It’s NYU month here at Exasperated Infrastructures. I was excited to interview two of NYU’s transportation staff back to back.1 Professor Eric Goldwyn joined me to talk about all things costs and capacity, which closely mirrors the work he does at the Marron Institute at NYU alongside his team of intrepid researchers. This team is one of the only entities in the country trying to figure out why it’s so hard for American planners and engineers—with all their experience and expertise—to just build nuts-and-bolts infrastructure at a reasonable cost.
Our problems aren’t limited to simply overspending, he’ll tell me. We just don’t have enough staff with enough latitude or expertise to build what we need when we need it. So we just don’t. But we have to? We got into it below.
This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and timeliness.
My name is Eric Goldwyn, I’m a professor at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management and I do research on transit infrastructure costs. That’s the project I’m working on right now with my colleagues, Alon Levy and Elif Ensari. We are looking at what drives costs for subway and rapid rail projects around the world. It’s been a hot topic for a while that’s been getting more and more research, especially on the heels of announcements by the Biden administration [in 2021] about expanding investment into intracity transit. It seems like a good time to figure out how to get costs down because what we found and what a lot of other people have discovered is that American costs are just much, much higher than other countries around the world.
And so how do we get more bang for each dollar spent is the main goal.
And then in terms of my teaching, I teach urban history and urban planning. I like the lens of transportation networks as a way of understanding cities, I think it’s a good way to get at a lot of different issues.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a transportation planner, engineer, or professor?
Absolutely not. I’ve always known that transportation is really important to my life. I grew up in New York, and I don’t drive and never really did. I’ve always been interested in the city and history and seeing stuff. The only way to do that, as a kid was to be somewhat conversant in, not just the Subway but also walking and having a sense of direction, understanding of how to orient myself. I’ve always been really interested in local politics and in cities.
I thought, “How do you make cities better?” and it seemed very clear that transportation was a big part of that story. Being in New York, I’m definitely biased towards walkability and density. Those ingredients made me predisposed to this field. I just saw transportation as being the big piece to unlocking all of it.
Let’s dig into the first bucket of questions. What have we gotten wrong in the past in terms of our approach to transportation?
It’s okay to get things wrong. What’s not okay is not learning from those mistakes and papering over them. A lot of people who were involved in 1950s or 1960s transport engineering and planning would tell you that they tried their best. They had a lot of data via IBM punchcards. And they spent hours and weeks modeling the future, but the future is not easily divined. They didn’t anticipate things, and I’m talking about the Chicago Area Transportation Study, and DC had similar studies, where things like collisions or pollution, or just land-use impacts, and not even getting into the more obvious equity issues of ramming a highway through a neighborhood, were not considered. And there has been some reflection, but I think planning, as a profession is very convinced of the merits of positivism and believing, “Okay, we just need a little bit more data, and then we’re going to get it right.”
If you look at a grand sweep of urban “futzing”—that’s been true since the 1800s, when we collect some data and we think we can tell the future; that’s the mission of The Enlightenment. And the goal has always been [elusive], “We just don’t have enough data,” and it’s always, “Okay, now we have enough data, now we’re going to get it right.” And it’s like every 30 to 40 years, there’s this moment of, “Okay, now we have the right data, and we’re going to get it right.”
But we still make mistakes and that’s normal. Right now we’re at one of those points where it’s, “Now we have all this cell phone data, and now we have all these algorithms…and this is the time we’re going to actually get it right.”
Well, no, we probably didn’t figure it all out this time, either. And so we should have some humility about what we think the future is going to look like. We don’t want to make interventions that are necessarily completely irreversible. The thing with transportation infrastructure, in particular, those two things are a little bit at “cross-purposes” because it is true when you build transportation infrastructure, you actually do want to go big—you don’t want to build things in a middling, piecemeal fashion.
That’s the toughest part of it. What we see right now with small streetcar projects or small extensions of rapid transit, that’s not really going to move the dial, in terms of shifting people out of cars. You do need to have a vision and invest in it.
There’s a tension in infrastructure planning in general (not just in transport), where there are merits to bigger networks and bigger systems producing bigger benefits. If we go in a slower piecemeal fashion, you run the risk of never getting to that point where this system works.
In my teaching, I somehow, invariably, always make fun of Kansas City, even though their streetcar is one of the better-performing ones—it’s still not a good streetcar. When we build one streetcar line on Main Street but are continuing to widen highways, and continuing to keep gas taxes low we’re not really going to affect any useful change. Sprawl is still happening, people are still moving farther and farther out from the center. Unless we start to get serious about a combination of things, I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. We have to figure out the land use, we have to think about parking policy, and we have to think about driving and transit simultaneously. We do need to think at a large scale, but we also have to be reflective every one year, five years, every 10 years, whatever.
