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How our transportation system is killing America—and how we can change it

October 08, 2021
Charles Marohn's new book is a timely look at the failures of the American transportation system and how we can fix it.

Charles Marohn’s new book argues that the U.S. transportation system is a tragedy and a con job of epic dimensions. It produces congestion and gridlock, death and trauma, hollowed-out communities, and off-the-charts levels of stress and dysfunction. But for all of the enormous costs that it imposes, in human as well as economic terms, the system delivers few public benefits. 

“For what particular greatness are we sacrificing our people?” Marohn asks in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (Wiley, 2021). “To save ourselves a short walk? For the chance at a drive-thru hamburger?”

The outcomes may be dismal, but they’re not an accident. Nor are they the product of free-market forces at work. They’re the result of deliberate choices and skewed priorities. Disturbing as it may be, the system works exactly as it is designed to work.

That’s because it prioritizes two goals over everything: Volume and velocity. It is designed to move as many cars as possible at the highest speeds possible. These priorities are continually, powerfully reinforced by federal transportation funding, which incentivizes states and cities to pursue dysfunctional projects simply because the money is available for them. At the same time, federal grants have a profound influence on local leaders’ ideas of what’s best for their communities.

“Local problems are examined through the prism of transportation,” Marohn writes. “Instead of focusing on the urgent needs of residents, municipal bureaucracies and local power centers orient around capital flows that come out of Washington, D.C., Wall Street, and the various state capitals.” As a result, the kind of initiatives that are proven to build stronger economies—like workforce development programs—are ignored or underfunded.

What’s worse: the whole system is sold and justified with sham cost/benefit analyses that have no connection to reality. The economic-impact projections by project boosters often translate “time savings” into wildly inflated monetary gains for local residents—without accounting for the fact that new roads induce more driving, which creates more congestion and gridlock. And the projections fail to factor in the way that new roads often destroy neighborhoods and gut local economies.

Marohn focuses at length on the case of Shreveport, LA, where a small group of civic leaders is pushing for an I-49 “Inner City Connector” that would serve just a few thousand cars each day—and would cut through the heart of a predominantly Black neighborhood, Allendale. 

This is an old story, of course. As the prospect of a road slicing through the neighborhood drives down property values, the city will buy houses at dirt-cheap prices. Then it will tear them down to clear the way for the road. Then, as big box stores and fast-food chains pop up around the new connector, “the windfall gains will be privatized,” Marohn writes. “It is the poverty of Allendale, not its development potential, that makes this entire project possible. What is happening here is immoral.” 

Such are the incentives driving the system we’ve built: At every turn, and in every way, volume and velocity are prioritized over community wealth-building, human well-being—and everything else. But that’s a choice, not an inevitability. The good news here is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose another path. And we have every incentive to do so.

The “stroad” to hell

Remarkably, the system isn’t very good at what it supposedly does best—moving people from one place to another in the shortest time possible. That’s partly because we’ve failed to grapple with precisely what streets and roads should actually do. 

Streets, by Marohn’s account, should mainly function as community-building tools. On streets, speed limits should be low and cars should be one of many modes of transportation (and not the dominant one), alongside pedestrians, bikers, and public transit. Roads, by contrast, should allow vehicles to move from one point to another as quickly as possible, with the fewest interruptions possible. “The greatest value is provided where speeds are very low (street) and where they are very high (roads),” Marohn writes. 

Instead of this clean division of labor, the U.S. paradigm is dominated by a dysfunctional hybrid that Marohn calls “stroads.” On stroads, speeds are roughly 45 mph (give or take 15 mph), and traffic is frequently slowed by stoplights. 

Stroads are the workhorses of the U.S. system, but they serve no one very well—not drivers and certainly not pedestrians, bikers, and buses. And they do extreme damage by facilitating sprawl, leaching community wealth, creating congestion, and draining public resources. Stroads are the reason so many places in the U.S. looks indistinguishable from one another, with one strip mall bleeding into the next.

Stroads also pose persistent dangers to everyone. As Marohn writes, they “are the most dangerous environment we routinely build in our cities. If we applied a fraction of the level of scrutiny to their design that we have to the design of such items as baby carriers, lawn mowers, or beach toys, we would have made radical reforms long ago.”

Wealth building 101

Much of Marohn’s book is devoted to describing the kinds of reforms he favors. His overriding goal is to encourage wealth building that benefits entire communities.

In the context of cities, at least, wealth building is the opposite of growth. Growth typically means disinvestment in urban centers, and it means ever-further expansion into suburban and exurban spaces. Wealth-building means investing in—and improving—the businesses, institutions, and neighborhoods that serve as anchors for urban cores. 

“The aim is not merely to improve a single property or block; that is easy and largely inconsequential,” Marohn writes. “The goal must be to create a virtuous feedback loop that broadly raises land values, drives incremental redevelopment, and ultimately improves the community’s entire real estate portfolio, neighborhood by neighborhood, building real wealth neighbor by neighbor.” 

On this score, Marohn makes a bold yet somewhat buried claim: Transit, he writes, is the “greatest wealth accelerator our cities have.” Or it can be, at least, if it’s done well. That means integrating it into the fabric of everyday life, with frequent bus and train service driving strong flows of foot and bike traffic in urban neighborhoods.

By contrast, transit in the U.S. is usually little more than an afterthought to the prevailing auto culture. The result is that it’s treated as either a charity designed to serve poor people or an amenity for relatively affluent commuters. Either way, it’s terribly underfunded. 

But the root of the problem here, according to Marohn, isn’t so much that we haven’t thought long and hard enough about what public transit should be. His point, in fact, is that we generally think too much about transportation—and especially about the projects that we could build with federal monies. 

Instead, we should invest our time and energy in a more fundamental question: What kind of communities do we want to build?

If the answer is that we want to build wealthy communities, it will mean creating transportation systems that serve our towns and cities, rather than vice versa. It will mean prioritizing human needs over the need for speed. And it will mean giving up on the pointless chase for ever-more growth.

That world is still possible, and Marohn makes a compelling case for it. But if and when we achieve it, it will be a very different world indeed.

Buy the Book

Listen to the Strong Towns podcast with Charles Marohn, featuring HSRA Executive Director Rick Harnish. They have a discussion about the role high-speed rail plays in building an effective transportation system.