David Brooks gets in wrong on old vs. new transportation infrastructure stimulusI'm normally a big fan of David Brooks' columns at the NY Times, but this week's column on innovative infrastructure stimulus (reprinted in the Chronicle on Thursday) was more of a mixed bag. First, I thought his opening was very insightful:
The 1980s and 1990s made up the era of the great dispersal. Forty-three million people moved every year, and basically they moved outward — from inner-ring suburbs to far-flung exurbs on the metro fringe. For example, the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh declined by 8 percent in those years, but the developed land area of the Pittsburgh area sprawled outward by 43 percent.Absolutely spot on. But then he tries to shape Obama's massive infrastructure stimulus based on this insight, and runs into trouble.
If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.
People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.There are restaurant and entertainment zones, mixed-use streetscape malls, suburban theater districts, farmers’ markets and concert halls. In addition, downtown areas in places like Charlotte and Dallas are reviving as many people move back into the city in search of human contact. Joel Kotkin, the author of “The New Geography,” calls this clustering phenomenon the New Localism.
To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.What transportation revolution? He doesn't say. Not that we're going to fundamentally restructure the freeway networks of our cities, but he's right that a complex web makes more sense than hub-and-spoke in today's decentralized cities and with modern life's complicated travel routes. But a "complex web" of rail? What the heck is that? Rail is all about moving huge masses of people to a singular mega-destination during rush hours - something that's very inefficient with cars. Think Manhattan or inside Chicago's downtown loop. But how could you possibly serve an urban area with dozens of activity nodes with a rail network? The cost and inefficiency would be staggering (if you could even find the right-of-way). Travel times, with waits and transfers, would be completely uncompetitive with cars.
Because we’re going to be spending $1 trillion now on existing structures and fading industries, there will be less or nothing in 2010 or 2011 for innovative transport systems, innovative social programs or anything else. Before the recession hit, we were enjoying a period of urban and suburban innovation. We could have been on the verge of a transportation revolution.
If Obama sparks a transportation revolution, it will be one of green propulsion technology for personal vehicles, not one of a rail transit renaissance. And in that revolution, an extensive network of fast, uncongested roads connecting these dispersed urban areas and activity centers will still be the central infrastructure challenge. Mr. Brooks may fear old-style road infrastructure stimulus, but the freedom of personal vehicles is now an integral part of the American lifestyle, and roads are the right choice for the future, rather than rail - the true backward-looking anachronistic infrastructure of the past.
(aside: before everybody jumps on me, I'm speaking in broad generalities here. Specific rail projects can make sense in specific circumstances, as is the case with some of the proposed lines in Houston.)