The main thing that we’ve gotten wrong is we recognize that we’ve gotten things wrong, but we’re still using the same approaches and methods to answer these questions.
Do you think decision-makers understand the problems that they’re trying to solve?
In planning, we call them wicked problems that are persistent for decades, let’s just say…affordable housing. Presumably, you would say, “Sure, we’ve got to allow for more development, we have to change the zoning code.” The thing is, there are other, more subtle forces at work: parking, land use planning, and zoning. If we don’t allow for upzoning, and we don’t allow for the elimination of some parking requirements, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about affordable housing, broadly.
And I think that’s the thing about cities that’s so interesting. Everything is deeply interconnected and we can’t really atomize and separate and disaggregate in the way that a physicist might be able to with some of the things that they study.
Old modernists were so interested in science and fitting every square into a circle and reorganizing our government to push things into the administrative state. We’ve had this in almost every city in every country. I’m astounded that we can’t seem to figure out how to set up a either legislative or executive branch that works.2 Ones that are responsive to problems that people are actually designing.
What do you think is the biggest touchpoint for reorganizing the way we go about generating ideas?
In the transportation space, you’ve seen a big hollowing out of state capacity. Boston for instance—the MBTA—used to have a large capital planning team that could do engineering and built a lot of projects. And starting in the 90s, all that started to atrophy and they stopped building large capital projects, and the people who were building stuff went into the private sector, or left, or retired, or died.
So then when you’re like, “Okay, we have this crisis (because that’s oftentimes how subway systems get built—there’s a crisis of congestion).” We throw a lot of resources at it but you only have one or two people internally overseeing a project. and they’ve never done this before. Invariably, they’re going to get a lot of stuff wrong, so then they hire consultants and consultants are very good when you can tell them exactly what you want them to do. But if agencies themselves don’t know what needs to be done, it’s the blind leading—not the blind, exactly—but it’s the blind leading a very risk-averse group of people who are happy to log billable hours.
It’s not a recipe for success.
And I think that’s a classic principal-agent problem. Instead of agency and consultant against the project, it’s who has the least responsibility for and whose liability for the problems that inevitably arise.
Is that endemic in almost every one of our agencies?
That adversarial relationship is definitely there. We interviewed a former head of capital construction at an agency on the West Coast. He was very pro-construction-manager/general-contractor-style of project delivery.
The thing that he said that was so striking in the interview is how, in his experience, it really shifted those dynamics. It was really the agency and the consultants against the project, rather than the two against each other, trying to get a project done.
I will say, this project delivery method was tried on the Green Line Extension, and absolutely did not achieve that result. It was very adversarial. In a lot of our interviews with cost estimators or other people in other agencies, they absolutely describe it as being adversarial with the contractors, and contractors describe it that way, too. Part of that is about this obsession with offloading risk, which I get abstractly, but some of these projects or parts of projects are just inherently risky and if the State doesn’t take those risks, the private sector will take them but they’ll charge you a lot to do so.
One project we looked at just briefly was a project in Seoul, South Korea: it’s a public-private partnership. Rather than offloading the risk, the state said, “Okay, we’ll take on the risk of the civil engineering work, digging tunnels and earthworks and risky tasks,” and the private sector will take on the risk of picking the rolling stock and getting it delivered on time and things that aren’t considered to be very risky; they inverted the principle
We spoke to a ton of American-side people who would tell us, “Offload the risk, offload the risk, offload the risk.” One person made a very good point: “Why would you entrust a transit agency that has shown no ability to deliver a project on time and on budget with any risk. Why would you entrust them to manage that risk properly?” It’s fair as a broad point. I would respond (if I weren’t doing an interview), “Maybe, if they build up that capacity then they actually can manage that risk.”
One of the biggest frustrations that I see in the research is that there is this helplessness and hopelessness about the situation where, “Well, we’ve done such a poor job that it’s not possible to do a good job.” That’s why we’ve seen this rush to try alternative delivery methods. Maybe it’s not the method that is broken, we’ve just implemented it poorly. That’s a defense mechanism for lots of people. In this specific case, and a lot of people at agencies would agree, that we have not built up that muscle at our agencies. LA Metro is maybe moving the closest towards that, but their costs are not especially good despite building projects pretty continuously since the 90s. In theory, they should be moving towards nailing this and getting it right. And they’re not.
