We are all familiar with public transportation maps based on the famous London Tube map with its colored lines and dotted stops. Cameron Booth has developed a map of the US Interstate System based on that style (click above for a link to a larger image) and the map is available in print for sale on his website.

I believe this map is a great cultural commentary on American transportation.  The car may not be as mythic and the road trip may not be as legendary anywhere in the world as in the United States.  In a country where you cannot take a train nearly anywhere long distance and where planes are increasingly expensive and burdensome, the automobile is still the great expression of freedom.

However, as freeing as the car is we are still largely constrained to certain thoroughfares for major long-distance travel.  Yet this map, reducing the country to the format of a city-transportation map also reduces the magnitude of the country to the size of a city.  There is a certain irony in that given just how vast the nation is and how many days it takes to cross by car.  However, there is also something profound about how that Eisenhower Interstate Map shaped our consciousness of physical and cultural space in the country. The interstates made some great cities greater and raised other from the abyss into places of status.

Moreover, the interstates may have done more than anything else in the nation’s history in creating a sense of national community and greater connection.  Eisenhower was first interested in national highways when participating in a post-WWI exercise attempting to transport military materiel across the country on existing roads.  The interstate project suddenly made most of the nation accessible to every American with a car, a little bit of cash, and the time to travel.

The interstates more than any other system my have crashed down the provincial mental and physical walls defining states to trump intense locality with a sense of national community.  Hopefully one day a high speed rail map will once again redefine our national sense of geography, community and nationalism.  Transportation has been and will continue to be the means by how communities are partially defined.

PS: to those who read this blog frequently I sincerely apologize for my extended absence.  It was not intentional, finals and the end of the semester just caught up with me.  I hope to be back to posting nearly daily for the foreseeable future.  Happy and healthy new year to all.

ADHS

As of this moment, I am in Nantucket, MA.  It is a place far removed from urban life.  It is full of classic New England beaches and grasses.  Nantucket’s landscape is sparse, intentionally kept sparsely populated.  I believe America needs places like this, but at the same time the majority of Americans should live in or near cities.  The national parks – as Ken Burns is currently showing us – are a tremendous treasure and it is important that we allow people to get there to visit them.  However, the utility of building roads to create new communities or prop up non-densely populated ones is limited, if not of negative value.

Yet, programs like the Applachian Development Highway System still exist.  Next American City provided a great overview of the ADHS, which is run by the Appalachian Regional Commission.  The program was set up with noble intentions in 1964 to bring economic growth to Appalachia.  As of 2008, 2,672 of the allocated 3000 miles were built, and the remaining were amongst the most expensive to build.  Next American City linked to a great video to PBS (click the previous NAC link).

These remaining 14% of miles should not be built.  I feel badly for the people of Appalachia, but their economy is not about to be saved.  The industrial and mining jobs are not coming back, especially in the mining regions where the relevant ores and coal have been exhausted.  These people should not be given false hope via expensive highway projects that no one will ride.

Those infrastructure dollars are precious, and using them to cut down trees and plow through mountains in the name of “economic development” is plain stupid.  Transportation infrastructure is a key element in economic development, but in an age where the vast majority of Americans live in cities, those dollars should be focused on those places, not in the places where few people live.  We must focus on making our cities sustainable, not creating boondoggles of asphalt through places where dirt trails should be the primary means of travel.

That doesn’t mean Appalchia has no urban areas.  Some Appalachian advocates want the money funneled into the cities.

Birmingham real estate developer Cathy Crenshaw imagines how a project like the ADHS could be reevaluated to actually meet the public demand. “It would be pretty wonderful if we could shift some of these dollars for larger projects back into cities. The question is, how do we build neighborhoods that we want to live in and want to walk around in and know people? That requires investment. So, I would much rather, personally, see investment in public transportation, which is much less expensive than a new highway system.”

Let’s give the people of Appalachia incentive to build better cities, not more poverty along poorly-traveled roads.

