Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Freeways, Exposed.

Thanks to Robert Wilonsky at the Observer for giving this some exposure. I decided to expand on the freeways as liabilities to core cities meme I started some time ago and have been running with for years now:

The notion that it is too expensive is sort of like the idea that they are too big to fail. So we should just keep failing? It is defeatist.

It is far more expensive to maintain the highways than to get rid of them (which actually suppresses an asset for the state/city -- both broke -- valuable real estate close to the engine of downtown). Furthermore, building a highway at first means getting some return in economic development by way of unlocking new land further out. But once all that land is gobbled up and the city has expanded outward as far as it possibly can (as identified by half-built subdivisions -- you've seen them flying in), then the proposition of freeways is all expense and little return.

If you actually want to think about the math, how much do we spend replacing/expanding sections of freeways? hundreds of millions? In the case of Project Pegasus, we're talking about $2billion. On hold because we don't have the money, thankfully. It is intended to add capacity, speed traffic, yadda yadda. Every capacity expansion leads to induced demand. Roads get traffic. Big ones also expel any incentive to live or be anywhere near them. The demolition part of that budget can run about 20% of the total cost.

Instead of getting the exact same result, new road, more traffic, we get actual neighborhoods. We sell off the hundreds of acres available to a range of private developers. We set up a TIF to build the network of neighborhood-scaled streets and parks for the new neighborhoods as I promise you land value will go up (and be taxable since it is now improved, private land). And guess what happens, people who were formerly swindled by the "drive til you qualify nonsense" abandon those half-built neighborhoods in Oklahoma with zero amenities and a mandatory hour-long commute to participate in the local economy powered by Dallas and return home, back to Dallas. A family can shed one of their cars and the $7-10K yearly cost that goes with it. They can now walk, bike, ride DART, or an expanded streetcar system. Transportation mode balances out (and this also means less cars on every other road to get in your way if you happen to be driving). Sounds like win-wins all-around to me.

For a long time, I was under the assumption that freeways actually were quite permanent because of the nature of their construction. It turns out that between the very nature of their construction, the intense pressure put on them by use (which is created by the road in the first place), and the need for these roads to be in primo condition at all times lest they erode, they are actually quite impermanent. Hence, the failing grade given to the nation's freeway/bridge/infrastructure system.

It should be stated (once again) that different types of freeways must be distinguished. There are intra-city freeways and inter-city freeways. Inter-city freeways are absolutely necessary in interconnecting regional economies, i.e. Houston to DFW. Eisenhower's interstate system was a great achievement for the country and propelled us as a nation forward. However, as history suggests, the predominant form of transportation inevitably gets corrupted. It takes Keynesianism to its destructive logical end. Meaning, people are making money off of the construction of over-sized roads, so you aren't stopping this gravy train, that (at least in the near-term) is providing some notion of progress.

The highways that expedited the evacuation of downtowns and downtown adjacent areas once served a purpose. Cities of the industrial age were overcrowded, dirty, polluted, poverty- and disease-stricken. Today, what industry is left in this country is either clean or on its way out from urban cores as land is just too expensive (kind of like land that is too valuable for freeways). Leaving downtowns for residential populations and commercial businesses that seek the advantages of clustering.

But to for businesses to cluster effectively and citizens that desire real live community you also need local inter-connectivity. The inner-loop (and virtually all of the freeways in Dallas proper) interrupt local connectivity, the foundation of all great neighborhoods/cities, which instead exist within bubbles frayed at the edges, almost in spite of all the factors weighing against them. If they were interconnected, they could strengthen each other instead. Have you ever noticed that it is near impossible to get from downtown to its most adjacent neighborhoods, but a piece of cake to get out of Dallas altogether? Like uptown, these areas possess the greatest potential for new qualitative growth, for new development, new tax base.

DART could use the increased ridership brought about by a less convenient driving infrastructure, the real estate industry could use a more predictable pattern that is less scattered and chaotic as brought about by the centrifugal force of freeways, the city could use the tax base from a more desirable urban core and more available land for more affordable, in-town housing. Citizens could use a system less shackled to car ownership and the expenses therein, reinstating that necessary pillar of any free market system, real, live, actual choice.

Certainly there are legal hoops. But if you can't get a broke city and a broke state to see the light then I guess we're all just screwed and the defeatist tone of Downtown 360 is appropriate.

But in the end, I'm not sure we'll have to make the choice and economic factors (both macro- and micro-) will make it for us and there won't be freeways within loop 12 by 2050.

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Additional reading:

Chuck Marohn of the Strong Towns blog, a recovering traffic engineer:

And the Socialism of the Highwaymen by Market Urbanism: