Automobile Chicago Illinois Infrastructure

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.



» Do we have the political will to build a different type of transportation system? Or will the rise of autonomous vehicles simply reinforce existing norms?

There is now no debate over whether automated technology will revolutionize the transportation system—the question is just when it will do so. Industry watchers who four years ago predicted it would take a decade and a half to realize fully driverless cars now suggest they’ll be online, everywhere, by 2020.

Indeed, just this week, Tesla announced that all of the vehicles it is producing, including its newest, cheapest Model 3, will have “full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” Its cars will feature eight cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors, designed to evaluate the world around the cars and respond immediately. The technology won’t be activated immediately; it will collect data as drivers use the cars to improve its calibration before release.

Tesla’s announcement comes in the midst of a public debate about how such driverless technology should be rolled out. Should it be simply integrated into the existing, privately owned personal automobile system, such that people buy autonomous cars to keep for themselves, or should it be rolled out in connection with driverless fleets designed for shared use?

Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, has laid out an intuitive way of understanding this issue using a binary “heaven or hell” construction (note: I’ve interviewed her in the past on how autonomous cars will impact the transit system). According to this formulation, we could have “heaven” if we had fleets of shared, electric, driverless cars powered by renewable energy, plus a redistributive economy that ensures that people who once had jobs in the transportation sector have access to a minimum income. On the other hand, we could have “hell” if everyone owns his or her own driverless car that does our errands, parks our cars, and circles the neighborhood waiting for us to need it again.

Tesla seems to be resolving this issue for us.

In the video the company released announcing its new technology, a man enters a car outside of his bucolic suburban home, from which it whisks him away—without him touching the steering wheel—to the (also suburban) Tesla factory. Once there, he gets out of the car, at which point it goes off to find a parking space, where it will presumably sit all day until he’s ready to go back home.

One promotional video is hardly enough to make an assessment about the future, but the imagery Tesla is projecting, which is of an anti-urban, individualized nature, certainly aligns closely with Chase’s “hell” scenario. After all, multiplied across the millions of people living in a metropolitan area, Tesla’s independently owned self-driving cars would simply replicate much of the existing transportation system, except this time, unlike for current drivers, they’ll have no incentive to minimize driving time—since automated cars can go driving off, circling the block or finding some distant parking space, without inconveniencing the driver.*

And why wouldn’t this be Tesla’s vision? Its hope for future sales is dependent on being able to sell tens of thousands of cars, so it has an interest in making the market for car consumption as large as possible. Keeping automobiles underutilized may not make much sense for a city, or for the society, but it certainly makes sense with respect to automaker profits.

Some argue that fleet cars will simply come naturally; after all, it will cost less to order a shared autonomous vehicle via an app than it will to own your own autonomous vehicle. Yet it is worth noting, as Joe Cortright has written, that the price of such ordered, shared autonomous vehicles is only cheaper than owned cars when all costs are accounted for. Just the cost of fuel (or, in the future, electricity)—the primary operating expense that most drivers care about and notice—is now and will continue to be cheaper than the cost of hiring a shared vehicle.

This suggests that, for many people, waiting for a shared car—which may be dirty, or uncomfortable, or smelly—simply won’t be worth it compared to owning one’s own autonomous vehicles.

That’s particularly true given the fact that driving overall (no matter who owns the vehicle) is likely to decrease in cost significantly compared to today because of the fact that people are no longer paying for parking, they’re able to take advantage of the time in the car to do other things, and the cars themselves may be cheaper, since manufacturing costs will decline because the cars won’t have to be designed to withstand crashes they won’t get into. Why not, given those conditions, spend the money on one’s own autonomous vehicle?

I should say that in urban contexts where people are reliant on walking, biking, and transit, shared-car fleets are likely to be more prominent than individually owned cars. In dense cities, the availability of frequent car service and the limited distance of most trips will minimize the value of ownership. Yet those contexts represent just a small portion of the living environments of today’s America, and people there already don’t own many cars. People taking advantage of shared fleets likely will be doing so to replace what are now walking, biking, and transit trips. Moreover, most of the country lives in suburban environments where trips are longer (thus people want their rides to be more comfortable) and where densities are low enough to make waiting for a shared vehicle more of an inconvenience than it’s worth given the limited additional cost of owning a car.

The case for political agency

Where, then, does that leave us? Do we have no choice but to accept the reality that the arrival of autonomous vehicles will do little more than replicate our existing transportation system?

Many have suggested that the arrival of autonomous vehicles—and the reduced transportation costs they can be expected to bring—will eliminate the need for much of the existing transit network. This argument suggests that we should stop investing in transit that we’re not sure can compete with autonomous cars, that we should simply pause planning for the future of our cities’ transportation systems because we need to wait for autonomous vehicle implementation to know what to do.

Payton Chung, who is more skeptical than me of the ease with which the transportation system will evolve into universalized autonomous vehicles, notes thoughtfully that “It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.”