In New York, people will say, “Well, New York has Subways,” but just didn’t build anything until 2015. There was this 65-year gap between major capital construction.
If we look at comparisons in Spain, Italy, or France, they just continue to build that muscle and they’re building and building and building. They maintain that ability to do this and we haven’t.
Do you think it’s because we have this Federalist system combined with deeply entrenched conservatism and regulatory capture that we just push things off to the private sector, because the private sector is supposed to be more efficient, and supposed to have higher risk tolerance? The whole way we do federalism, both horizontally and vertically plus an obsession with the private business to be our builders, have we just totally lost the thread on how to do anything?
I’m convinced of is that public-private partnerships are touted to the general public as a shorthand for regulatory capture and risk management. They’re not really offloading risk because the state is ultimately responsible for paying these premiums.
Here’s an example: outside of Portsmouth, OH a group of sponsors came together to promote and win a new, 9-figure highway, but the state is responsible for availability payments.
So that’s the key thing with the P3s. I completely agree that the narrative around the public-private partnership is one of “Let’s get innovation. Let’s get out of the sclerotic bureaucracy. It’s incompetent bureaucrats with pocket protectors messing everything up,” I totally agree that that’s how it’s pitched. In order to do a public-private partnership well, you need to have very strong state oversight. That’s a big tension—that we’ve simultaneously eviscerated internal capacity and gone heavy on consultants.
Public-private partnerships can work but we can’t do them while also depleting our ability to manage those projects. There’s a great book by Elliott Sclar3, who was an advisor of mine at Columbia called, “You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For,” which is about a bunch of these public-private partnerships, and exactly what your point was: if private sector consultants mess up, it’s not as if a transit agency is never going to run bus service again, or there’s not going to be a water treatment facility. They’re just going to have to pay to do it again.
And I think in transport, the thing that we see that’s a huge misnomer about the public-private partnership model, is that until a private entity is willing to take on farebox risk, it’s not really taking on anything that risky. Someone made that point to me in an interview: even if an agency does the “design, build, operate, transfer” model, it has to be designed to a high enough standard that they’re going to keep maintenance costs down over time. But if the state has to provide availability payments, the design firm will just design…whatever, because it’s going to get paid either way, and there’s not really any risk.
That’s the other part of these project deliveries: even when they’re called “design/build” or “public-private partnerships,” oftentimes, there’s a lot of ability for the private contractors to say, “Well, something’s changed. So, you need to pay us some more money.” That’s a lot of what happened with the Green Line Extension, where it was designed to be a maximum-price contract. But somehow, those guaranteed maximum prices were not guaranteed.
One of the ways we keep costs down is a lot of standardization methods: we cut out a lot of the design. The idea of context-sensitivity then is thrown out in favor of this cheaper path. Neither is right, but the American infrastructure complex hasn’t quite figured out how to do either well, yet. So we get stuck in limbo and the lowest acceptable project is ultimately built.
One of the really good theses that I’ve read in the last couple of years, Josh Barro wrote this article for NY Magazine’s Intelligencer vertical a few years ago, where he said in so many words: “The reason why we can’t figure out why American infrastructure is so expensive is that we’re not paying other people to go figure this out.” There are sprawling misunderstandings across the board. There’s another principal-agent problem. What’s the incentive for the people who own the process to share with competitors?
We know that there are ways to get costs down; we know that there are proven methods to build things at half the cost of what they cost in New York, in American infrastructure generally.
What’s the first step in terms of kind of changing the paradigm?
I’m familiar with Josh’s article, and I agree. The thing that is tricky is: even when you read a deep analysis of a project you still can’t really get that unit cost breakdown. It’s impossible to disaggregate. What’s so crazy about this to me is that state-level governments and the Federal government hand over billions of dollars to these companies, but we often do lump-sum contracts. There’s a lot of “stuff” that’s hidden beneath those line items because they’re not very granular—they’re often pretty general.
I compare costs reported to the FTA versus internal costs reported by the agency, and they don’t match up. The agencies report these costs to the FTA, so even in our most basic accounting and maintaining accountability, we’re just not doing a good job following best practices.
To your point about stations and the bespoke nature of American infrastructure, I think it’s worth having the discussion of saying, “Okay, we can build a really nice station with Chuck Close mosaics…”
I don’t mean to pick on the art at the subway stations, because they’re not really that expensive in the grand scheme of things. It is more we can have this thing and that thing, but we need to be clear about the trade-offs. If we build those things, it’s going to prevent us from building the next three phases of this project. We might never get a Second Avenue Subway, but if we skimped here and there and cut costs by standardizing a few things, rather than every station being a masterpiece, we could build Phases One and Two as one phase, and we could cut the timeline in half.
