Book Review: A World Class Transportation System

Don't call it a grave. It's the future you chose. - Ron Paul

A civil engineer named Charles Marohn recently wrote a short eBook about America’s collapsing transportation infrastructure and dysfunctional city planning process entitled A World Class Transportation System. If you’re interested in these issues, it’s worth ignoring the rest of this post and going to buy the book. The book coincides with the launch of his Minnesota-based nonprofit called Strong Towns.

Why should you care about transportation policy? Because failing infrastructure is often spoken about, but rarely from the perspective of an engineer who needs to examine the underlying financial and engineering issues that go into urban planning. He writes:

I’m tired of watching Rome burn while the insiders fiddle, seeing bridges fall down and expensive roads go bad while we spend billions on new stuff we will never be able to maintain.

Transportation policy in America needs to focus on building cities that are financially productive and then connecting them with high speed, high capacity roadways.

The main reason why American living spaces have come to seem so anti-human is that they’re not designed towards the goal of creating productive and aesthetically pleasing places for human habitation. Rather, they’re designed by politically connected bureaucrats to spend enormous amounts of money to no economically rational end.

From the perspective of an engineer who needs to examine municipal finances to make decisions, many local governments throughout the US are doomed to insolvency due to unsustainable maintenance costs on existing infrastructure. Similar issues exist internationally, but being an American, their issues are less pressing than the issues that threaten to have more immediate consequences.

Marohn recounts:

It allows one generation to live at the expense of the next. I’ve seen cities that are deeply caught up in debt that they now spend 50% of their budget (and rising) on debt service. I’ve seen cities where no council member is under sixty years old take on thirty and forty year debt obligations. Both of those instances are inter-generationally immoral.

What makes this book different from somewhat similar examinations of the problem like The Geography of Nowhere is that it’s more based on a detailed firsthand knowledge of working in infrastructure than it is on purely aesthetic and ideological considerations. He forecasts that

It will be too late to save [most exurban towns] — we’re going to lose hundreds in the next decades — but to help the rest thrive again, we need to re-localize the economy. This proposal would help with that process.

Having examined differential tax receipts between different kinds of business districts, he can also criticize with authority the many strip mall style development efforts that rest heavily on government subsidies.

Many roads which are expensive to maintain do not come even close to repaying the expenditure for their ongoing maintenance based on the tax revenue deriving from the businesses and residences who use them.

While the book is superb on diagnosing the issue, it’s hopeless on suggesting political solutions. He acknowledges that “local governments are often run by idiots and we can’t trust them to make decisions… government leadership doesn’t attract idiots but rather reflects the general competence of society…”

This is precisely the chief issue with democratic selection: the People merely get a representative of its own intrinsic mediocrity.

The section that does make sense is that because so many city councils are staffed by incompetents, it may not be challenging to displace entire local governments in more rural & suburban areas with focused & covert efforts.

The practical proposals that make sense to me tend to be around how to renovate economically depressed downtown areas that may have unrealized economic potential.

The main issue that the existing American government is going to have is that it will not be able to maintain its property going forward. Roads will continue to break down. Funding to slow the decay will not be available because the economic spaces that it controls are becoming less productive as the spaces require more leverage to maintain at a permanently decreasing output rate.

The solution is to focus less on the roads and more on the places that the roads connect to. Relearning and re-implementing the design principles that work will be an enormous challenge to achieve under the political rule of an older generation that has come to value quantity of development over quality.

Fortunately, starvation selects for leaner, faster, and more competitive creatures.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: A World Class Transportation System

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A World Class Transportation System | Reaction Times

  2. The main reason why American living spaces have come to seem so anti-human is that they’re not designed towards the goal of creating productive and aesthetically pleasing places for human habitation. Rather, they’re designed by politically connected bureaucrats to spend enormous amounts of money to no economically rational end.

    What word starts with an n, ends with an r, and you don’t want to say it of a Black person?

    To avoid that, Whites retreat further and further into the suburbs. They drive expensive cars, and block access to their suburbs by public transit, in order to impose costs on anyone who wants to go there.

    It allows one generation to live at the expense of the next. I’ve seen cities that are deeply caught up in debt that they now spend 50% of their budget (and rising) on debt service.

    What’s a city supposed to do once the economically productive people have fled from the “random” violence of an infestation of North American pavement apes?