Indeed, the same can be said about our transportation system as a whole, and its relationship to the cities it serves; it isn’t a random coincidence that people commute in very different ways in New York and Dallas. We do not have to accept the “hell” scenario of Tesla’s creation—but working to produce “heaven” requires more than resting our hopes on the economic benefits of sharing vehicles versus owning our own. Advancing positive change for our cities means recognizing the trouble with simply accepting whatever is most appealing on the market, or whatever the market leaders are promoting.

In the course of my work developing Transport Databook (which, if you haven’t checked it out yet, is a resource for up-to-date transportation data), I pulled together information on changes in transportation mode shares in U.S. cities over time. I was sadly unsurprised to find that the share of people commuting by car in the country’s ten biggest cities is little changed from what it was in 1970. The level of car reliance is a fact of life, one might say. Given public interest in autonomous vehicles, cities should give up on bus lanes, abandon pedestrianized streets—just give people what they want.

Yet examining similar data for Paris and London suggests that, in fact, policy can matter. In those wealthy cities, the level of automobile travel has declined quite substantially since the early 1990s. That decline is not an accident. It is the product of clear-headed policies that implemented a vision of the city where travel by walk, bike, and transit is prioritized; the recent pedestrianization of the Seine highway and the plans for new cross-Thames pedestrian bridges, for example, reinforce those policies.

How will American cities respond? Will they allow the automobile to continue to define the way our transportation system works? Or will city residents, and their representatives, fight back?


Submission to what, or to whom? Perhaps I am fear-mongering. Am I falling prey to unreasonable concerns, just as Michel Houellebecq does in his racist predictions for a future France? Perhaps the evolution of our transportation system toward driverless cars will simply mean an evolution of current conditions which, while not in any way ideal, nonetheless are, at minimum, functional.

But perhaps I am right that the increasing complication of the transportation system, and the speed at which changes are being made, really do mean that we as a public have no choice but to accept the reality that our technological masters provide us. Or, at least, we may not have the will or the means to produce a viable alternative in time to prevent the realization of that future.

* It is worth noting that this vision is not shared by all private actors. Lyft has made clear that its vision for the future is of shared vehicles, not private cars. If the public sector fails to intervene against a car-ownership society, maybe another part of the private sector will.

Automobile Infrastructure Personal Rapid Transit Urbanism

Will autonomous cars change the role and value of public transportation?

» Self-driving cars could alter how we get around—and also change the way our cities work.

Even the concept of a self-driving car is enough to get people talking in raptures about the potential for a utopian future society. It could fulfill the promise of “personal rapid transit” transportation planners hoped to provide decades ago, offering personalized point-to-point service without the hassle, congestion, or crashes involved with driving.

The autonomous vehicle, some predict, will replace many of today’s forms of transportation and radically expand mobility by allowing people, including the young, old, and disabled, to get around without having to walk, without having to know how to drive, and without having to wait for a bus or train. Operating without a driver and using electricity for power, the autonomous vehicle could be cheap to operate and environmentally friendly. It could, in fact, replace car ownership for many households.

We’re years away from the rollout of any self-driving car that people can purchase, and we’re even further from a future city with no human drivers on the street. But progress toward autonomous cars has accelerated, and companies from Google to BMW to Volvo suggest that they’ll be able to offer such vehicles relatively soon.

How exactly will autonomous vehicles affect our transport systems and our cities in general? As I’ll describe below, they may radically alter the types of public transportation regions provide for their citizens, and they may increase—or decrease—the sheer amount of driving people do. Given the fact that these types of cars are almost definitely coming at some point, it is time to begin the conversation on how to handle them, since their impact on the urban environment is a matter not only of private research and development but also of public policy questions about space, access, and who decides how our transportation system will work in the future.

I gained some insight on these issues at the International Transport Forum (ITF) in Leipzig, Germany that I’ll relate here (full disclosure: as part of the Media Travel Programme, the Forum covered the cost of my attending and traveling to the event).

New forms of mobility: An intermediary step toward autonomous vehicles?

The basic forms of urban mobility have hardly changed over the past century. Walking, biking, public transport, driving, carpooling, and taxiing represent the vast majority of trips. Each of these modes has, in essence, remained technically similar while there has of course been a very significant shift away from public transport toward single-passenger automobiles as cities have spread and become less dense.

Advanced computing is slowly but surely altering the interactions between people and the transportation system, potentially with the endgame of eventually replacing most motorized modes with fully autonomous vehicles, which would represent a radical change in technology.

The development of these new forms of mobility thus far has been evolutionary and taken advantage of the technology offered by smart phones in particular. The creation of hour-by-hour car-sharing options such as Zipcar encouraged people to rely on public transport, walking, and biking for most of their trips but also allowed them access to automobiles on demand, and research indicates that car sharing does, in fact, significantly reduce household car ownership.