7-light-rail-train

For a class I am taking I read the National Resource Defense Council report on Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Pollution Runoff.  In that report I happily stumbled upon the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

Transport imperviousness generally exceeds rooftop imperviousness in urban areas of the United States.5Cumulative figures show that, worldwide, at least one third of all developed urban land is devoted to roads, parking lots, and other motor vehicle infrastructure. In the urban United States, the automobile consumes close to half the land area of cities; in Los Angeles the figure approaches two thirds.”6 The city of Olympia, Washington, also found that transport imperviousness constituted approximately two-thirds of total imperviousness in several residential and commercial areas.7 This distinction is important because rainfall on transportation surfaces drains directly to a stream or stormwater collection system that discharges to a waterbody usually without treatment, whereas some roofs drain into seepage pits or other infiltration devices. Research has also found a strong relationship between curb density and overall imperviousness in residential areas suggesting that roads lead to the creation of other impervious surfaces.8

The creation of additional impervious cover also reduces vegetation, which magnifies the effect of the reduced infiltration. Trees, shrubs, meadows, and wetlands, like most soil, intercept and store significant amounts of precipitation. Vegetation is also important in reducing the erosional forces of rain and runoff. In one study, conversion of forest to impervious cover resulted in an estimated 29 percent increase in runoff during a peak storm event.9

Urban life will always have impervious surfaces, it’s the nature of human settlement.  We cannot possibly achieve runoff totals that mimic life before urban development.  However, that does not mean we cannot plan for the future or current establishments to cut back on the total amount of roads, parking lots, driveways, garages and other automobile related structures.  While railroad tracks exist on firmly packed land and are therefore impervious as well, they also are not the same as asphalt in terms of the type of imperviousness.  Moreover, light rail can exist in green spaces, as in the above picture.

However, the most important part of rail technology is it takes up less space than roads.  The number of people that can travel on a skinny railroad track can mimic the number of people on a busy multi-lane highway.  As I always say, roads are not about to and nor should they disappear.  However, decreasing the number of roads and other auto-dependent land uses would be a boon to the environment.

Runoff is a danger for a number of reason: for the pollutants it carries, for the erosion that occurs, for the way it prevents water from getting back to aquifiers, ground water, and other elements of the watershed.  Decreasing our impervious surface area by relying on rail more and our roads less would be a boon to our cities not just for ecological and economic reasons, but also because it would open up more space for the city to either grow in density or for public space to be available to be used.  Imagine your busy roads now being parks instead!

Courtesy of the Transportationist comes this 4 minute time-lapse video of a cross-country road trip from San Francisco, CA to Washington, D.C.

The producers of the video used a time-lapse camera that took a photo once every 10 seconds over the course of this 3,052 mile route.  As much as I may write about the virtues of rail and the importance of public transportation, there is still something undeniably romantic about the American road trip, especially of the cross-country variety.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US had 4,032,126 miles of paved public roads as of 2007.  However, of that, almost 3/4 of the mileage, 2,987,758 miles of it to be exact came in the form of rural mileage.  I adore the fact that Americans can drive just about anywhere and see pretty much any part of this country just by hopping in their cars.  However, the time has come to essentially stop building.  How many more roads do we need?  As of the 2000 Census, 79% of Americans lived in urban places.  Those people need means to get from one urban area to another and out of the urban areas altogether.  That said, we currently have the means to do it.  Building more roads is only a burden down the line of maintaining them.

It is now time to focus our funds on urban areas and sustainable ways of moving people within metropolitan areas and from one area to another.  The focus on building highways should rightfully come to an end.  I too one day want to take the great American road trip and I want those roads maintained for longevity, but we do not need any more for that dream to be realized.

My friend David Gasser sent me the following video of traffic engineering, or lack thereof, in a Dutch community, featured on CBS (I am sorry, I could not figure out how to embed a CBS video on WordPress).

The footage (beyond the fact that it is still jarring to see people steer cars on the right side) is rather fascinating.  The segment also reminded me of a post by the Infrastructurist on the same issue (based off a great explanatory post on the Project for Public Spaces).  The Infrastructurist posited on whether or not such systems could work in America and I have been wondering the same thing.

Eric Dunbaugh of the Texas Transportation Institute has looked at the fatality rates on “livable streets”–broadly speaking, those that aren’t mini freeways–in the US and found that they are considerably lower (pdf). Apparently, using street design to wean drivers from highway-style driving habits really does save lives.

The rub, however, is that involves slower diving speeds. As Dunbaugh puts it: “The more basic problem appears to be that safety and livability objectives are often in direct conflict with the overarching objective of mobility, and its proxy—speed.”