Those types of discussions are discussions that people are happy to have and will understand—every human being understands that there are different types of houses, and there are different types of cars and TVs, and different types of everything, at every price point. It seems that with a lot of these [infrastructure] projects, these are not the types of discussions we have. Instead, we talk about, “How do we avoid some disruption?” Or, “How do we get the nicest amenity,” it’s important, but missing the broader context of the goals of the project.
A lot of that framing is missing. We do see it, from time to time, in public comments. Sometimes people will say, “We want this piece of infrastructure to get done.” That’s not usually the winning argument. There are people who go to these meetings and advocate for it, though.
Agencies do actually have a lot of authority to audit contractors and get very precise cost data from them. It’s just they don’t exercise it—and I was surprised by that. All of the information is there to get at that “unit cost” idea to understand where every dollar is flowing. Also: the reporting at the Federal level is just bad. The FTA maintains a database and even inside the database, there’s a caveat that says if you’re actually interested in a specific project don’t rely on this database to give you the right answer.
Do you think it’s a capacity problem—that there’s just not enough people and there’s not enough emphasis placed on it because auditing is not a very output-oriented “deliverable” task? There’s a lot of glaring oversight from the Board that oversees the MBTA. It’s hard to justify the cost of having several accountants in-house auditing projects when the MBTA director is being pressured by the legislature or by the constituency to keep costs down.
The director or board can line-item and look at the staffing budget at the MBTA and ask—not even with agenda—“Why do we have five accountants that cost $100,000-a-year.” Presumably, somebody has already gone through these costs, and greenlit these hires—but who? We can roll our eyes and get quasi-frustrated, and we do.
My question here is how do we impart this knowledge to the general public? We talked about the problems with subway building— it’s not just “digging a trench and burying a train.” There are accounting problems, there are community engagement problems, there are all these problems and there’s then a diaspora of expertise. How do we explain these issues to a public that just wants to get from point A to point B, without speaking in a language that takes an advanced degree to decipher?
There’s the other example that maybe you’re familiar with was after Hurricane Sandy, one of the Subway lines had pretty serious water infiltration in the tunnel. There were a few different options put forward. One was “We can essentially work nights and weekends for three years to fix this problem.” Or: “We could shut it down 24 hours a day for 16 months, and get this tunnel fixed up to a high operating standard, and you never have to deal with this again…” until next time.
It polled and everyone was behind the more seemingly painful solution of “let’s take our lumps here” because we understood that doing the right fix the first time was better than dragging this process out. Another explanation for this response is that New York, starting in 2017 had been doing a lot of nights and weekend work and it was gumming up a lot of things.
What ended up happening is the governor [Andrew Cuomo at the time] said: “We’re not going to do either of those things. We’re going to find a better solution.” So far, that’s right. The lesson from that is: if alternatives were communicated in a clear enough fashion at a high level, people get it. We didn’t need to explain bench walls, et cetera:
”Do you want this train? If you want this train to exist in the future, we need to shut it down to do some repair work.”
That’s the job of planners—people like you and me—but people at agencies to clearly make those cases. And…public meetings are terrible. People scream at you, and they’re not polite, and it’s late at night, and you’re probably not getting paid extra. There’s a 4D chess game, too, where people at the agencies are trying to anticipate and avoid conflict that… is not that big of a deal.
Is there a first step that we can take to set ourselves up to do things better?
Transparency is a big part of it. One thing that is surprising to me is…no one is going to compliment a transit agency, and be like, “Oh, you’re doing a great job”… even if they are doing a great job. So just…don’t hide everything. Make information available. If you—agency staff—don’t want to get screamed at…that’s ridiculous. Everyone’s going to scream at you; that’s what people do, unfortunately. The more people start to look at this stuff and understand what the issues are, it’s kind of… “Oh, okay…”
In our work on Boston [the Green Line Extension], not that the world has studied it, but when I talk to people out there, they seem to understand very quickly: “Oh, man, yeah, internal capacity. That was a big problem there.” Anyone can understand that if you have the largest project in the history of your agency—$2 billion—and there are only four to six people overseeing it, that probably is not a great recipe for success. People understand these things. It’s just being more forthright.