Also made possible by new technology, French company BlaBlaCar‘s simplified paid ridesharing allows people to split the costs of long-distance trips for its 10 million users. According to BlaBlaCar head Frédéric Mazzella during a panel at the ITF, the service has yet to enter the U.S. market because with gas prices “at two dollars a gallon, there’s not much to share.” The U.S.’s weak transit systems and sprawling physical environment also limit the ability of users to carpool.

Undoubtedly the most prominent entry in this field of technologically informed transportation solutions has been Uber, whose fleet is generating up to $10 billion in annual revenues. Like Lyft and others, Uber’s offer of cheaper taxi services has been transformative; in San Francisco, for example, traditional taxi rides have declined in number by at least 65 percent over the past three years.

Now other startups are attempting to, in a similar vein, supplant traditional public transportation. Boston’s Bridj guarantees seats, faster travel times, and wifi for customers who are willing to pay slightly more than they would for a public bus.

What’s undeniable is that novel approaches to transportation have relied on tactics that avoid many of the regulations that have been in place for decades, or require them to be altered. Zipcar’s initial implementation, for example, needed a change in Massachusetts’ car rental laws. Uber’s services, more dramatically, require public entities to classify its operations differently than taxis (though that may be changing), allowing its independently contracted drivers to avoid full insurance and reducing the public sector’s ability to cap the total number of driver services being provided, guarantee stable fares, or ensure adequate pay for drivers.

It is true that the arrival of these transportation options has increased the mobility of many people who do not own, or do not wish to use, private automobiles. Uber’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy David Plouffe (who was the campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) emphasized in an ITF panel session that the company’s services are being used in many cities as a gap-filler. “We are very excited about how we help public transportation,” he noted. By guaranteeing transport from the end of a rail line, for example, Uber can ensure peoples’ ability to get home at all hours when they’re not living within walking distance of a stop in a way that less available and more expensive taxis may not be able to.

“The only option is getting more people in fewer cars.”

These new taxi offerings may also be able to reduce costs for their users even further through the use of carpooling; UberPool and Lyft Line, for example, allow two to three people to share the same ride, and its cost, with one driver. Today, according to Plouffe, 20 percent of Uber rides in San Francisco are shared.

For cities coping with congestion, this kind of carpooling does suggest benefits for traffic reduction and Plouffe is right when he says that “the only option is getting more people in fewer cars,” since new highway construction is untenable in most places. Switching people out of single-passenger automobiles and into carpooling-like services could, indeed, reduce traffic. But if these people are choosing not to use transit, they may be making traffic worse. After all, twenty cars with three people each still take up more space per capita than a bus with sixty passengers.

The rapid rate of technological change in transportation has been a challenge for the public sector because of the difficulty of keeping up. For better or worse, the government’s ability to regulate urban movement has been undermined by the speed of the tech companies and their publicly attractive insistence that they’re only increasing mobility. David Plouffe claimed at the ITF that Uber is “hungry for new regulations,” but it’s hard to avoid the sense that Uber simply won’t accept regulations that don’t fit with its revenue motives.

The rise of tech companies effectively making their own rules and then asking the public to accept them puts in question the government’s ability to maintain stability in the industry while ensuring safety and continued access. Is the public sector abandoning its role in favor of crowdsourcing and crowd ratings?

Another question is the long-term impact of the services of these new companies. In making the argument for its importance, Uber’s public relations strategists have emphasized the company’s success in creating 20,000 new jobs per month. Similarly, Bridj suggests that it is providing supplemental services to public transportation, not competing directly, therefore creating more transportation jobs in general. It’s unclear, however, how many taxi drivers are now losing their jobs or suffering from reduced incomes, or whether public bus routes are not being implemented because of the availability of new private options.

The rollout of self-driving cars

The new jobs created by such technological advances may be ephemeral at best, because the autonomous car is likely coming soon, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that transportation companies are licking their chops to reduce the labor costs of their operations. While new services, from Zipcar to BlaBlaCar to Uber to Bridj, continue to rely on drivers to function, what would happen if labor were simply removed from the equation altogether?

There’s disagreement about how soon self-driving cars will come to market, though Google’s autonomous vehicle is already making the rounds, both literally and in the media. The fact that it has been tested on highways across California surely indicates that popular use of the technology isn’t far off—even if the experience of riding in the vehicles leaves something to be desired.

Slate’s Lee Gomes points out that there’s still plenty of work to be done, beginning with the fact that the Google car relies on highly complex maps of every street it drives on, and most streets have not yet been mapped. But it’s hard not to believe that some sort of vehicular automation will be rolled out soon. “Autonomous cars are going to happen so fast that it almost doesn’t matter what you’re going to do between now and then,” Robin Chase, co-founded of Zipcar, told me in an interview at the ITF. She predicts a public rollout in the next five to ten years.

But the question for our cities is how these autonomous cars will be introduced; will they simply replace today’s Uber drivers, or will they be owned by individuals? In an article in CityLab last year, Chase delved into this problem, arguing that individual ownership of self-driving vehicles would be destructive, increasing congestion and encouraging significant increases in car travel by people who order their vehicles to drop them off in front of stores, only to have the car circle the block for hours as they shop. Indeed, the ITF has modeled out scenarios showing increases in miles traveled with the rollout of self-driving vehicles.

