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John Norquist and Our Congestion Obsession

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East To Dan Ryan Expy
East To Dan Ryan Expy

Years ago, I read a book (or series?) set in the near future where all the freeways had been turned into public parks.

Everybody’s been sort of trained to believe that if you’ve got a traffic problem, all you have to do is make the pipe bigger, you know, make the road wider and that’ll solve the problem. The Detroit metropolitan area is covered with freeways. Ever freeway you could possible imagine has been built—although there are a couple left on the drawing board—but more than any other place in the country, the Michigan DOT pretty much go its way.

And they have solved the problem that they identified, which was congestion. The city of Detroit doesn’t really have a problem with congestion anymore. That’s the least of their problems. So by creating a transportation system that encouraged people to leave town—the population of the city is about a third of what it was since 1950. They had 300 miles of streetcars at the end of the war. That’s all gone. Now they have these big roads. The street grid has been cut up, so it’s hard to move around on the surface streets. And normally that’s a big problem, but with Detroit the rush hour has become so uneventful that you really don’t have a problem with congestion. You have to go out to the suburbs to find congestion that you’re used to in America…

The stated goal was to battle congestion, and in Detroit, they did it. And there are side effects. You could take care of congestion in New York in a similar way: If you eliminate the 700 miles of subway, eliminate the commuter trains, build the Cross-Manhattan Expressway, put the West Side Highway back in—build all the freeways that Robert Moses didn’t get around to building—you could probably solve the congestion problem in New York. Manhattan’s population would drop from 2 million down to half a million, and the city would become a really poor place instead of a rich place.

The point I’m making is that, since the postwar period, federal transportation policy has been focused on eliminating congestion, and that’s too narrow a goal. The goal ought to be, What adds value to society? What adds value to the economy? If you look at the richest places in America, they’re the most congested.

(click here to continue reading Next American City » Buzz » INTERVIEW: John Norquist and Our Congestion Obsession.)

Also too bad the current crop of Republicans is so anti-train: city congestion is one thing, but what about travel from city to city?

Written by Seth Anderson

March 18th, 2012 at 8:42 am

Posted in Business,government

Tagged with ,

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