In planning, there’s a famous paper about participation: we participate in participation rather than having meaningful participation. And I think that that’s true.4
One project manager I spoke with at a transit agency actually said something that was quite surprising: there should be even more participation. If you can clearly explain the project—what’s affected and what’s not—earlier on, you can deal with property-takings issues, you can deal with the impacts of construction. If you’re not revealing your hand completely, because you want to avoid some of the fraught conversations, it’s just kicking the pain down the road. The resulting solution might be much more expensive, will require additional design work, consultant work…professional services costs will go up.
A great example of that type of transparency in practice was actually in Boston. The city/state wanted to put a new bus lane along Washington Street. The planning team went to the local businesses and they had many public meetings; they would make sure to meet people where they were; they met with communities of color and met the disability community. They met all the different stakeholders and then they addressed their issues, whether they agreed or did things that the groups wanted them to do, that’s another story.
People want to be heard; they want to know their concerns are being heard and considered. That’s maybe the quickest way you can unstick projects is by not planning at people. This example is a great way to teach about public engagement, where it’s not just a checkmark on a NEPA review. It’s asking people what the problem is, which I think far too often, planners just assume that there even is a problem, to begin with.
That goes into alternative analysis and the EIS process, which is a whole other thing that is ripe for reform in lots of ways.
A lot of alternative analysis is political theater anyway…who knows what is being analyzed? There’s always a lot of work but not always that much analysis.
That’s always the “thing”: Are we clear about the problem we’re trying to solve? And with the Green Line extension, the project lost its focus and that’s what happens with a lot of these projects. Ultimately, if our project is about delivering tens of thousands of people per day, from point A to point B, we might say, “That landscaping on the outside of the station would be nice, but if it’s going to preclude us from building the extension all the way to Mystic Valley Parkway…maybe we don’t do it.”
You see in a lot of projects that costs get out of control and the agency has to scale back. It’s easy, then, to feel like these agency people are incompetent, but I don’t think that’s the case. A lot of agency people are extremely competent, very thoughtful, and quite sensitive to all of these issues.
There’s also politics on top of all this, where there’s a legislator or governor who’ll say, “I need it done this way.” When that happens, and it gets in the way of maybe building better, that’s a different type of problem that needs solving. We have a lot of leaders who don’t fully understand the 360° view of a problem. They understand part of it and think that the solution is something else. That’s why we repeat a lot of the same mistakes over and over again.
Engineers don’t go to school to take public speaking classes. Engineers don’t have their Toastmasters certification and don’t want to get up in front of an audience and talk about why we need 40,000 AADT (Average Annual Daily Traffic. In short, how busy a road is.) on this road. A lot of engineers are handed a statement of work from whoever’s in charge and told to design this and they say, “Okay,” because they went to school to design roads. They didn’t go to school to talk to the public about why we need this capacity; they’ll just tell you because we need it because it’s a system.
I call this the longest game of telephone that we have in our industry. A lot of local communities don’t have the capacity and language to be able to speak to their MPO’s engineering staff, and the engineering staff doesn’t know how to ask questions of the community. And then that gets boosted up to the state level and the state planners and engineers will say, “Here’s our formula funding. What’s on our STIP? What’s the next project? Does this project solve any problems? Who cares it’s on the STIP.” Then the STIP devolves into this dance with the local TIP and it’s off to the races.5
At the federal level, we’ve now got a trillion dollars for infrastructure…we don’t know how to spend this money. These numbers are thrown out. We have no idea how to conceptualize that much money, and we can’t spend it, and then we’ve got a Progressive Caucus in Congress saying, “Let’s spend even more money.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on better communicating that it’s not necessarily spending a ton of money, but spending it correctly and being able to spend it in a way that’s traceable and accountable. And then we can say, “Okay, we solved this problem. We measured our successes, so more, please.”
The planning and the vision are just not really there. I’m not expert enough in every state and every municipality, but in a lot of places, either no ideas on the board for transit or there is some idea that’s been around since the 1920s or some idea that is on the board in a general fashion, but there’s been absolutely no planning done towards accomplishing it.
I’ve talked with some other people about this idea that there’s no such thing as a shovel-ready project, there’s only such a thing as a lawsuit-ready project. There are some legal machinations that work their way through these things. My understanding is that in a lot of civil law countries—America is in the common law heritage—once a planning decree or a plan is put forward, there’s not a lot of wiggle room and recourse. You can’t just gum it up and sue everyone until everyone dies.
