Overpaving Roads and Overeating Ice Cream

We’ve all heard the saying, “Everything in moderation.” A scoop or two of ice cream is delicious, but if you overeat it (as I’ve been guilty of more than once or twice), you suffer the consequences of feeling bad, having low energy and gaining weight, not to mention long-term health risks. Unfortunately, we don’t recognize the same importance of moderation in building cities. Too often, we assume that if a little is good, then more is better. This is especially clear when it comes to the way we talk about infrastructure as though it were always a good investment.

Roads are one of the most common temptations that cities overindulge in. Many cities have built far too many miles of road, and now are unable to maintain them. Think of it this way: they’re eating too much ice cream, and it is starting to affect their health—even if the long-term consequences are yet to be felt.

Lancaster, California

Lancaster, California sits 45 miles north of Los Angeles and, along with the rest of the nation, suffered through the Great Recession. Lancaster could have simply accepted the recession as a downturn in the national economy with no particular lessons to be learned locally. Instead, local officials took the experience as motivation to take a hard look at their city’s financial vulnerabilities. Already known for innovation with state-leading solar energy programs, Lancaster again took an innovative approach to analyze their financial health: they sought to understand the revenues and costs both financially and geographically.

Figure 1. Click to view larger image. (Source: Urban3)

The City hired geoanalytics firm Urban3 to do just that. Urban3 was able to show how Lancaster’s land use led to financial troubles. This work led to an interesting realization about the road network in Lancaster. Urban3 analyst Josh McCarty posed the question, “Which of the city’s roads can it actually afford to maintain with the amount of money coming in right now?”

Figure 1 depicts one possible answer. Assuming the current tax policy and population in Lancaster, roads in green are financially sustainable. These calories are productive and/or burned off; they consist of lean proteins, vegetables and a moderate amount of ice cream. The roads in red are unsustainable. These calories are too much to handle and will lead to health concerns.

Creating this graphic required several steps. The first was determining the quantity of roads that Lancaster could afford to maintain. To determine this, McCarty needed to compare costs with revenues: how much funding could the city expect for road maintenance, and how did that number compare to its actual road maintenance liabilities?

Money In: Road Revenue

Figure 2. Click to view large image. (Source: Urban3)

Your activity level determines how much you are able to eat while maintaining good health. For cities, the determining factor for how much they can consume (i.e. spend) is revenue. 

Figure 2 shows the road revenue breakdown: all the money in Lancaster’s budget available to fund road projects in an average year. This number is approximately $24.6 million, from sources including state grants, metropolitan area funds, development impact fees, and taxes. (Lancaster does not pay for road projects out of local property taxes.)

The “Reliable Local Return” in Figure 2 is something different: it accounts for only the sources of revenue that Lancaster can still reliably count on even in a bad economy. (Remember, this study was motivated by the fallout of the Great Recession.) If support from the state of California and regional agencies were to go away, and if new development (the source of impact fees) were to come to a halt, what would Lancaster be left with? Its share of locally-generated gas tax and sales tax revenues.

Dividing the average yearly revenue for roads by the Lancaster population of 160,000, we find that each person contributes about $153 annually. One lane mile of road has a replacement cost of a little under $30,000 each year; that’s how much you would have to put aside to be able to repave it when it becomes necessary. This means that it takes 192 Lancaster citizens to pay for each lane mile of road within the city, and that the total population can sustain 835 miles of roads.

Money Out: Road Costs

How much money does Lancaster actually spend on its roads? Imagine chowing down on your favorite ice cream until full and looking at the nutrition facts afterwards. You’ll probably be shocked at how many calories it took to get your fill. The same goes with cities and their appetite for infrastructure.

Lancaster has 1,700 lane miles of roads, which cost just under $50 million each year to maintain. Given the current revenues (Figure 2 above), there is a $24 million deficit each year. That’s $24 million the city is not setting aside for maintenance needs that will eventually arise. Population-wise, it would take an extra 166,000 people to cover these costs. In other words, Urban3 found that Lancaster is consuming about twice as many road “calories” as they should be for their current size.

Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Spending: Which Roads are “Healthy”?

Unfortunately, just knowing your calorie quota is not enough. How would your health fare if you consumed the appropriate amount of calories for the day solely through ice cream? You need veggies, proteins and other nutrients to maintain good health. Not all calories are the same—and not all roads are the same. 

While the difference between veggies and ice cream is simple, determining which roads are healthy and unhealthy for a city’s finances is not as clear. McCarty determined this by performing a “stress test” on the Lancaster road network, which he compared to “running a cartogram on a heart patient to test the vascular system.”

McCarty used a type of analysis called network math to rank and prioritize each road segment within the City of Lancaster by its importance to the healthy functioning of the overall network. This test identified the productive roads. Those with the most businesses, residents and traffic are the healthy ones; they contribute to the productivity and health of Lancaster. On the other hand, roads that lead to a dead end or serve few people are unhealthy; they are calories that come with a cost yet provide no energy or health benefit.

McCarty determined that the larger arterial roads which “connect Lancaster with the outside world” were essential: they are heavily used, bringing in business and allowing citizens to get from point to point quickly.

A disclaimer here: this doesn’t mean their design is ideal. Strong Towns is often critical of “stroads”—street/road hybrids that attempt to be a platform for local economic activity and provide a high-speed connection between more distance places at the same time, and fail at both. Lancaster certainly has some of these. Consider the Urban3 analysis to be saying, “The existence of a connection between A and B is essential to the city’s transportation network,” but not, “The actual road in that location is designed in the most productive or effective way possible.”

The next most healthy roads are in the core of the city where there are more jobs, services and residences, and where a connected grid of streets contributes to the ability to distribute traffic in a resilient way. McCarty used all available miles within the budget to mark such roads as green. 

As figure 1 shows, besides arterials, there are only four blocks of “healthy” roads. While McCarty did not analyze the financial health of each road individually, the green roads are ones that typically are the most productive. Some “healthy” roads—those that do have a positive effect on the city’s economy—may be marked red, but they are unfortunately extra calories after a certain point. The city is currently unable to afford them regardless of their impact.

Of course, Lancaster will not actually be forced to neglect all of the specific roads in red. But it is important to realize that half of their network is not able to be paid for given their current revenue. The goal is that Lancaster gradually turns more roads green by increasing their road revenues and minimizing costs. Lancaster is, in fact, leaps and bounds ahead of many U.S. cities simply by acknowledging and working to address their deficit as opposed to succumbing to the Growth Ponzi Scheme.

Cutting Out the Junk Food: the Cul-de-Sac

How exactly can they increase road revenues and minimize costs? Urban3 is currently working with city leaders to come up with specifics. While many solutions will work together, one of the most significant issues is the road development pattern. Specifically, the cul-de-sac is one of the worst cases of large amounts of calories and little to no benefit; cul-de-sacs are junk food.

Rather than using a French phrase, let’s call it as it is: a dead end. These dead ends commonly found in American development, or all roads that lead into a dead end, are funded publicly yet function as private driveways; only people living along the dead end use it. Shifting the development of roads from dead ends into a more interconnected network would be a major first step in Lancaster’s efforts to right-size its road network.

Cities should seek to overcome any deficit that may exist, but before they can do that, they must know that it is there. Lancaster made a huge move by acknowledging something was out of balance. It began to feel negative symptoms and sought a solution before suffering the worst of the health ramifications. Our cities and towns must acknowledge their growing waistlines and make significant changes before their financial health is too far gone.