Friday, July 19, 2013

Burdensome Highways

With the news that Detroit joined the growing list of municipalities to declare bankruptcy, I wanted to take a look at the role perhaps unnecessary infrastructure played in Detroit's implosion as well as what indicators might portend trouble for other municipalities around the country.

It's been well- if not overly-documented the role that a monoculture of industry has played in disrupting Detroit.  I'm also on the record suggesting that the negative impact of the car industry on Detroit was more indirect than direct.  That it was the suburbs that are more to blame for Detroit's implosion than the competition from other cities through non-union auto industry workforce.  The metropolitan area has diversified its economy and it has continued to grow while Detroit declined over the last 50-60 years.

I'm certainly not of the belief that any one thing killed Detroit, but rather a convergence of factors compounding their problems.  What I'm suggesting is what might be MOST to blame.  Or at least, what no one's talking about, that actually translates to other cities.  As I pointed out this morning, many of the cities that have declared bankruptcy, Harrisburg, Stockton, etc., have very high rates of driving amongst the citizenry.  And in HBGs and Detroit's case even higher metro population to city proper pop. ratios.  Point being, the weight of the surrounding suburbs is what can implode the city burdened with the infrastructure to support a much larger area, with a surrounding population loathe to pay for that infrastructure not directly in their jurisdiction.

Others like Streetsblog are starting to pay attention, noting that Detroit is planning $4 billion worth of new highway expansion despite highways that are by no means at capacity.  And even if they were, we have to start asking ourselves if new capacity, which then induces more driving, meaning more need for infrastructure and greater cost to the households in terms of gas and car ownership, is actually the direction we should be heading.  Particularly a place that has already hit bottom.  I guess MDOT and Detroit Metro Planning hit bottom they think the only way out is to keep digging.  /sigh

The truth of the matter is the only way to reduce congestion is to get people out of cars and to re-localize with emphasis on alternative modes of transportation which benefit from density, thus diluting the costs while increasing mobility through proximity.

All of this brings me to some new data I've put together.  Highway capacity per capita is pretty easy to find and assemble (or at least getting easier) for metropolitan areas, but rare for within actual city boundaries.  So I've slowly but surely begun adding data to this table since it's pretty time consuming.  I actually measure out all of the highways within a city's boundary in 1 mile segments and create multipliers in the table based on lanes within that 1 mile segment (excluding on/off ramps).

Detroit is sort of middle ground here, but you could argue it's also the oldest in terms of its enthusiasm for highway/car-based infrastructure and thus, the furthest down the life cycle of construction, decay, reconstruction, and population dispersal.

Today, I added Atlanta.  Since I have so many Sun Belt and Rust Belt cities, I couldn't possibly leave out Atlanta, particularly because it has such a high metro to city population ratio.

I've also added median income and population ratios to this table.

The numbers are grim and perhaps illuminating, like a lighthouse in the fog demarcating the edge of a rocky shore straight ahead.
Let's go through some of these Rankings shall we.

In the Chart above, I'm showing the following highway lane miles per capita within the city proper.  The numbers break down into pretty similar groupings.  Also, if your city falls on the worse side of Detroit in any of these, there could be a rocky landing in the future of S.S. YourCity.

KC: 147.74

Dallas: 96.38
Houston: 91.41

StL: 67.54
Austin: 66.53
Detroit: 59.31

Portland: 38.83
Seattle: 37.27

Manhattan: 10.83

Stockholm: 13.72
Paris: 8.15
Barcelona: 5.38
Vancouver: 3.13
London: 2.37

Where is Atlanta?  I'll tell you.

118.55.  Yikes.

This number puts Atlanta in between the Texas giants and Kansas City.
There are other factors I thought necessary as density, income, and population ratio within metro will all be important when considering a city's ability to support this infrastructure per capita number as highways life spans end and they must be replaced.  Over and over again, whilst generating no new economic development besides some temporary jobs, but further undermining tax base.

Let's look at metro to city ratio:

Atlanta: 12.30
Manhattan: 11.67 (to entire MSA, not just NYC - so there is an intermediate jurisdiction)
StL: 8.79
Seattle: 6.15
Detroit: 6.15
Paris: 5.44
Dallas: 5.40 (this probably should be even lower since Fort Worth is within DFW MSA, but a secondary center)
KC: 4.43
YVR: 3.83
Portland: 3.80
BCA: 3.32
Houston: 2.86 (which annexes most of its growth)
Stockholm: 2.43
Austin: 2.18
London: 1.81

In terms of median income (I had to leave out international cities to standardize data to US Census), Detroit is by far the lowest at 27,862.  Only St Louis is approaching that number with 34,402.  As we mash-up income with various factors like Density, Lane Miles per Capita, we start to get a clearer picture of city's facing some seriously uncertain futures (provided they think they can highway-build their way out of the problem of highway-building.  Which is hilarious if you think about it.)

Manhattan blows the box on showing this data graphically, so lists will have to suffice:

Dollar Density (which is millions of $ per km-squared):

Manhattan: 1,829.77
Seattle: 176.78
Portland: 84.76
St. Louis: 68.24
Houston: 66.42
Austin: 65.00
Dallas: 57.40
Atlanta: 56.55
Detroit: 55.31
Kansas City: 25.51

The irony of this list is that the cities with the most dollar density, or capability of sustaining infrastructure, would be the least likely to support highway and car-based infrastructure because of 1) the disruption to their existing density, and 2) clout via dollars.  I'd gander that any under Portland here are in some trouble.  KC, really not looking good.

Let's make it worse.  And mash Highway Lane Miles per Capita with Total Income Dollars as proxies for car-based infrastructure with ability to pay for it.  We'll call this data set "Burden."  Lower number the better because we're dividing infrastructure by income, meaning a low number would have low infrastructure and high income.  Drum roll for the most burdened cities of this particular cross-section of ten US cities:

1. KC - 704.93
2. StL - 617.04
3. ATL - 581.42
4. Detroit - 303.46
5. Dallas - 183.76
6. Austin - 153.03
7. Portland - 128..35
8. Houston - 95.87
9. Seattle - 94.96
10. Manhattan - 9.95

Most interesting here, besides just how much higher ATL, KC, and StL are than Detroit (/shudders), is Houston.  Even though it has one of the highest Highway Lane Miles per Capita number, it also is one of the most capable of affording their infrastructure from this list.

However, there may be another way to look at it.  And that's per capita infra over median income.  The previous was per capita infra over total income.

Looking at it this way, where population is, in effect, controlled looks something like this (again, don't be above Detroit):

1. KC - 3.27
2. ATL - 2.58
3. Dallas - 2.28
4. Detroit - 2.13
5. Houston - 2.07
6. StL - 1.96
7. Austin - 1.29
8. Portland - 0.77
9. Seattle - 0.60
10. Manhattan - 0.16

Put it this way, KC.  At least each of you own the most amount of freeway!  Go out, and plant your flag!  Set up a homestead.

The primary point I'm trying to make is that Detroit isn't an anomaly.  It's just ahead of the curve.  And considering its boom and peak was about 30 years ahead of much of the Sun Belt, the Sun Belt must 1) learn from Detroit, 2) don't repeat Detroit's mistakes and 3) plot a different course for a different, less car-dependent future.

However, the Sun Belt does have something in its favor:  population bubbles and timing.  Detroit collapsed before Millennials and retiring boomers sought out cities as places to live, which just might be the saving grace of our cities.

Now it's time to start building an infrastructure for them.  Not for the generations prior.