We Americans do love our speed. Saying, “We’re going to take this wide smooth inky-black four-lane street with bright painted lines you’re used to–where you’re functionally encouraged to go 15 mph over the speed limit and all you have to worry about is staying in your wide well-marked lane and do what the traffic lights tell you–and replace it with a ‘naked’ street, where you’ll be jumbling around with everybody and just have to be a grownup and go slower and be considerate and observant,” will not necessarily be the beginning of an easy conversation. But it’s certainly an important one.

I am attracted to these ideas on traffic for the simple reason that they have been proved to save lives.  Transportation deaths are tragic and we should do all that we can to decrease them.  However, I am skeptical of this idea ever taking hold in America.  Traffic signs, wide lanes and stop lights are not just part of our culture we seem to be frequently defined by them and consider them birthrights.  After all, consider all the people who you have heard state that they are from a town with two stoplights or that they are near exit Z off the highway.

Moreover, Americans are a confusing bunch who like speed and are not for patience.  In addition, while they don’t want government interfering in their lives, they want “safe” streets with lots of signs and the luxuries of large highways that they do not have to pay for upon each use.  Taking the signs away would inevitably be spun as a dangerous idea of a radical intelligencia and those patsy Europeans.  Perhaps I am too harsh, but I find it difficult to believe that any community would take their signs and stop lights away and trust the instincts of their fellow drivers.

If these ideas are to catch on at all it will occur in new towns or new developments where the streets have not yet been paved and there is an opportunity to experiment.  Of course there is not a whole lot of new residential construction currently occurring, but it is possible that developers and towns will rethink the traditional notions of engineering traffic.  I hope someone gives it a try, because if people see it work in one place, it may catch on in others and lives may be saved.  That is what is most important.

Houston

Forgive me, but I am beginning to lose my temper with Edward Glaeser and his discussion of high speed rail’s benefits in the United States in the Economix blog on the New York Times website.  His work seems intellectually dishonest, at best, as he seems to be out to support a conclusion, not make a real finding of fact.  This starts with his desire to use a Dallas-Houston link as his example, again.  He justifies this decision by arguing at least he isn’t discussing the proposed link between Oklahoma City and Dallas.  Honestly, how many times in the national high speed rail discussions does Oklahoma City come up?  We tend to focus on California, the Chicago area and the Northeast Corridor.

Here is my itemized discussion of the points I find most troubling:

- Dallas currently has 1.3 million people and the metropolitan area has 6.3 million residents.  Houston is home to 2.2 million people and the metropolitan area has 5.7 million people.  Given the geographic locations of the cities, birth rates, and the nature of their economies it is relatively certain to say these cities are going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.   Glaeser misses the point in discussing the cost of new infrastructure.  These two cities are going to need to build infrastructure anyway, whether it is new roads and airports, or just keeping up the constantly-worn roads they already have.  Glaeser in no way addresses whether it is better to build new railroads or new highways, rather he just compares new rails to existing roads.  He likewise fails to mention that high speed rail may spawn more railroads in the area whereas more highway will spawn more roads.

- It is almost criminally negligent to not point out that energy prices are not stable.  If trains are in fact more efficient that is a very big deal, as energy prices are sure to rise as oil prices inevitably rise again.  Moreover, planes are fossil fuel dependent.  And, while cars in theory could run on energy sources other than fossil fuels, they largely do not right now, especially in Houston and Dallas.  That said, trains have the clear advantage of being electronically powered, which means they can run on any resource that powers the grid, including wind, water, solar and other renewable resources.  This makes trains far more green than planes, and automobiles at the moment.

- This is a bone more with economics than with Glaeser in particular, but is it possible to really measure environmental damage only in dollars and cents?  Is the value of a good environment really reduced to counting bills with Andrew Jackson on the face?  Any effort that can help reduce negative environmental effects should be valuable and while efficiency is important, if it is not inefficient it should not trivialized either.  Lots of little changes equal a larger change.

- Lastly, Glaeser ignores any value of work done on trains.  People largely do not do work in cars, and work on planes is challenging.  However, trains with their leg room, cafe cars, and access to wireless networks can be great places to work, even with your peers!  Of course it’s usually easier to get from downtown to the train than the plane, so work can go on longer in the office too.

- Given that Glaeser said he will address land use issues in his next post, I will resist the desire to pillory him on how people get to train stations and airports and the nature of sprawl.

I am really disappointed in these posts.  I am not quite sure who Glaeser think his audience is, but the quality of his intellectual output in these blog posts is insulting to his readers.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.

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