Alternatively, a world in which autonomous cars are shared, perhaps operated as Uber-like taxis or alternatively as some sort of publicly or cooperatively owned service, could have significant benefits for cities by reducing the need for parking, encouraging intermodal trips, and expanding mobility by providing lower-cost travel options.

Changes in the role of public transport

As suggested by Uber’s David Plouffe, new mobility options may be providing an important complement to existing public transport systems. Evidence from San Francisco, where technologically advanced mobility may be most instilled in the popular culture, suggests that there hasn’t been a dramatically negative effect on public transportation thus far.

As of December 2013, Uber was already providing 160,000 trips per week in the Bay Area, a number that has likely increased in the subsequent months. Those trips, however, do not appear to have reduced transit ridership. Indeed, according to statistics from the American Public Transportation Association, ridership on buses and trains operated by all four of that region’s major transit operators—BART, San Francisco Muni, Oakland’s AC Transit, and Caltrain—increased between 2013 and 2014.

So perhaps Uber et al. are actually increasing transit ridership. Or maybe ridership is not increasing as quickly as it could given that metropolitan area’s relatively explosive population growth. It is probably too early to tell.

What is likely true is that the prices being charged for these taxi-like services are too high to attract most people out of public transportation for their daily trips. As Robin Chase told me, even UberPool, at “Five to seven dollars a trip, is still not what people can afford to get to work. Fourteen dollars a day, that’s not happening… and that’s [Uber’s] best case scenario!” At those prices, bus and train ridership is not likely to be dramatically affected.

On the other hand, Chase told me that she thinks that automated cars will dramatically change the equation for public transit services because of the much cheaper prices made possible when there’s no human labor involved. For Chase, “buses, shuttles, minivans, school buses [will be] all gone.” Because of the ability to substitute automated cars for these low-capacity transit modes, they will simply disappear from the options available in the urban environment as cities recognize the limited utility of their fixed schedules and inability to adapt to point-to-point demand. And she expects this change to come sooner rather than later.

“Would you prefer what we have today, [where] only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

When I asked her about how this would alter the public sector’s role in transportation, she noted that she expected governments to switch from subsidizing service provision for all to providing vouchers for automated transportation for the poor, much in the same way that the government in the 1970s switched from building public housing to providing rent vouchers.

I raised the prospect that this would negatively affect poor peoples’ mobility, but Chase rejected my premise, arguing that lower-income people would be able to use “the same vehicles that people who can afford it are using… Would you prefer what we have today,” she asked me, where “only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

It’s an interesting point, but it would require a very significant public role through subsidies if we’re to maintain mobility for low-income people who do not have access to their own automobiles. Are American cities ready to provide direct transportation subsidies for poor people to use self-driving cars? How would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

Paratransit services provided by many cities already offer people with limited personal mobility a point-to-point alternative similar to that which could be offered by automated cars. Today, paratransit trips cost the public purse more than three times as much to provide as regular bus and rail services according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, but that’s in part because of the low capacity of paratransit vehicles, high labor costs, and their non-fixed-route services. Eligible customers in most regions are allowed to take as many trips as they’d like upon advanced reservation, generally at a per-ride fare on par with traditional transit.

But paratransit has been implemented thanks to a federal government mandate resulting from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without a similar requirement, will cities have the incentive to subsidize poor peoples’ trips? Or will they simply abandon traditional transit and leave those people to fend for themselves, at whatever price point charged by the companies operating automated vehicles?

Chase’s vision—that low-capacity transit operating on fixed routes will be replaced by automated cars that allow point-to-point trips—has become a commonly cited argument among those who suggest that governments cease investment in public transportation. To them, why spend any public money on transportation if all our problems will be solved with driverless cars?

But eliminating bus lines would disassemble the transit grid that makes the network work in most places. A large share of transit users rely on buses to take them to the train, or vice verse. Automated cars could fill some of that gap, but it’s hard to see them replacing local transit routes entirely.

In addition, eliminating bus routes as a component of the urban transit system could terminate one of the biggest perks of living in many cities: the unlimited-ride fare card. For tens of thousands of people—even millions of people in some cities—the unlimited ride card allows people to move about their city on public transit at one fixed price per month, giving them the ability to take side trips and explore new parts of the region. Could trips in automated vehicles be incorporated into such a system?

For Chase, “major, hard routes” like subways and elevated lines—and probably bus rapid transit, though she did not name it—would remain important even with the mass use of automated vehicles. The most heavily trafficked transit corridors, with more than 5,000 people moving per direction per hour, cannot be handled by automated vehicles alone. When operating in its own lanes and in a dedicated right of way, transit also has the potential to be quicker than automated vehicles.

So for dense urban neighborhoods and major job centers, public transit will likely remain a fact of life.

