Tuesday, November 4, 2008

National Mobility

David Brooks has written an article for the International Herald Tribune advocating a "national mobility project", which, although poorly defined in his article, seems to be based on updating and increasing the United States' highway infrastructure, particularly when he says "Major highway projects take about 13 years from initiation to completion - too long to counteract any recession. But at least they create a legacy that can improve the economic environment for decades to come."

While I am sympathetic to Brooks' idea for an 'mobility project' it is hard for me to agree with his suggestion that the investment be in highway infrastructure and not on public transit or some other eco-friendly infrastructures.

Brooks writes that:

Moreover, an infrastructure resurgence is desperately needed. Americans now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, a figure expected to double by 2020. The U.S. population is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 42 years. American residential patterns have radically changed. Workplaces have decentralized.

Commuting patterns are no longer radial, from suburban residences to central cities. Now they are complex weaves across broad megaregions. Yet the infrastructure system hasn't adapted.

What Brooks' fails to mention is that the creation of highway infrastructure, along with post-WWII efforts to decentralize our cities (as much a defense measure as an opportunity to build up the fledgling tract housing and automobile industries), are not merely a symptom of the mutation of commuting patterns but one of the major causes of this mutation.

In Europe many countries, the Netherlands being a prime example, have been able to better control the expansion of cities through the planning of excellent national rail systems. While a system like that in the Netherlands would be difficult to implement in a country the size of the US a series of regional rail systems (maybe those same megaregions mentioned above) might be possible with the type of investment that Mr. Brooks suggests. At least we could invest more in intensifying rail and bus systems in those cities that sorely lack it and decrease the gulf of inequality that mobility, or the lack thereof, creates.

The creation of these regional rail systems could potentially change our current patterns of conurbation as much as the creation of the automobile networks did 50 years ago. This is perhaps overly naive, but it never hurts to dream. And if given the opportunity to dream such dreams this time we can try to learn from our mistakes, make better predictions through increasingly accurate models and simulations, and create a mobility infrastructure that is both more socially and ecologically sustainable than our present one.

No comments: