Strong Towns: If a little is good, more must be better.

There is no question that the greatest force that shapes the form of American cities is transportation. And, since the National Defense and Highways Act of 1956, the federal government has dictated that the country’s transportation system would be based almost exclusively on the automobile. While we won’t overlook the improved standard of living and prosperity this has created, we do argue that we have long since crossed the threshold of diminishing returns on this approach. If America is to have true prosperity going forward, we need to reexamine our transportation investments and the land use pattern they induce and choose approaches that pay a higher rate of return.

America’s cities of the industrial era are sometimes romanticized by the ill-informed. While “efficient” from a pure land-use standpoint, these were not places of prosperity for the masses. Living conditions were horrid by today’s standards, with poor sanitation and environmental quality leading to rampant disease and high mortality rates. No American today would desire to live in such a place.

There were two groups of people, however, that avoided the urban suffering of the industrial era. The first was the wealthy, who could live on larger properties in and on the outskirts of town and, during the most suffocating times for one’s health, could escape entirely to the countryside. The second were farmers. While a tough life, farmers avoided what Thomas Jefferson called the “pestilence to the health” found in the city.

After World War II, America emerged from the dark days of the Great Depression with unrivaled economic power and opportunity. While the Soviet Union had lost approximately 28 million people – mostly young men – and had, along with Europe, been physically decimated, the United States suffered comparatively few casualties and no damage to the domestic structure. As the economy transitioned to peacetime, there was an opportunity to enter the post-New Deal era by truly expanding prosperity for the long-suffering middle class.

A myriad of programs were put in place to help the returning troops get an education (previously something accessible almost exclusively to the rich), obtain job training, buy a house and generally partake in an expanding “American dream”, a term coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America, but put on hold for a generation. As Adams described it,

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  

Part of expanding the American Dream – a life better and richer and fuller for everyone – meant co-opting the new interstate highway system, which was originally envisioned primarily for national defense, to free the middle class from the ill effects of urban life. The increased mobility of highway travel, along with new government housing subsidies, allowed millions to “flee” to the new suburbs. This created wealth, prosperity, opportunity and a much higher standard of living for the American middle class.

(It should be noted at this point that this did not apply to everyone. Racial segregation and discrimination meant that many could not partake in this new prosperity. Programs of Urban Renewal – the planning profession’s response to the inequities of “white flight” - only made the problems of urban poverty worse.)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Americans built thousands of miles of highways as the cities devolved and the suburbs expanded. This pattern continued through the Jet/Satellite era of the 1970’s and 1980’s, with inner suburbs maturing and the second and third ring suburbs being established. As the Internet era was experienced in the 1990’s and early 21st Century, many major urban areas were experiencing rapid development beyond their third tier. The U.S. Census even coined a new term – “micropolitan” – to describe what were essentially critical masses of people without the traditional urbanity.

At some point in the half century between the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act and the start of the recent Financial/Housing Crisis, our approach to transportation infrastructure became less about sound investment in America’s future and more about propping up a false reality that manifests itself in our land use pattern. Consider:

  • We started off paying for highways primarily with gas taxes. Now the highway trust fund is insolvent and we are financing much of our highway improvements through debt.
  • We started off using federal funds only for interstate highways. Now, through a myriad of programs and earmarks, we fund regional and local road systems as well.
  • We used to fund transportation improvements based on national priorities. Now we get projects such as the famed “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, a $320 million bridge to serve 50 people on a remote island in the state of a powerful senator.
  • We used to only assist G.I.’s in getting into a new home. Now we have numerous programs and subsidies for an “ownership society” where everyone that desires can own a home.

Most people in America now enjoy a standard of living that, from the perspective of an early 1950’s citizen, would have normally been experienced by only the wealthy. We don’t disparage this outcome. We simply ask two basic questions:

  1. At what cost?
  2. Can it be financially sustained?

Our auto-oriented transportation system has fully matured. At some point in the last five decades we crossed over from improvements that generated a return in prosperity to ones that rob us of our wealth yet provide little in the way of added benefit.

If today we simply removed the subsidies that prop up the current system, we would find that the decentralizing of our urban form would slow, or reverse, and sheer market efficiencies would create a more dense development pattern. If we can’t stop subsidizing, if we at least focused our resources on projects that had the highest return, it would have much the same impact.

The “American Dream” is about opportunity, not about providing each family with a single-family home on their own lot. Our national transportation system needs to be about national priorities, not about propping up a false vision of American prosperity.


This post, composed by Charles Marohn, is jointly posted at the Anti Planner blog.