It’s also worth emphasizing that any advances in technology that provide for automated cars could also result in automated public transport vehicles, potentially saving significantly on the cost of operations by eliminating the need for driver labor (it could also reduce the cost of shipping by, for example, eliminating the need for truck drivers). Automated trains are already common for new subway and elevated rail systems, and some train lines in cities like Paris have been converted from driver to automated operation.

Buses moving around the city with no drivers could be more frequent because of reduced labor costs, and certain bus lines could probably be operated profitably. In other words, automobile automation could have a genuine competitor in automated public transport.

Automated buses and trains, much like automated taxis, do come at a cost: Significantly fewer jobs in the transportation business. Is this a tradeoff worth making? Is the robotization of transportation labor a benefit for society as a whole in that while it will eliminate transportation jobs, it will reduce the cost of getting around, producing more jobs in other industries? Or are the well-paid jobs in transportation worth retaining as an essential pathway to the middle class?

Implications for the urban environment

The mass adoption of automated cars could radically alter how the urban environment looks and works—particularly if, as Robin Chase suggests, they’re shared. The easy availability of cheap point-to-point transportation in which passengers are free to read, watch films, or sleep while travelling around could increase the amount of time people are willing to travel each day, increasing overall vehicle use.

Automated cars could also devalue urban cores by making biking and walking, or waiting for transit, less appealing when a robotized car can arrive practically instantly at the touch of a button.

But Chase’s sense is that people “really enjoy clusters.” People like living and working near one another, and that has led to the renaissance many American central cities are experiencing today. Uber itself seems convinced of that fact; the company is planning a huge headquarters complex in the heart of San Francisco filled with walkable shops and restaurants and—intriguingly—it will be directly adjacent to the T-Third Street light rail line. In its urban perspective, the complex is diametrically opposed to the suburban, generally car-oriented campuses under construction by fellow tech giants Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Chase notes that the real benefits of the autonomous cars will actually be to the currently less-accessible parts of dense cities. Today, she argued to me, “If you live in Brooklyn, and you live three blocks from the A [Subway] train, your house is more valuable than if you live within 15 blocks of it,” but with the automated car, people there will feel like they are much closer to the Subway stop and therefore their home values will increase. But living in the exurbs, with no effective public transport available, will remain unappealing to many.

Perhaps her vision is optimistic, but I don’t disagree with her sense that most people won’t want to spend more time in a vehicle—automated or not—if they can help it, especially since they’ll be paying for the privilege.

And the automated vehicle, if widely adopted, could do wonders for the livability of urban neighborhoods by significantly reducing the need for parking. If every automated vehicle replaced 10 now privately owned cars, we would need one-tenth of the parking spaces at peoples’ residences. And retail, parks, offices, and other attractions would need virtually no parking, since the automated cars could simply store themselves somewhere else—or serve other customers—once they’re finished being used.

Eliminating parking would reduce housing costs and free up space for other, more important needs.

Urban transportation politics after the rise of the automated car

Self-driving cars will transform our cities, but how will they transform our urban governance?

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing.

At the ITF, Uber’s David Plouffe painted the rise of his company’s services—and the potential future implementation of automated cars—as a sort of reaction to the limitations of our era’s public sector. For Plouffe, many cities “don’t have the ability to build whole new public transportation systems” because they “don’t have room or money” for new subway lines or other investments.

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing. As a result, private actors such as Uber are needed to fill in the gap and, in fact, replace the government in some ways. Uber’s mission, Plouffe said at the ITF, “is to provide more mobility options so that cities can plan better, make better choices, and actually save money.”

But who should be doing the planning: Uber or our democratically elected governments?

There’s no doubt in my mind of the validity of Robin Chase’s evaluation that the current American public transportation system, particularly in smaller cities and suburban areas, is too often a repository for the poor. Inadequate funding has produced inadequate service, leaving people isolated and, frankly, often desperate to purchase their own cars.

But automated vehicles are no panacea, nor are they an excuse for the continued defunding of the necessary and vital transit systems that will continue to serve our cities in the decades to come. Uber’s current shared services, while cheaper than the taxis of yore, are still far more expensive than public transit. Even if self-driving cars lower costs further, it’s hard to see how they could ever match the low operating costs of far higher capacity buses and trains, especially if everything is automated. So we shouldn’t rush into the privatization of every element of our transportation system; we cannot allow it to be hijacked by new technology without first ensuring that changes do not negatively affect the parts of the system that do work.

New technologies offer the opportunity to change the way we think about transportation and likely offer us opportunities to improve our cities. But the public sector, and the civic sector in general, must continue to play the key role in planning, identifying essential investments, and aiding those who are in need.

Image at top: Google’s newest self-driving car, from Flickr user smoothgroover22 (cc).

Automobile Chicago Infrastructure

In the Chicago region, a setback for regional planning

» A major roadway is advanced, in violation of the consensus-based plan.

