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Transportation's Wile E. Coyote Moment

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Which came first, the highways or the sprawl?

It’s a question that evokes a wee bit of nostalgia for us at Frontier Group. One of our very earliest reports, written in 2000 by my former colleague Brad Heavner, documented how the construction of Interstate highways in Maryland facilitated the build-out of suburbia and the flight from the cities that characterized so much of the late 20th century.

Based on the evidence Brad amassed at the time, you can put me down solidly in the “highways facilitate sprawl” camp. But there has long been a competing argument that sprawl could not have occurred to the degree it did were there not a willing market for it. Some take this a step further and argue that it was the demand for an auto-centric, suburban/exurban lifestyle that created the political conditions for the very transportation policies that Brad and others have identified as fueling sprawl in the first place. 

Chicken, meet egg.

The idea that the American people have an insatiable demand for sprawling development is – along with the discreditedidea that “highways pay for themselves” – one of the underpinnings of the policy strategy that led the nation to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in its highway network over the past half century. 

It is also, increasingly and demonstrably, wrong. Evidence is rolling in from all quarters that Americans do not want more sprawl-style housing and will not demand it any time in the foreseeable future – unless they are left with no alternatives. 

Hyperbole? I would have thought so too, until very recently. But the evidence has become too great to ignore. Consider:

  • Demographic trends – including the aging of the Baby Boom generation and a projected rapid rise in the number of households without children – are poised to cause a dramatic shift in housing demand away from detached single-family housing and toward rental housing, according to a recent presentation by University of Utah planning professor Arthur C. Nelson, described in this provocative two-part series in New Urban News.
  • The shift will feel even more dramatic because seniors will be selling their single-family homes into an already glutted single-family housing market as they age, and will be seeking multi-family housing that is already in high demand. Nelson’s figures suggest that there will be demand for up to a million new rental housing units each year for the next decade.
  • Homeownership rates – already down from their peak in the mid-2000s – are likely to fall even further as a result of tighter standards for home mortgages in the wake of the housing crisis.
  • Consumer demand has shifted markedly toward housing choices that bring shorter commutes, walkable neighborhoods, proximity to urban amenities, and greater eco-consciousness. (PDF) This has manifested itself in a well-publicized return to cities, but also in the evolution of suburban areas that break from the traditional mold of auto-oriented sprawl.
  • Lastly, gasoline is roughly $4 per gallon. While prices may fluctuate, gasoline prices will likely never decline to the sub-$2 per gallon levels that prevailed up until 2004 … and there’s a chance they may go higher still.

All signs, therefore, suggest that the transportation policy that would best serve America at the moment is one that is capable of sustaining the walkable, mixed-use communities that are attractive both to seniors and younger Americans, and that reduce our dependence on oil. It’s a slam-dunk case, really.

And yet, we remain stuck in a transportation debate – and stuck with transportation policies – that are dominated by the sprawl-era thinking that highways are the default solution to any transportation problem. The result is that our nation is heading toward a Wile E. Coyote moment – one in which our public policies keep us running full-tilt in a particular direction … only to take us right off a cliff. 

One of the things for which I give President Obama – as well as his Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – tremendous credit is for recognizing the importance of transit, high-speed rail, and planning for livable communities in their transportation agenda, and for sticking to their guns in the face of withering criticism from the highway lobby. 

Clearly, they get it. But the gridlock on transportation issues in Washington demonstrates how difficult it is to slough off 60-year-old assumptions about the kind of transportation network we need and what it takes to build it. Let’s hope that the president, Secretary LaHood, and others continue to educate the public, the media, and fellow decision-makers on the importance of adopting transportation policies that reflect the needs of the evolving America of the 21st century.