routes that are most needed and beneficial, stop building STROADS and trying to induce cheap/easy local growth through transportation spending and focus on the roads (interstates) connecting places instead of increasing automobile mobility within them.


November 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Here is a site that discusses highway subsidies.

If we remove all subsidies (including on fuel), the cost of the long-haul trucker would go through the roof. Maybe then Wal-Mart would demand improvements on the railroad network and place their distribution centers on rail lines to minimize the trucking required.

Faster and more frequent freight rail would make more sense than continued subsidies for building more highway miles than the public taxation can afford to maintain.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterForaker

Hi Chuck -

I agree if we restrict transportation of products then locally made products will become more profitable. It's sacrificing a lot of efficiency, but it is a correct statement. But at the end of the day, I want to pay $5 for a pair of socks at Wal-Mart than $25 for a similar pair of socks at the local Mom & Pop shop. If we have to have the infrastructure there to begin with (safety, defense, etc.) why not use it to its fullest? Then we all benefit.

I agree also about the diminishing return of a new system. That only indicates to me there is a finite amount of expandability to the system before you hit that point of diminishing return. Doesn't mean the system you have in place is expendable.

On your last point, I'm not a fan of stroads either, but sometimes they are necessary. I think (and I have said this many times) there needs to be a balanced approach that acknowledges in some instances these evils (stroads, sprawl, traffic engineers) are sometimes useful and necessary.

@ Foraker

Interesting article. The gist I got out of it is more misappropriation of highway funds into non-highway related "pet" projects rather than an indictment of the highway system in favor of rail. Rail just doesn't work. Talk about diminishing returns. Rail hit its prime 100 years ago. The rail system is about as big as it is going to be. It's great for hauling massive quantities of one item (coal, grain, liquids/fuels/chemicals). But for smaller shipments it's impractical. What is the local restaurant going to do with a train car load of steaks? Either hold a major BBQ or hire a bunch of long haul truckers to distribute it around the region.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow


Steaks and socks are great examples. There is no locale in the country that could not produce local steaks of very high quality at competitive market prices. You may pay less for the ones shipped to you but only because we are subsidizing the costs. If you make an apples to apples comparison, it is not at all clear that the current system is either more efficient or optimal (and farm fresh steaks are far superior to those shipped across the country, so says the farm boy).

Socks, on the other hand, can be produced anywhere and shipped at five MPH by horse drawn buggy if need be -- they will not spoil if they take six hours, six days or six weeks to get to me. Yes, in the name of efficiency we can induce a central producer to drive everyone else out of business and all then get our socks really cheap. (Better hope there isn't a fire at that sock factory, or a strike of the workers. There is a huge difference between resiliency and efficiency.)

The argument that we have the defense roads and so we might as well use them is a comfortable justification after the fact. If we went back to what was necessary for defense purposes and then worked within that capacity to make use of the system, we would live in a much, much different country.


November 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Darn it, Chuck - you beat me to this. I've been working on a piece along the same lines. The inertia of the original highway program (a good thing, IMO, and a true Federal need) has morphed itself into local and state governments relying on and getting funding from the Feds for all manner of suburban arterial expansion projects. I fail to see what the federal role is in funding local streets, or frankly, even state highways within a region or state.

I would, however, still advocate for a federal role in transportation - just of the variety of truly inter-state projects. The highway system, airports, and a true national rail program all strike me as worthy endeavors. And, education as well - since the feds can collect and disseminate Best Practices very well compared to states or local governments.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Klinkenberg

Chuck -

Steaks and socks - I doubt you can raise enough steaks outside the limits of Chicago to feed just that city. Also, the land outside Chicago is prime grain land. It would be a crying waste to pasture beef on that ground. Instead, the best and current practice is to raise the beef in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming in huge feed lots and ship the beef overnight to your various cities for consumption. That's efficient use of marginal land. What about fresh fish? Build salt water aquariums in each town and raise Tilapia? Not practical. OTRT is the way to go by far. I don't think the argument is really about the trucking but rather who pays for the damage.

Socks are more philosophical. Now we are talking about what is right versus what is most efficient. Is the Wal-Mart model the best? Should we sacrifice free enterprise at the altar of preserving heritage? The answer to both questions is yes and no. In other words, there should be a balance. Some Wal-Mart, some heritage. Too much in either direction is a bad thing.

As for defense, going back to the context of the 1950's, we were almost invaded in WW 2 (not counting Alaska). The climate of the cold war made the desire for military mobility crucial. We had no semblance of the kind of infrastructure necessary to meet that demand. At that time, in that context, I think the same decisions would have been made. Not to mention the safety benefits provided by the interstate system. So, yes it is after the fact, but the interstate system is a fact and we would be remiss not to use it to its fullest potential. If that means someone profits from it, so much the better. We all profit from the low prices. This country is about to plunge into Black Friday. An event only made possible by our interstate system. Without the OTRT and shoppers flocking from every direction to major retail outlets, it wouldn't happen. I don't participate in Black Friday, but at the same time I don't understand the negativity towards private enterprise even if there is some public subsidy involved. It's already there so use it.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Mr. Morrow, one thing planners must do is look to the future. It is clear that OTRT is a lost cause. Maybe Mr. Marohn doesn't want to say the words "peak energy" but I will. OTRT is a goner, and the sooner we face that fact, the sooner we can prepare for a lower-energy future--a future that doesn't sacrifice resilience in the name of efficiency and, well, cheap socks. Personally, I'm willing to sacrifice cheap socks for future generations' well-being.

