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.