Friday, December 12, 2008

David Brooks gets in wrong on old vs. new transportation infrastructure stimulus

I'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.

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.
Absolutely spot on. But then he tries to shape Obama's massive infrastructure stimulus based on this insight, and runs into trouble.
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.
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.
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.

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.)

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At 10:21 AM, December 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, ever hear of induced demand? If the last half century has taught us anything, it's that we can't build our way out of roadway congestion.

At 10:40 AM, December 12, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Induced demand, as in "If you built it they will come"? Transit built on that thesis has another name: vacant. I don't think you really understand how long it would take society to reorganize its built structures to accomodate a "web-rail" system. This is a akin to putting sprinklers in the desert in hopes of inducing forests to grow.

More road construction does help ease congestion, but it works better to include more modern techniques of tolls and congestion pricing.

At 12:11 PM, December 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Induced demand is real.

Induced demand as an argument against roadway capacity expansion is spurious.

The induced demand kids say "you had a four-lane freeway and traffic was 25mph at rush hour, then you expanded it to ten lanes and traffic is still 25mph. Yes, but the four-laner was carrying 70,000 people per day. The ten-laner is carrying 208,000.

That's thousands upon thousands of people who got to live closer to where they want to be, or had expanded employment opportunities open up, or got to eat at a restaurant across town instead of the same local eatery. That's a better, richer life.

So what if it still jams up?

That's also why commuter rail makes sense. Yeah, suburban development is going to happen anyway. Downtown Houston is going to continue to be strong. But put in a 79mph double-decker train and you can live all the way out in Hempstead and work downtown, or you can live in Midtown and work out at the Grand Parkway. (don't forget the reverse commute.)

Of course, you can also live in Midtown and work Downtown. But you could do that on *foot*. The whole point of transportation improvements is to give you more options, more choices. That's why we all went and bought cars back in the 20's and 30's even though every American city already had a perfectly decent streetcar system. Yeah, evil car companies conspired to replace the morally pure streetcars with mean, nasty buses. But the fact is we were buying cars even *before* that happened, because cars gave us options.

That's what it's all about.

At 12:28 PM, December 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>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.

>>But a "complex web" of rail? What the heck is that?

I think you may be reading too much into this - Brooks doesn't call for a stand-alone "complex web of rail". He calls for a complex web of roads and rail -- a single web made up of both components. So, arguably, this is not too far off from where Houston is going - more LRT, more commuter rail, more park and ride, plus continued investments in road like an expanded 290 and 288. Also instead of taking 10 years to build a light-rail line perhaps we can expedite them as we do with our highway projects and build them in < 5 years.

Brooks is calling for a greater diversification of our transportation investments - believe it or not there are cities that are far behind even Houston in this regard. Tampa, KC, Cincy, Indy, Detroit, Columbus, etc. They should be considering more than just road projects going forward - and those projects should get funded on the same evaluation basis and at the same matching levels that a highway project would get funded - (note that the evaluation criteria are likely to be changing with the next transportation bill to include negative factors like climate change / carbon emissions).

At 1:21 PM, December 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous said: "it's that we can't build our way out of roadway congestion"

Brain Shelley said: "More road construction does help ease congestion"

More road construction helps ease congestion which helps improve productivity which improves the standard of living. Even after the temporary open freeway fades away, the economy of the area is still better off because there are more possibilities for employers and employees.

At 2:53 PM, December 12, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I see your point Michael. Maybe I was reading too much into it. But I fail to see the new approach/ "transportation revolution" that he's talking about. We've been building mixtures of roads and transit for decades. Obama's stimulus will accelerate that. What exactly does he want to do differently? I don't see it.

At 3:57 PM, December 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>We've been building mixtures of roads and transit for decades.

Most liberals and moderates would say we have not done a very good job of getting this mixture right.

>>What exactly does he want to do differently? I don't see it.

Well, he writes:

>>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. It looks as if the Obama infrastructure plan may freeze that change, not fuel it.

I think Brooks is worried that, of the possible $1 trillion stimulus, we are going to end up spending 90% of that on roads and sewers. Whereas Eisenhower arguably transformed the country through comparable investments in the interstate system, Obama could merely be throwing more money into projects that, while they may help get the country out of recession, provide minimal long term value. Instead, Obama could articulate larger regional and strategic goals, like regional passenger rail, investments in green technology, better local transportation initiatives, etc. that may make for better long term investment.

I'm not sure that I share Brooks' concern though - I think Obama and the incoming Congress are going to make *major* changes - although possibly not in the stimulus bill. Let's give them a year...

At 9:39 PM, December 12, 2008, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I think the premise that there is a widespread desire for "community and social bonds" is grossly overstated. Promoting this perception is an objective of many pro-density, pro-rail, and anti-highway interests, because government intervention to support "community and social bonds" tends to be consistent with the policy objectives of those interests.

Sure, the press likes to report about people from the suburbs who move into the city. But considering the overall numbers of suburbanites and new urbanites, the migration to inner city is quite small (but still enough to revive many inner areas).

Brooks seems to suggest that people still want to be in the suburbs, but they also want to selectively sample some of the elements of traditional cities that are perceived as desirable. Of course, the market has already delivered many town-center style developments to bring the concept to suburbia, even if it is somewhat artificial.

In terms of transportation, Brooks realizes that a grid-style network is best to meet current and future needs. But except in very high density cities, a grid of rail is just not viable - not financially and not in terms of ridership.

Due to the short (actually, non-existent) planning horizon of the infrastructure stimulus, it looks like we'll get quite a bit of routine repairs. That will have benefit, but it won't really change anything.

At 9:20 AM, December 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't see how you can say that there is not an increasing demand for urban environments.