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJRB

Jeff, I've appreciated the dialogue between you and Chuck. Lots to consider. I personally don't think there is a right or wrong answer. I sense the two of you are coming from different perspectives and making good points to support those perspectives. I personally am concerned that we aren't asking the right questions. I usually agree with Chuck when he talks about the failure of the Suburban Experiment and the fact that our society will change...whether we like it or not. We can resist change and ride the current experiment until the end, or we can choose to ask questions to find a different path forward. A look at the modern American history shows us that demographic changes play a big role in creating a future that we want. Regardless of what you or Chuck or I may want or support, the next generation will play the major role in shaping the next chapter in American history. As the father of a 6yr old, I personally hope we make a productive transition away from the Suburban Experiment and pass on a neighborhood/city/state/country better than we found it.

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLawrence

@ JRB - Actually OTRT is at capacity in spite of the poor economy and expected to have shortages in OTRT shipping capacity as the economy improves. Don't take my word for it. Check out http://americanshipper.com/Main/News/Where_did_all_the_trucks_go_47394.aspx Also, our trend is to decentralize. More and more people working from home and e-commuting will increase the demand for trucking and shipping methods that are not well served by mass haul methods like rail. Trucks are the future.

@ Lawrence - Very insightful. I agree with everything you said. I believe Chuck's points are well founded, but not universal. I think (but don't know) he is fighting a tide that has gone one way for over 50 years and he takes strong (sometimes extreme) positions to try and counterbalance that tide. He can't really expect to engineer change by being milk toast. At the same time, I think to be successful, there has to be balance of both perspectives. All one way is just as bad as all the other way. And if you are too extreme, you lose credibility.

Based on my own observations of young people, I think the next generation leans more towards urbanism than towards the last 50 years of developmental history. As such I think trends like Strong Town's messages will continue to build. I'm on board with that but I still think it takes a balance.

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

@Jeff - When my parents got married in 1957, in the height of the American industrial era, I doubt they could have foreseen the world as it is today: buying goods made in Asia, widespread trucking, decimation of old, industrial cities, etc. If they had bet then on that system, they would have lost big.
My feeling is that we have hit and past the height of the American motoring system. A unique combination of historic forces gave us cheap and easy driving: historically inexpensive fuel, very loose credit, and government largesse in road building. That era is now over, arguably with all 3 of those forces running out.
All we know for certain is that the future will be different than today, and likely wildly different. To say with certainty that OTRT will continue and increase into the future is, honestly, laughable. Beyond the next few quarters, we really have no idea. Perhaps fuel will become so expensive that local will become economic again; perhaps 3D printing at our own homes will replace manufacturing; perhaps we won't be able to afford to even maintain our highway infrastructure - a reasonable person can make an argument for any of these, and more.
This is not to say it's pointless to plan. The point is, it's truly horrible planning to over-invest in any one mode of transportation at the expense of all others. We've done that, and Chuck is right to warn us of the dangers of our approach. All one needs to do is see what happens in times of disasters - we have very little redundancy in our systems. The truly smart and balanced approach would be to swing greatly in the other direction, investing heavily in everything other than easy motoring, so that the 2 can come more into balance, and then see where we are.

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Klinkenberg

@ Kevin -

I agree the EXPANSION of the major highway system is over but we are far from over in terms of using it. You mention using 3D printing in your home to manufacture whatever goods or foods you may need. But you can't create matter from nothing. Somewhere, somehow a shipment of "ink" has to get to your home so you can print out a TV or an orange or whatever. So instead of shipping material to a common distribution center (e.g, grocery store, Wal-Mart, etc), you are proposing dispersing the shipments even further to individual homes. That will take trucks. You can't feed a city on local farm produce and you can't home grow high technology at the levels that will meet the demands of a city. High concentrations of people are only sustainable through the transportation systems we have built. That's one of the things that allowed people to move off the family farm and into the cities.

I disagree that there is no redundancy in the system. When the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, traffic was able to divert to other bridges and the system had enough redundancy to absorb the extra load. When part of I-29 was under water due to flooding that lasted for months in Omaha, there were routes to go around (albeit very inconvenient). There are lots of similar examples.

Finally, this whole concept of not planning bugs me. It's just a cop out because there is no other plan. I can use the same argument against what you are saying. Why would we invest in the other modes of transportation? You have absolutely no proof that it will work (because that would take planning). You can point to the past (the "good ol days") and say "see - it used to work when there were trolleys and buses". Unfortunately, unless the government forces us back to that system (like some discussions concerning Switzerland and the success of their bankrupt rail system) people won't use it. They don't like the good ol' days. They want their cars and their freedom. You can say "if you just build it, they will use it". Unfortunately the data says mass transit ridership is pretty much stuck even if you add more capacity there is only a certain amount of people that will use it (almost no mass transit systems in the US operate in the black). So, your only argument left is it's different than what we are doing now and since what we are doing now is a "total failure" ANYTHING else is better. It's a very weak argument that confounds itself.

November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

@Jeff - You're already regurgitating old arguments that increasingly don't hold weight. In spite of huge impediments, biking, walking & transit use are way up, and VMT has been declining since 2004. There's a cultural shift happening already. What I'm trying to point out is - we have no idea where all this will go. What we know through history is that to assume the future is like today, only more so, is always wrong.

Our current system is very brittle - it takes only a temporary spike in gas prices, and it sends everyone into panic mode, rightfully so, since we have no other real options for transporting ourselves and our goods. When 9/11 happened, even conservatives like George Will wrote that we need to fund projects like the Midwest HSR project immediately, since we have so few options for national travel. Of course, politics being what they are, that hasn't happened.

Having an alternate roadway to travel on is not my point - the point is completely alternate systems, which btw is the definition of true freedom. Freedom to drive on different roads is one choice. But freedom to get around by multiple modes is what should be our true end-game. And that includes shipment of goods. Anything other than true balance in our systems is very bad planning.

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Klinkenberg
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