Yesterday, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) policy committee voted to approve the addition of a major new highway to the regional plan document. If built, the Illiana Expressway will run 47 miles between I-55 and I-65 in Illinois and Indiana, about 10 miles south of the existing built-up area of the Chicago region.

The project was supported by the relevant state departments of transportation as an essential complement to the existing mobility system and an economic development tool. But the decision to add it to the regional plan suggests a breakdown in what had been until recently a metropolitan-wide consensus about which projects to fund. Though the adoption of the project does not mean the end of the plan, it does imply that sticking to a regional plan in the face of political pressure to build other projects is difficult, if not impossible—especially because the decision-making process that adds newly desired projects to regional plans does not require eliminating funding for other, previously prioritized projects.

These conclusions are applicable to metropolitan areas across the country, not just Chicago.

The debate over the project, in which the benefits and costs of the road were hashed out in public, was an important step forward. In the past, a major highway project like the Illiana would have sailed through the committee with little discussion, supported by the strength of its sponsor (usually the state DOT) alone. Yet the process adopted by CMAP, in which the project’s merits were studied and compared, forced the region to take a hard look at whether or not it was worth its cost.

Following this vote, it will take significant work to reaffirm the mission of CMAP, which had been a model for American regional planning organizations. The agency had developed a unified vision for addressing land use and transportation issues and actively fought the indiscriminate development decisions that had marked previous planning in the region. Can it find its way back to a common regionwide investment program? CMAP, and other MPOs, must take the lessons learned from the fight over the Illiana, both good and bad, and extend them to other projects and future plans.

A background on CMAP’s mission and the development of regional goals

In 2010, CMAP unveiled GO TO 2040, the region’s long-term plan, which incorporating both land use and transportation goals in a single document. The plan, which serves as the region’s federally designated transportation investment plan (TIP), identified a list of priority regional transportation projects.

Compared to the regional plans often being produced by other MPOs, GO TO 2040 took a bold step forward. It acknowledged the interdependence of land use and transportation by articulating a vision for a region where new construction would be focused in already-developed areas, transit use would be encouraged and natural resources would be protected. It emphasized a policy—rather than “market”—based approach to estimating future growth. The plan’s list of priority transportation projects was pragmatic and reasonable—support was limited only to a small group of investments, selected after a vigorous vetting session that considered dozens of possibilities. CMAP selected only those that could be funded given the federal, state, local, and private revenues expected to be generated over a thirty-year period. And maintenance of the existing system was prioritized.

GO TO 2040 was, as a result, a departure from previous Chicago regional plans that not only strayed from a discussion of land use policy, but also were jammed up with dozens of unrealistic, and of more relevance, unfundable, projects. Plans like these, which included a panoply of competing projects, most of which never had any hope of being built, were until recently the standard for MPOs across the country. This approach allowed MPOs to add projects willy-nilly as they responded to the desires of local and state actors. But this resulted in a list that had little relationship to reality; the consequence was a “plan” with no focus.

GO TO 2040 took a different tact. While it was new and quite restrictive compared to the previous norm, it was endorsed unanimously by both the CMAP board and the associated local MPO policy committee, which is responsible for allocating federal funding. Those groups are constituted of representatives of each of the CMAP region counties, as well as representatives of regional transportation agencies. In other words, officials from all around the region were in agreement about the projects that should be prioritized over the next thirty years.

The Illiana Expressway was not one of those projects. Rather, regional officials concentrated their sights on five other capital investments, including the West Loop Transportation Center, the CTA Red Line South Extension, the I-294/I-57 Interchange, the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway Link and the Central Lake County Corridor. An additional project, the Circle Interchange, was added to the list in early 2013.

These projects were selected by consensus not because they were promoted by one politician or another, but rather because they represented projects of regional significance. The goal of the plan was to concentrate resources on those projects. Though none of the projects is beyond criticism, what can be said is that at least officials from around the region agreed on them.

This year’s decision by the State of Illinois to submit the Illiana Expressway to review (the process has been remarkably rapid) and potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 plan thus raised a number of questions about the long-term effectiveness of the process that led to the original selection of projects. For better or worse, the construction of the Illiana will require a minimum of $500 million in public funds to be built, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, and that figure may increase. As a result, the inclusion of the Illiana in the plan would not merely be a statement of support in favor of a specific project, but also a compromise in the fiscal integrity of the other projects. There is only so much money to be spent, and the $500 million that would be devoted to the Illiana necessarily means reducing the scope of work on other projects. Despite the fact that IDOT holds the project up as a model public-private partnership (it will be a toll road), that arrangement will require availability payments to a private builder-maintainer-operator, which require a state guarantee over the long term and the state is likely to have to subsidize those payments above and beyond toll revenues.

Project proponents suggested that the project would aid in the development of freight industries in the region, encourage the creation of jobs in the southern section of the region, and reduce congestion.

