Roads Aren't the Problem. It's Hidden Cost and Design.

Let's get certain things out of the way. As much as it may pain some to hear, roads are not the problem. Some esteemed writers have even posited that "yes, we do need to build more roads." It's a loaded statement, out-of-vogue in current urbanist circles, no matter what type of data may back up such claims. Like the broad statement quoted above, just pondering the merit of the word 'road' doesn't fully address the complexity of the issue. Taken prima facie, roads are wonderful links of commerce and culture, from the historical import of the Via Appia to that great street State Street.

So if roads aren't the problem, what is? Why do roads plague so many places?

Much of the problem lies in the inverted and bizarre economics that drive the current thinking around roads as a non-rivalrous good. Roads are treated as an equal benefit for all, in which one's usage does not come at the expense of another. This is, of course, patently false. Depending on usage and the type of vehicle used, a daily user of a certain road gets more utility out of it than someone who rarely does, and an 18-wheeler exacts more wear than a Mini-Cooper. In much the same manner that the home mortgage tax deduction or health care subsidies hide the true cost of housing and medical care, the true cost of roads are never revealed because they are treated as a blanket public good.

In an article written by Linda Baker for Scientific American titled "Removing Roads and Traffic Lights Speeds Urban Travel," she quotes Patrick Siegman of San Francisco-based transportation-planning firm Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates.  Baker writes "In a misguided effort to reduce congestion, planners in the 1950s required developers to provide a minimum number of free parking spaces—a strategy that “completely ignored” basic economics, Siegman says, referring to how lower prices increase demand."  The same, ill-devised logic that shaped parking policy- that more of something (whose inherent value is hidden) will somehow meet all the increased demand-  has been similarly applied towards road-and-highway building.
What would happen if the true costs of goods were revealed? Remove the mortgage deduction and watch location-efficiency as an underwriting requirement blossom. Remove the byzantine way in which health-care is haphazardly managed and subsidized and watch people finally start to see the potential savings in universal coverage. Subsidies mask the value of the economic inputs that make up the actual cost of a good. Eliminate them and let the true value be revealed. Take them away from roads and watch right-sized thoroughfares appear that are in sync with their surroundings.

Which leads to the other large problem with roads: bad, out-of-place design. Many roads leave a trail of collateral damage through poor design. Perhaps inspired by Disney's 1958 short "Magic Highway," Robert Moses and the federal government had a vision of tomorrow's future today attained through the convenience of a super-highway system. Whatever the intent of the time, the design elements put into place still affect us today, and are directly correlated to the hidden costs that have never been truly accounted for. From ripping the grid out in the name of urban renewal, to erecting elevated highways that cut off and darken street life, to building neighborhood cul-de-sacs that limit emergency access - all of these efforts have placed the road as the focal point of a community, often at the (literal) expense of other elements that make up complete places.


It should be noted here for those who view these types of arguments in a "versus" mentality in an urban/suburban/rural framework, that the same problems urban renewal wrought upon city-center neighborhoods, now dog rural communities just as much. Writing earlier this week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Pam Louwagie examines how "The paved roads that finally brought rural America into the 20th century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st. Local officials, facing rising pavement prices, shrinking budgets and fewer residents, are making tough decisions to regress. In some places, they have even eliminated small stretches of gravel road altogether."

It's time to disassociate the stigma against roads, and start focusing in on the true problem: hidden cost and bad design.

Let's have some fun with numbers. Let the inputs reveal themselves and the actual cost apparent. The subsequent choices people will make, free from subsidized influence, will inform the design of our places immediately. Time to hit the road.






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