Friday, January 20, 2012

The Forces Behind The Market Forces

While I have a few minutes today, I couldn't let this fester. I find it rather disturbing. The Morning News conducted a Q&A with perhaps the most powerful (and unelected) person in the metroplex, Michael Morris, director of transportation for NCTCOG. It should be noted that many Metropolitan Planning Organizations (or MPOs) have begun calling themselves MTPOs, as in correcting their nomenclature to include Transportation, which is pretty much all MPOs do anyway.

In the interview, Morris cites the work of one Yacov Zahavi regarding commuting preferences. In general people don't like commuting more than an hour per day. He goes on to lament that the road building isn't able to keep up with the outward growth of the city, thereby causing congestion.

The consumer preference makes some sense when put in context of scientist, urbanist, and author Peter Newman's study showing cities throughout history tend to be an hour-wide, the size of which is based entirely on the primary transportation technology of the day. I'm also aware that commuters tend to prefer a commute of about 20-minutes as well. Again, regardless of transportation mode. People like to have enough time to decompress on the way home or mentally prepare their day on the way to work.

What I find concerning is two-fold. First, his mentioning of consumer preference seems to imply that the living arrangement in DFW and the Sun Belt in general is one of consumer preference. It horribly underestimates the role of transportation (planning, design, and ESPECIALLY funding) plays in manipulating the market. If market preference is the invisible hand, government policy provides the invisible arm.

Second, his lament about congestion suggests his mindset is straight out of the flawed and rigged formulaic thinking from the Texas Transportation Institute, that believes velocity of movement is the only goal of any road. Not energy efficiency. Not cost efficiency. Not safety. They can't "keep up" because DOTs and federal highway spending has taken a big hit with the budgetary woes that I don't think I need to explain.

I say this often, but I can walk to a store with less risk of personal injury, at less cost (to me), with less infrastructural burden on the various governmental entities responsible for public infrastructure, and more quickly than can someone in sprawl-burbia drive to the store. But since they're moving faster, COG and TTI's nonsensical formulae say sprawl-burbia is preferred. I'm walking slowly therefore the road must be widened and the sidewalk removed for more lanes. Such is the illogic of the machine.

Because their transportation policies skewed the market towards sprawl, well beyond the hour-wide city, and the funding for their failed policies has slowed from a deluge to a trickle, congestion happens. Supply-side transportation planning can go on no longer. Shame. Though they won't stop trying. They know no other way. It never seems to occur to them to work the demand levers, to lessen the need for regional commuting and focus on building strong, stable, complete, localized, and interconnected neighborhoods.

I've seen little from COG to suggest they understand how cities work. They have shown that they're very good at obtaining money for regional transportation, precisely the kind that prevents the market from delivering walkable communities to citizens that might like a shorter commute. The hardest working man in America is the junkie.

Sure, they've helped secure funding for trails and various planning efforts. Drops in the bucket compared to road building and spending. In fact, those drops in the bucket are quickly evaporated into the thin air of irrelevance when the dendritic road building pattern isolates and fragments the network into dysfunctionality.

China is trying to be "sustainable" while moving people who lived off the land into tenement high-rises at gun point. Putting a car in every garage. Widening every road to 20-lanes. Pushing bikes off the street. Razing highly complex slums for another kind of eventual slum. A monoculture of towers in the park, which surely has energy efficient LED light bulbs or some such inadequacies. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

COG is busy trying to improve regional cooperation at a time when we need more competition amongst the various cities of the metroplex for more walkable communities. Let the most walkable win.