These arguments were vigorously contested by the non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council (I am on staff there and researched the Illiana project) and the staff of CMAP, both of which concluded—often using IDOT’s own figures—that the road would do little to reduce congestion, exacerbate pollution, produce few jobs (in fact, the project is expected to result in a net loss of jobs in Illinois for the benefit of Indiana), and serve few trucks. The fact that the road will be tolled, in particular, means that the market for using the facility will be limited. In other words, the road will offer few benefits at a high cost, particularly in comparison to other projects that would serve more densely populated, congested communities. From the perspective of sound transportation planning, it is disappointing that the project is moving forward.

But lost in the debate about the relative merits of the road, which, to be sure, has many supporters in the metropolitan area, has been a discussion about the role of regional planning in determining which projects should be selected for construction and funded accordingly. From this viewpoint, the decision to support the Illiana’s inclusion in the metropolitan area’s plan is particularly problematic, because it puts CMAP’s legitimacy as the decision maker on questions of regional development into question. Indeed, it raises the question as to whether any American metropolitan area has the capacity to develop a sound plan and then stick to it—without being hung up by political obstacles and conflicting opinions from leaders across the region.

The regional planning mission of any regional planning organization such as CMAP should encompass three primary objectives: establishing goals, identifying priorities, and following through. GO TO 2040 establishes a series of clear goals, including doubling transit ridership, increasing growth in the already-developed parts of the region, and reducing emissions. The plan’s priorities did not include the Illiana project in part exactly because it does not aid in the fulfillment of those goals.

As such, the decision to add the Illiana to GO TO 2040 suggests that this regional planning mission remains elusive.

At the same time, the manner in which the Illiana was presented to regional officials, and the limitations of the governance structure of MPOs like CMAP, present structural obstacles. Rather than consider the project within a regional framework, putting its advantages within the context of regional growth goals and the transportation network, CMAP officials were forced by the state government to consider the project on its own merits. But any sound planning approach recognizes that no individual project can be considered in isolation.

If the successful addition of the Illiana to the plan proves anything, it is that the proponents of the project demonstrated the benefits of the project. But members of the MPO policy committee never had to evaluate whether they would prefer investing in the Illiana or another project. Rather, they simply added the Illiana to an existing plan. Yet that approach, which pulls GO TO 2040 back into the MPO cornucopia-of-projects policy of the past, denies the fiscal reality that there are only so many projects that can be funded. The Chicago region simply cannot have everything it wants, but in its vote the committee acted otherwise.

CMAP, in other words, has in this way not followed through with the priorities it stated three years ago. This failure does not mean the organization’s plan no longer has relevance, just that the coherence in thinking that made GO TO 2040 stand out has faded. Major projects should be evaluated within the context of global thinking about the region’s growth; a multi-billion-dollar project should be considered only in the context of a full-scale update to the plan—taking into account the limitations on available funds and being willing to eliminate other projects if they are no longer seen as useful.

How to move forward

The acrimonious debate over the inclusion of the Illiana Expressway diminished regional unity; the close vote over whether to include the project in GO TO 2040 is indicative of broad disagreement about the way the region’s growth should proceed.

This moment, though, should be one for reflection. Why did the Illiana project cause so much controversy, both for and against? What were the benefits of the project that made it so essential to its proponents—namely in terms of economic development for the southern section of the Chicago region—and so problematic for its opponents? How can we be sure to identify projects that achieve greater consensus in the future? What changes to plans like GO TO 2040 should we hope for in the future?

Undoubtedly, some of the more progressive and ambitious elements of CMAP’s goals, particularly those related to reigning in sprawl and moving trips from automobile to transit, are not relevant to a huge section of the metropolitan area, particularly those people who live in the far suburbs. For people in the southern section of the region, better transit may seem like a nice addition, but a highway sounds like a new lifeblood, whether or not that is true. In a section of the region not given a project in the GO TO 2040 plan, the appeal of a new project like the Illiana, particularly when it supported wholeheartedly by the state, is incontestable. Trying to tell people who feel they have been ignored that they cannot have their own project is a difficult proposition.

Despite the fact that transportation must be addressed regionally, most regional agencies remain only marginal actors, stuck in the in-between world between funding (at the state level) and on-the-ground needs (at the local level). And so regional thinking will likely continue to usually lose out.

Automobile Dallas Milwaukee

A Tollway in Dallas and the Absurdity of Building Duplicative Infrastructure

» Even as Dallas finishes work on a new light rail line, plans for a new highway along a parallel corridor advance.

This summer, Dallas’ Orange Line will be extended five stations northwest of downtown. The light rail service will expand what is already the United States’ longest such network and improve connections between central Dallas, the suburb of Irving, and — in 2014 — Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Yet billions of dollars in new construction have barely increased transit use; just 4.2% of the city’s commuters use public transportation to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If there is one city that proves that simply building transit does not attract people to transit, this is it.

Investments in Dallas’ road infrastructure might provide some explanation for the situation. An astonishing seven grade-separated highways extend radially out from the city center in all directions.* This is a city designed for the automobile.

