Strong Towns: Where do we want to go?

“Would you tell me which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get,” said the Cat.

“I really don’t care where,” replied Alice.

“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

     - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The Federal government spends tens of billions of dollars annually on transportation infrastructure. Are we getting our money’s worth? Are we maximizing our return? Are we building on our assets to create a strong, competitive nation? Are we accomplishing anything productive?

These are critical questions. The only way we know the answers is to set objectives, coordinate actions and measure results. In a word: plan.

I credit the Antiplanner with proposing this topic because it has forced me to think through a question where I generally take the answer as a given. Of course we plan. I have two daughters that my wife and I would like to attend university someday, so we plan our savings, and their current education, for that likelihood. I run a business that is trying to change the way America's small towns operate; a monumental undertaking that calls for an overall plan. I want to retire someday, so I plan for that eventuality. In the context of the federal budget, my life is comprised of tiny, tiny expenditures, yet I plan them all. The idea that, as a country, we would spend tens of billions of dollars annually on transportation without planning what we are doing just seems absurd.

We should not be giving highway funds to states and metropolitans areas that have no coordinated plan for what to do with the money. Let me give the principle advantages that we see to requiring states and metropolitan areas to plan as part of receiving billions in transportation funding. 

  • Create efficiencies. Our interstate highway system is just that: INTER-state. It runs between states, and the states are responsible for its construction and maintenance. Maximizing this investment means that states need to work together and coordinate their improvements. If this were not done, our system would be ridiculous, with highways and rail lines starting and stopping by some local, random decision.
  • Support national priorities. There are many national initiatives that supersede local priorities. For example, one region may contain mining and logging while another region may have power plants and a port. Connecting these two regions is in the national interest, even if it does not have much benefit for the communities in between. Future high speed rail initiatives - a rapid point-to-point connection - will not serve the lands it crosses, but will grow the overall economy by connecting key markets. These key investments in our future are made possible by linking planning and transportation dollars. 
  • Measure results. How do we know if we have accomplished anything with our billions in spending? A good plan details desired outcomes and anticipated costs and, when done correctly, establishes a reference to measure results. Like a proof that begins with an hypothesis and ends with empirical evidence, a plan creates a system where we can judge our success or failure. In short, planning helps us learn.
  • Encourage innovation. By helping us learn about the outcomes of our spending decisions, planning helps us innovate new solutions. If something isn't working, what can we do that does?While the federal bureaucracy frequently stifles innovation, we still have made many advances in how we locate, design and build transportation systems as a result of the planning process.

Now, my guess is that the Antiplanner is going to argue that the way we currently do planning is not effective, therefore we should not do it. If that is the argument, I’m going to mostly agree with the first half of it. At Strong Towns we are huge critics of the planning profession, especially in cases where planners collude with engineers to perpetuate a continuous repeat of a failed development pattern. Our approach to planning needs to be rethought, but not the idea of planning itself. If we are going to spend billions of dollars, we have to have some idea of what we are trying to do.

I’ll give a brief example of reform planners should embrace. Right now, we “plan” transportation improvements based solely on demand. Our “planners” contact each designated planning district representative and say, “Give me your project list.” Then we add up the list of projects on each region's wish list and, what-do-ya-know, we have a plan. This is backwards, and it is not planning.

What we need to do is look at what our objectives are and how much money we have (or what a given approach will raise). Then we plan how our money can best be used to match those objectives. If we did this, we would see a change in our transportation spending away from the small, local priorities that are driven through political patronage and greater investment in projects that have a truly regional or national significance, alla the Transcontinental Railroad or the original vision of the Interstate Highway System (or, if I can light the fire of this debate, a modern system of regional high-speed rail connections).

If we don’t care where we end up, then it really doesn’t matter which way we go. If we want a strong nation, with strong states and metropolitan areas, than we need to plan to get there. We simply can't afford to waste the resources we have.