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John Petro

Smart Growth: Good For Drivers

America's transportation system is breaking down. In urban and suburban communities across the country, congestion caused Americans 4.2 billion hours of delay in 2007. In metropolitan regions over one million people, the average car commuter lost the equivalent of one week of vacation sitting in traffic. As our metropolitan regions continue to spread and sprawl outward, people are traveling longer distances to work and the grocery store. But even shorter trips are taking longer. Seven million people drove more than an hour to work every day in 2007, with nearly a third of these trips under twenty miles!

All of this imposes real costs on commuters, households, and our economy. Productivity is lost, time is wasted, more gasoline is purchased, and less money is left over in the household budget for other necessities. The Texas Transportation Institute concluded that congestion cost our urban areas $87.2 billion in 2007. And the impact of high gasoline prices is felt by households that have no other choice but to get around by automobile.

This is why there is a call for reform in our national transportation policy. Decades of pouring money into highway and road projects has not solved our congestion problems. And as the country continues to become more urban in character, these problems will only persist.

All across the country, from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, cities are adapting to the challenges of a rapidly urbanizing population. The message from these cities is clear: in order to combat congestion, we need alternatives to the automobile. This means making smart investments in rail and bus transit, as well as creating communities where walking and biking are both practical and safe. But in order to meet these challenges effectively, cities and metros need a partner in the federal government that will support their efforts to create smarter, more efficient transportation networks. This means greater federal support for mass transit and "smart growth".

But the prospect of transportation reform is very frightening for conservative and libertarian think-tankers and commentators. To them, policies that promote "smart growth" are equal to government coercion (due to Transportation Secretary LaHood's unfortunate choice of words).

But lamenting the fact that federal policy affects federal transportation projects is absurd. To conservative and libertarian pundits, billion-dollar highway projects are OK because they represent individual choice, whereas public transit projects are a boondoggle because they represent shared interest and collective action. No matter that the interstate system was the result of massive government planning and the acquisition of land through eminent domain.

Among the critics of smart growth is Joel Kotkin. Writing in Politico, Kotkin warns the Obama administration against making greater investments in mass transit. His solution to out transportation challenges? The status quo. Oh, and maybe more telecommuting.

The fact is the status quo will never get us out of the national traffic jam. We can never build enough roads to accommodate free flowing traffic in our large metropolitan areas. Without alternatives to driving, any metropolitan area over a certain size is going to experience significant traffic congestion. Kotkin warns, "Smart growth must not ignore drivers." But investments in transit also benefit drivers in metropolitan areas. One more transit rider means one fewer car commuter. And in an area like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, or Salt Lake City, where new roads would require the bulldozing of homes and neighborhoods, shifting drivers to transit is the only practical way of alleviating congestion.

According to a comprehensive report on urban mobility in the U.S., it would be nearly impossible to improve our current levels of congestion through road construction only. "It would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding..." and " even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year." In other words, we have neither the money nor the space needed to build enough roads to meet projected demand.

Our only alternative is to provide alternatives. And in cities that have made the right kind of investments, coupled with smart land-use policies remove restrictions on density, these alternatives have paid off for car commuters and transit users alike. New York City has mitigated increases in congestion because of high transit ridership and by promoting bicycle commuting. Arlington, VA has absorbed an expanding population without having to expand highways. And Houston, the poster child of suburban sprawl, is making multi-billion dollar investments in transit that will likely change the city into a more traditional, dense urban environment.

These cities found that they could not pave their way out of congestion. The Obama administration should take note and make sure that federal policy supports and properly funds these types of smart investments.

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Posted at 1:00 PM, Sep 14, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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