At least some of the city’s residents apparently have not had enough of those roads. Early this month, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlins announced his support for a new toll road along the Trinity River whose alignment would not only parallel existing highways and the Orange Line, but it would significantly reduce the value of a new park proposed for the area. If public funds can be found to cover at least part of its $1.4 to $1.8 billion cost, the project appears likely to be built over the next decade.

This is transportation planning at its worst. Public dollars are being spent on two separate transportation projects that offer similar benefits and serve the same corridors. The advantages of the investments made in rail — namely, the ability to avoid congestion — are being marginalized by the construction of a huge new road that will, at least for a few years (until the congestion returns), make choosing the train a poor choice. At the cost of billions and in the name of congestion relief, transit’s role is being minimized. And the result is that all this investment will again produce low ridership.

Unlike most American cities, Dallas has room for a new highway, or rather, “room” that doesn’t require the bulldozing of dozens of homes to make way for a multi-lane corridor. The space comes in the form of the 2000-foot wide Trinity River park, which extends on a northwest-to-southeast diagonal through the center city.

Since the late 1990s, local leaders have been pushing for a new, 8.5-mile toll road along the alignment from U.S. 175 to Interstate 35E to counter the congestion along existing center city roads. In 2007, a referendum to stop the project before it could be built lost by a 53-47 vote. Part of the appeal was the fact that the project would include major improvements for the river basin, including the creation of new parks, sports fields, and two lakes. All in the shadow of the highway.

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) conducted a series of public meetings on the project this month. NTTA manages a number of other toll roads in the region. Despite needing more than $1 billion in public and private funds to build the road, Jim Schutze’s comment in the Dallas Observer last week seems apt since the mayor has signed on to the project:

“The dearly held belief of many road opponents that the thing can’t be built because the money isn’t there is a false hope. If the concept stays on the boards and the political endorsements continue to flow in, the money will be found.”

Meanwhile, the arguments presented by the NTTA at the public hearings in favor of the road’s construction are almost comical:

“The Purposes of the Trinity Parkway are to:

• Improve mobility, manage congestion, increase safety, and accommodate future travel demands
• Minimize the physical, biological, and socioeconomic effects on the human environment
• Provide compatibility with local development plans
• Provide enhancements of modal interrelationships”

The problem is that the road’s construction will likely do little of the sort in the long run. First, while the construction of a new highway will result in gridlock relief on existing roads for a few years, there is ample evidence that increasing road capacity simply results in more drivers taking advantage of the roads. The congestion will return. Second, it is unclear how building a highway in the midst of a river basin will “minimize” impacts on the environment, even if the road includes windmills in its medians. Third, the project would be compatible with local development plans… if Dallas wanted to improve access to its suburbs by building a road that bypasses downtown.

Finally, how a major highway will allow for “modal interrelationships” is completely unclear. There are no plans for BRT or any sort of improved transit program to accompany the road.

To what degree will Dallas’ choice affect the patterns of transportation and land use in the region? The mayor has argued that the road is crucial to the city’s future growth. But what growth will the tollway encourage?

An examination of population change between 2000 and 2010 in the maps below provide an interesting comparison between Dallas (on the left) and Milwaukee (on the right). Both saw little overall population change in the previous decade (Dallas’ population increased by 0.8%, while Milwaukee’s declined by 0.4%), but downtown both grew quite significantly. As shown below, both cities saw significant population growth, while areas outside of the core lost population.

Above: Population change between 2000 and 2010 in Dallas (left) and Milwaukee (right), at the same scale. Each city’s downtown is indicated with a yellow circle. Green areas saw population growth (the darkest green indicates >25%); red areas saw population loss (the darkest red indicates <-25%).

Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway in 2002. Despite having no urban rail transport infrastructure, its transit commute share is twice that of Dallas (8.5%). The decisions its leaders have made about how to invest in new transportation capacity have clearly provided benefits to the downtown core even as the economy of the rest of the city continues to struggle. Dallas’ decision over whether to build a new highway downtown could profoundly affect whether its center city moves in Milwaukee’s direction or away from it.

With a new road, Dallas will be encouraging more commuters to drive through the city, and decades of evidence — forgive me for repeating this truism — have demonstrated that designing around the automobile limits the ability of cities to develop effectively. Highways, by encouraging car use, make the walking, transit-oriented city impossible. The growth that Dallas has seen in its central areas could be ephemeral with the wrong decisions made.

Transportation planning is about the choice between transit and roads, but it is also about whether to invest at all. Dallas has spent billions of dollars on a rail rapid transit network, but it has simultaneously undermined it with the construction and maintenance of huge road capacity. What is the point of investing in the former when the latter makes it unviable?

* For comparison, Chicago has six grade-separated highways radiating from its downtown; Philadelphia five; Boston five; and San Francisco three.

Note: A previous version of this post identified downtown Dallas incorrectly. The post has been corrected to reflect that fact.

Image at top: Trinity River “Park” with highway, from NTTA; maps below from Social Explorer