    I’ve seen cities where no council member is under sixty years old take on thirty and forty year debt obligations. Both of those instances are inter-generationally immoral.

    implying that old people are incapable of ruling in the interests of their children. I thought we were reactionaries here.

    The practical proposals that make sense to me tend to be around how to renovate economically depressed downtown areas that may have unrealized economic potential.

    gentrification

    • I’m indeed a gentrifier from a line of gentrifiers. Gentrified properties can sometimes return 10-100x or more depending on how long it’s held for and other factors.

      >What word starts with an n, ends with an r, and you don’t want to say it of a Black person?

      >To avoid that, Whites retreat further and further into the suburbs. They drive expensive cars, and block access to their suburbs by public transit, in order to impose costs on anyone who wants to go there.

      No shit, peppermint? It sure is a good thing you’re here to spell things out for the people who are too retarded to infer details for themselves.

      >What’s a city supposed to do once the economically productive people have fled from the “random” violence of an infestation of North American pavement apes?

      It’s supposed to die… or be bought by Chinese, Russians, and whytes who aren’t quite as weak as the ones who fled. Blacks are weak hands holding cards that they have no clue how to play.

      >implying that old people are incapable of ruling in the interests of their children. I thought we were reactionaries here.

      peppermint, do you think to yourself: “You know what this comment section needs? ME, to bring it a little closer to the edge.”

      This problem (that of a lack of inter-generational political planning) is Hoppe’s diagnosis of democracy’s fatal flaw. If you spent more time reading books and less time trying to shock the already shocking, maybe you’d recognize that without someone having to spell it out for you.

      • inter-generational planning is not the fatal flaw. Authority without accountability makes holier-than-thou posing replace actually caring about the results. In Spain, Ebola-nurse’s dog can’t be put down; in the US, sperglords write books QQing about the transportation system while tacitly ignoring the reason it is messed up.

        Democracy alone is not an answer, either. Democracy alone may have been the reason Boston’s Big Dig was so much more expensive than initially estimated.

        For decades, people have been talking about America’s love affair with the open road. Liberals say that it costs too much, conservatives hint that it’s about freedom. How does this book break the partisan mental logjam?

        Not every book you read deserves a review. This is not college.

      • Go back to Occupy.

        You are an example of the sort of low-quality person that drives away the better sorts. It figures that someone from that mob would be white knighting democracy in my comment section.

        >For decades, people have been talking about America’s love affair with the open road. Liberals say that it costs too much, conservatives hint that it’s about freedom. How does this book break the partisan mental logjam?

        This is not a correct interpretation. Your opinions are poorly informed. Your writing is scattered. You have no sense of manners. And you’re not even funny.

        >Not every book you read deserves a review. This is not college.

        You belong on *chan or in an Occupy rape-tent and not here.

  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  4. I’m not a civil engineer, but I have traveled over 40,000 miles per year on American highways for the last 20 years. You notice things. Even in rural areas where race is almost a non-issue, goverments will bypass towns with non-limited access roads. They then proceed to build new sprawl on the bypass. Wait 15 years and they will bypass the bypass, and build more sprawl. I have been places where there is a bypass of a bypass of a bypass of a bypass. Townspeople forget where their town was in the first place. (Usually near a river or railroad) It is always cheaper to buy a cornfield and bribe a few politicians than it is to pay the market rate for commercial real estate.

  5. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2014/11/05 | Free Northerner

  6. These issues exist and persist because of the cost-benefit analysis involved in such considerations. The short term infusion of cash offered by strip mall developments offsets the long term considerations of infrastructure improvements. The politicians and bureaucrats involved in their approval will never live to see the degradation of such developments. They may live to see them but they will have long since retired or moved on from there by time it happens.

    Local politics, even more so than national, is governed by the need of the local selectman to be reelected. He needs immediate and often visual proof of what he is doing to improve the lot of his constituents. And, even more unlike the national politician, his constituents are in far great proximity.

    And, while it would be nice to place such municipal considerations in the hands of non-elected officials (council-manager) they are governed even more by the short-term economic development scenarios that create sprawl development in the first place.

    Urban growth boundaries don’t work. Restrictive zoning doesn’t work – it creates islands of prosperity among oceans of squalor. Bedroom communities are wasteful and inefficient. What to do? What to do?

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