Strong Towns 2017 Summit

America’s Next Transportation System: Doing More While Spending Less

A strong nation must have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. The American model of growth and development weakens our cities, inducing them to take on enormous long term liabilities in a year-to-year struggle for enough growth to make ends meet.

There is nothing more damaging in this regard than our approach to transportation. We’re nearly seven decades into a model that prioritizes system expansion. We seem unable to change, even though every level of government is overwhelmed with the cost of maintaining all that has been built.

Americans know how to leverage new transportation investments in the name of growth. We have a complete system of finance and regulation that makes it far too attractive to take state and federal transportation investments and quickly turn them into residential subdivisions, office parks and retail outlets. This has not led to enduring prosperity.

America needs its neighborhoods to generate enough excess wealth to make sustaining basic infrastructure financially feasible. This is not the case for most places today. That urgently must change.

A core Strong Towns principle is:

A transportation system is a means of creating prosperity in a community, not an end unto itself.

When done right, transportation investments can create jobs, growth and opportunity in the short term while at the same time not only paying for themselves but making our cities, and our nation, financially stronger in the process.

America needs a transportation revolution. Here is how we propose that be done.

General Principles

  • The hierarchical road network – where local streets empty into collector roads which empty into arterials and major arterials – has failed. This approach funnels traffic in a way that creates the maximum amount of congestion possible. It artificially inflates travel distances and drives up costs for both drivers and our cities. We must stop using this model.
  • Instead of the hierarchical road network, we must think of each of our transportation investments as having one of the following functions:
    • Road, a high-speed connection between productive places.
    • Street, a platform for building wealth within a productive place.
    • Pathway, a low-performance roadway that provides local access to a street.

Roads are for getting to a place. Streets are for being in a place.

  • A stroad is a street/road hybrid, a transportation investment that attempts to simultaneously provide a high-speed connection while also attempting to build wealth. These outcomes are incompatible. Stroads are the highest cost, lowest returning of all transportation investments. They are also the most dangerous. We must stop building stroads and actively seek to convert existing stroads into either high-performance roads or wealth producing streets.
  • Successful transit investments either connect productive places (road function) or build wealth within a productive place (street function). The intensity of a transit approach must be suitable to the financial productivity of the place it serves.

Road Design Principles

  • The road function of a stroad is improved by removing intersections and accesses, by dedicating capacity to through traffic and by not allowing adjacent land development to degrade roadway capacity. These steps also improve safety.
  • Instead of design speed (miles per hour) and traffic volume (cars per day), the best metrics for determining the value of a road are travel time (minutes per mile) and the volume of people (people per day).
  • The proper response to congestion on a road is to increase capacity. This can be done through pricing, access management, roadway expansion or increasing the intensity of the mode (single-occupancy vehicle to carpool, carpool to bus, bus to rail, etc..).
  • For safety reasons, biking and walking infrastructure must have physical separation from roadways.

Street Design Principles

  • The productivity of a street is improved by slowing traffic, by giving priority to walking, biking and transit over automobiles and by intensifying the adjacent land use.
  • The proper response to congestion on a street is to increase development intensity. This creates more non-auto alternatives for meeting demand and allows congestion to drive investment.
  • Level of Service measurements, traffic projections and design speed are derivations of highway design and have no role in the design of streets. Street design must always prioritize safety and cost effectiveness over throughput and traffic speed.
  • Investments to improve the safety and accessibility of biking and walking are generally the lowest cost, highest returning improvements that can be made to a street.
  • Traffic signals on a street are generally a waste of time and a misapplication of resources. They are made necessary only due to high design speeds. Travel times in a street network are improved by lowering speeds and replacing signalized intersections with continuous flow designs (eg. traffic circles and shared spaces).
  • Over-engineering streets for high speeds is not necessary for emergency response. In modern America, the fatalities, injuries and property damage that results from excessive speeds on local streets exceeds any value provided by faster response times. Emergency response equipment must adapt to safe and productive streets, not the other way around.

Transportation Finance Principles

  • High speed connections between productive places are essential to our national economy. Establishing funding mechanisms for the construction and maintenance of roads, and the conversion of stroads to roads, is the proper role of federal and state governments.
  • Wealth creating streets are essential to the financial viability of our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Local governments are in the best position to discern the nuanced investments necessary to build successful streets and to convert stroads to streets. Local officials must be given the regulatory tools and flexibility needed to accomplish these tasks.
  • In contrast to roads and streets, a pathway is a low-performing infrastructure investment that serves limited needs. In prioritizing limited resources, pathways are prime candidates for devolution or privatization.
  • Federal and state governments must prioritize road maintenance over system expansion. A financial mechanism that balances supply and demand – such as a toll or a congestion pricing approach – must demonstrate need before a road expansion project is undertaken. Traffic projections based on past growth rates are not reliable indicators of future demand.
  • The role of the federal and state governments in maintaining the road network is critical. For this reason, we must avoid high risk projects that threaten the long-term solvency of state and federal transportation programs.
  • It is not clear what impact automated vehicles will have on the future of transportation. Possibilities range from no noticeable change to a wholesale revolution in how we transport people and goods. This broad range of outcomes should make us hesitant to invest in large-scale enhancements to the existing system, especially improvements designed to increase capacity, as they may quickly become obsolete.

We urge public officials from our cities, states and the federal government, as well as those who are members of organizations working in the field of transportation, to talk to your peers about these principles and the need to change our approach.

We welcome everyone into our conversation this week as we head into the Strong Towns Summit. Stay tuned here for live coverage of the event starting Thursday. Please do what you can to help us build a nation of strong cities, towns and neighborhoods.

(Top image from FreeGreatPicture.com.)


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