Conservatives often talk of supply and demand, so lets look at that. Even in Houston, a city that is generally thought of as a giant suburb and has historically neglected its urban areas (limited as they are), the price per square foot of real estate in urban v. suburban areas show a much higher demand for urban housing.

We can see this same pattern when looking at what has happened in the housing crash. Look at places like Southern California and Phoenix. The floor has fallen out from the housing in the far flung burbs but the housing in more urban areas have held or at least have not seen the extreme levels of loss in value. Similar situations have happened in New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and yes...even in the center of all evil in the eyes of anti-planners, Portland [key kackling evil laughter].

At 5:22 PM, December 13, 2008, Blogger Peter Wang said...

It is very true that we can never build a "complex web" of trains that goes from everywhere to everywhere, for all the reasons you cite, and even if we built it, the performance would be horrible (low frequency of service, terrible end-to-end times).

But the answer for the suburbs is not just to keep on doing what we've been doing, which is more roads for more single-occupant vehicles. Look, we have very wide, very high capacity roads with FM-529 and Highway 6 in Copperfield, and (HA HA HA) try traversing that intersection at a peak time, you will be screaming in frustration. For those roads, we are already a 2x design capacity. What do you propose... bulldozing all of the businesses on both sides so that people can get places faster? If we do that, there won't be any places left, it'll all just be road.

We need a sensible middle-ground approach which would be, for example, to run high-capacity transit up and down Highway 6 / FM1960 all the way from Sugar Land to Champions, or even to Bush IAH. That's not a complex web... that's just stringing all of the pearls together on one string. Residences, Energy Corridor, Willowbrook, Champions, Park & Rides to the central city, Sugar Land.

Every parking lot near a transit stop must be fair game for parking, without danger of the car being towed. There will have to be a new law written.

Make the streets and roads within 2 miles of major suburban transit corridors bike and pedestrian friendly, so people can get to/from transit. Especially bike friendly, because suburban Houston distances are too great to walk generally.

Put in greater incentives for ride-sharing, like the option to pay for car insurance by-the-mile, or making available better, more capable, user-friendlier web apps for creating circles of trust and for ridesharing. is an OK start, but could be greatly improved.

At 11:09 AM, December 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your issue with Hwy6 and FM 529 has much simpler and lest costly solution than mass transit.

TxDOT is currently implementing it throughout the Hwy 6 corridor and is moving on FM 1960 in design.

Hwy 6 and FM 1960 and FM 529 have plenty of capccity to handle the high volumes of traffic. The problem is that when two of the roads cross it is hard to design a signal system to cope with the high volumes.

The solution is to build mainlane flyovers. The main lanes passing through the intersection has no need to stop. Just the left and right turn movements. This improvement doesn not eliminate existing lanes like rail transit would and provide better capacity. It also doesn't need more right of way either.

Furthermore, the concept of a superstreet could be introduced like on US 90A from Loop 610 out to Sugarland.

Also, about induced demand:
I guess coming from Louisiana I see it as a silly argument. In Lousiana, the transportation department's purpose is not only to move people and goods but to do it in a way the supports new development. So much so, it is actually in the title for the DOT. In Lousiana it's called the LaDOTD. Also, all projects have to justify not only improving trasportation, but to what extent it will increase development. As for as I know, it is the only state to do so.

So when I see the induced demand argument I feel: "so what?"

At 12:26 PM, December 15, 2008, Blogger Peter Wang said...


Sure, a fly-over could help at FM529 and Highway 6. But, that flies in the face of what some who live in that area consider quality of life, and they are dead-set against it (FYI, I am publicly on-record as for that fly-over).

But, are we going to fly over Clay Road, too? And West Little York? How many millions of dollars per flyover? And Barker-Cypress Road now needs flyovers along its length at places, too. Where is the money going to come from? And we already have an underpass at US 290 and Highway 6, and you STILL can't get through there. you'll wait for 5 - 7, even 10 light cycles.

We can't build our way out of this mess using the same templates as we have used in the past.

A tumor, once it grows past a certain size, starts to die off where it can't get blood supply and nutrients any longer.

The "so what" about induced demand is that I live near FM529 and Highway 6 (obviously), but FM529 is being used to service people who live 10-15 miles to the west of me that didn't use to live there, and my travel times are greatly increased due to no fault of my own. And it's going to get worse and worse.

I'm not saying turn Houston into Copenhagen... that's unrealistic and that would negate why we suburban people like about suburbia. I don't want to live in a mega-block of apartments.

All I'm saying is that single-occupant motor vehicles are not a viable way for this area to continue to grow, based on what we observe on the ground out here in suburbia.

We have to densify destinations, densify the number of people per vehicle... or its going to be ust unbearable.

At 1:29 PM, December 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We have to densify destinations, densify the number of people per vehicle... or its going to be just unbearable."

Any measure that forces people to live denser goes against natural development patterns and known human nature. You can try what Portland has done. It just makes traffic worse and people will move further away to get away from regulation.

Go ahead. Have the Houston ETJ impose development restrictions to force density. You'll see Waller, West and South Fort Bend, Brazoria, Montgomery, and Chambers Counties explode with growth. What will you do then? How will mass transit from an agency that doesn't reach any of those areas help? You will get a new version of how Los Angeles was formed.

Vancouver, WA has seen a population explosion since Portland and Oregon enacted regulation that forces density and limits urban sprawl. What has happened now is people run from the regulation and traffic gets worse. Portland urban planners (the asses they are) have not a lick of capacity or geometric road improvements to help. They essentially say to hell with them. Next up, businesses will move to where the people are which is also happening there.

All of the neighboring counties around Harris that escape the Houston ETJ would love for forced density regulation. It means they get to grow their tax base and Houston has to deal with a little more traffic from commuters.


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