May 24, 2016

Thinking about highways.

One factor that often gets ignored in any discussion about public transit investment is the already-existing investment in automobile travel. While debates around rapid transit infrastructure talk about ridership and cost and disruption, they rarely address the real culprit: it’s too cheap and easy to drive.

Our highway infrastructure is a large reason why automobile travel has primacy over other kinds of transportation. What I didn’t realize is that the history of highways is fraught with special interests, racism, and a failure of urban design.

The short Vox video on how highways wrecked American cities is enlightening and packs a lot of information into four minutes. Of note:

There was once a time when most Americans took streetcars to work every day. Nowadays, 85 percent of workers drive.

And although a few different factors fueled this transition, the biggest one may have been a $425 billion investment over half a century in the world’s most advanced network of highways: the Interstate Highway System.

The 48,000 miles of interstate highway that would be paved across the country during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were a godsend for many rural communities. But those highways also gutted many cities, with whole neighborhoods torn down or isolated by huge interchanges and wide ribbons of asphalt. Wealthier residents fled to the suburbs, using the highways to commute back in by car. That drained the cities’ tax bases and hastened their decline.

So why did cities help build the expressways that would so profoundly decimate them? The answer involves a mix of self-interested industry groups, design choices made by people far away, a lack of municipal foresight, and outright institutional racism.

I’ve long heard that the best way to reduce automobile reliance and increase use of public transit, bicycles, or simple pedestrianism is to make the cost of driving (parking, gas, travel time, etc.) too high to be sustainable.

What if we repurposed our highways to accomodate non-automobile transportation? That would definitely increase the cost (especially with regards to travel time and congestion) of driving, and hopefully provide much-needed infrastructure to other, more collective and sustainable, forms of transportation.