Durable Growth, Transportation

StrongTowns: Why the transportation rationalizations fail

Caltrans project in Petaluma

Caltrans project in Petaluma

To recap where I finished my last post, StrongTowns, a land-use planning advocacy group from Minnesota, will visit Santa Rosa in a couple of weeks.  I was disappointed that, after banging the StrongTowns drum in the North Bay for three years, the urbanists of Petaluma weren’t included in the planning, but I’d begun assembling a fallback plan.

I’d be encouraging a solid contingent of Petalumans, along with others from throughout the North Bay, to gather in Santa Rosa on the evenings of January 19, 20, and 21 to participate in the StrongTowns public meetings scheduled by the Santa Rosa organizers.  And I was chatting with StrongTowns about a return trip that would include a StrongTowns event in Petaluma.

Organizing the StrongTowns visit to Petaluma would be a fun challenge, but one I could defer for awhile.  The immediate challenge was getting folks to the StrongTowns meetings in Santa Rosa, both for the educational value and to build momentum toward a Petaluma event.

To encourage meeting attendance, I’d try to connect the StrongTowns philosophy to a real-life North Bay example.  I chose the recent Caltrans construction projects near Petaluma, projects with a total price tag of nearly $200 million.  I suggested that aliens arriving on earth would be puzzled by the massive and elaborate engineering works on the edge of a community where the basic infrastructure of daily life is aging without a reasonable plan to fund the necessary maintenance.

At the same time, I acknowledged that the big transportation projects usually have a number of reasonable-sounding justifications offered on their behalf.

My intention today is to show how most of those arguments blow away like dust when examined closely.

One note before I continue.  None of my comments below should be understood as coming from the “StrongTown playbook”, mostly because there is no StrongTowns playbook.  StrongTowns isn’t about pat answers, but about looking at transportation decisions and other matters of public policy from a fresh perspective, less fettered by preconceptions from the past.

What I write below is the result of my years of personal observations, filtered in recent years through the new perspectives offered by StrongTowns and other similar organizations.  It’s possible that another StrongTowns member could take a different take to one of my answers below, perhaps offering a more cogent response.

To paraphrase a sentiment used by many authors, whatever I get right below is the result of StrongTowns and other organizations that take similar stances.  Whatever I get wrong is on me.

With that understood, let’s tackle the transportation rationalizations:

Traffic congestion: “We need more and better freeways because the current freeways are jammed” is probably the leading justification for new construction.  But the problem is that new lanes don’t ease congestion.  Instead, they create more trips.  A typical finding is that half of any new road capacity is claimed on the day the improvements open, with the remainder consumed over the next decade even in the absence of population growth or new development.

The problem is that we’ve made auto travel sufficiently inexpensive, often by assigning the actual costs elsewhere instead of to the driver, that there are pent-up trips waiting to be made when the capacity becomes available.  This phenomenon, called “induced traffic” results in congestion relief being a myth.

Travel time reductions: The American Society of Civil Engineers is known for totaling up the hours spent in congestion, multiplying the hours by the wage the driver would earn if at a desk, and using the sum to argue for more construction.  The problem is that travel time is the flip side of congestion.  If congestion relief in lost to induced traffic, then travel time reductions disappear with them.

Traffic safety:  It’s true that most freeway construction projects comply with new and improved safety design standards.  It’s also true that traffic deaths have been declining in the U.S.  But correlation isn’t always causation.

In recent years, we’ve seen dramatic increases in automobile safety, from airbags to crash-resistant frames.  At the same time, trauma room practices have been consistently improving, increasing survivability for crash victims.  Sorting out the reduced deaths between road safety, car safety, and medical practices depends on how the data is parsed.  But the number that can be attributed to road design safety is certainly less than the total improvement.

Also, many observers note, and correctly so, that a primary effect of better roads is drivers traveling faster and with less attentiveness, both of which increase traffic risks.  No one ever thought of driving a Model A on a gravel road at 65 mph, much less doing so while texting.  In many settings, traffic safety is highest when drivers are uncomfortable and fully attentive.

The traffic safety argument wobbles when examined carefully.

Job creation: Construction proponents, particularly for large projects, often point to the number of construction jobs that would be created.  But the problem is that spending large amounts of money will always create jobs, no matter what’s being built.  The goal shouldn’t be construction jobs, but long-term jobs created as a result of the transportation improvements.  And in an economy that is increasingly based on knowledge and creativity over manufacturing, it’s getting harder to prove the value of transportation.

Free money: Many argue that the money for large construction projects, such as the freeway improvements near Petaluma, are mostly coming from Sacramento and Washington, D.C., so are “free” to the local communities.  But the contention misses several key points.

While it’s true that little local incremental funding may be required for a community to accept the funds, the money certainly isn’t free.  Over the years, Petaluma has likely provided $200 million, through income taxes, corporate taxes, and government debt, to a myriad of similar projects elsewhere, money that could have been more effectively allocated if it had remained in Petaluma.

Of course, declining the money now wouldn’t be a good strategy because it wouldn’t put the $200 million back into the community.  But, while the money should be accepted, smart communities should also (1) recognize that funds of this sort won’t be available much longer because burgeoning debt will rob our capacity to keep paying the bills, (2) ask Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to changing the model so we can wean ourselves, and (3) begin building towns that doesn’t rely on large transportation infrastructure projects funded with money vacuumed from our wallets.

Housing: Some will note that we need freeways because many families can only afford homes in other communities.  While the observation about the location of affordable housing is often true, the causality is reversed.

Affordable housing may not exist in a community because the presence of freeways allowed communities to provide a limited range of housing options and yet still hire school teachers, firefighters, and police officers, expecting other communities to house those people.

If the inexpensive freeway travel hadn’t been provided, communities would have had to address affordable housing in a comprehensive, inclusionary approach a half century ago.

I could go on, but I think the pattern is becoming clear, funding and constructing large freeway projects is often done because it’s the way we’ve done things as far back as many of us remember.  And many of us have lost the ability to question whether it’s the right way to do things.

I’m reminded of a quote from John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”  Transportation agencies, aided and abetted by engineers and contractors, have been dealing with the same problem for more than half a century and yet the problem remains the same year after year.

StrongTowns tries to tell us why and then suggests different paradigms.  We should be listening, starting January 19 in Santa Rosa.

In my next post, I’ll take a different angle on the StrongTowns organization, citing both the booklet with which StrongTowns made their first inroads in public awareness and a podcast that highlights other aspects of StrongTowns.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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