Perhaps the answer is not to get rid of our way of law, but perhaps it’s more that if these decisions were adjudicated quickly— if there wasn’t a viable pathway to being obstructionist that probably would be very helpful. People will figure out another way to be obstructionist, but I think that there are a lot of opportunities to get in the way…
A lot of things require a sign-off from lots of different agencies and lots of different bureaucrats. There’s some study that I remember reading a long time ago about building public housing. The analysis showed that a project required 100 different sign-offs. And the author argued, “If there’s a 1% chance that all the signers won’t sign, a project just won’t happen.”
One of the goals of our work is to learn from places that do things better. The one thing about studying transport is that in the American context we don’t actually need to have great ideas or original ideas. We don’t have to be that smart. Other places just do it way better than we do it. And so if we could just figure out how to import some of these ideas to fit our context that would go a long way in terms of improving bus service or improving capital construction.
There’s an extra layer of “fun” cultural attitudes towards where our exceptionalism would classify some places as “beneath us”—why would we learn from this country. We see this in Europe all the time—the relationship between Germany and France. Germany is not necessarily going to take advice from a country that they consider less culturally advanced than them, even if the advice would help its engineers save time and money.
In America, we’re not going to learn from China. Maybe we don’t want to learn from China because we have an adversarial relationship with them. China has this huge high-speed rail network, but they also don’t necessarily consider any veto power from the local level. They also don’t necessarily consider land use and transportation together—this is part of the reason we see more than one ghost town across the country. But are there things we can learn from China?
If we think more broadly, from a competitive standpoint. We do research, even if we don’t think someone is worth learning from, we still try to understand what they’re doing because maybe we will pick up something.
One of the things that have been interesting in this work is that we do see that there are some consultants who are on a lot of different projects and on some level we can learn from their expertise because they have a lot of experience. But on the other hand, maybe they’re also on a lot of bad projects, so they’re just reinforcing bad decision making and planning, engineering, and so on.
One of the things in transit projects people talk a lot about is fire safety. There are some, definitely to the public, more niche issues that do seem to play outsized roles. If we asked anyone to name the last big fire on their subway system, most people wouldn’t have an answer at the ready. Perhaps the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that are added to projects are a bit overstated or overspecified.
What makes for a successful future in our industry?
The big thing that has to happen is the spigot for funding transit and for funding road projects has to change. We can’t continue funding roads ad infinitum and transit at a lower proportion—it’s not as if no money gets spent on transit—and expect outcomes to change.
There’s a lot riding on electric vehicles helping to decarbonize transport, and absolutely that’s true. We should not discourage that at all; we should definitely push harder on the electrification of the fleet. But electrification doesn’t change the dynamics of travel problems. People have pointed out that electric vehicles are heavier, they create dust issues, add additional wear and tear on the road system, and since they’re heavier if you get hit by one…the damage to a pedestrian could be worse. They come with their own sets of issues that need to be dealt with.
Cities want to move more towards getting people out of cars and moving more people into sustainable modes of transport because that allows a lot more flexibility to attract people back into the city, to develop land, or to provide services in a way that’s not so dispersed that people can get to them.
The land use piece is really important. If we’re going to invest in transit and we’re going to invest in high-speed rail, we need to allow for much greater density along these corridors of investment. If we’re not moving a couple of levers simultaneously, I don’t think we make much of a dent over the short, medium, or long term, I think it’s just the status quo. Even if we spent $100 billion next year on transit construction if we’re also spending similar amounts of money on roadways I just don’t see anyone giving up their car unless there are other things going on.
Long term, in terms of autonomous vehicles or other types of gadgets, we’re not thinking enough about the complementary infrastructure that is needed. We’re starting to see a backlash against the autonomous-vehicle future and what it means for crowded urban spaces. Navigating pedestrians and cyclists is messy. Until we figure that out, AVs won’t really take off. They probably work really well on a protected, separated, bus lane or on a limited-access highway, but I don’t think they’re going to work well in downtown Manhattan, or someplace in DC, or wherever.
The infrastructure pieces are important and the policy pieces are really important, too. If we look historically, at walking, flying, driving, transit, those pieces came together in a logical way. Right now, we don’t want to commit to anything specifically so we’re just throwing money at a lot of different things. That’s a privilege that a rich country has. If we look at the history of Japan or South Korea, at some point, both figured out that they couldn’t afford to build roads or there just wasn’t the space. They’re getting richer, and so things are changing.
The future requires thinking a lot more about nuts-and-bolts type stuff. I don’t think it’s about technology—technology is always going to follow us, right? We have flying cars, fundamentally. We have drones. We have the technological capacity to do all this futuristic stuff, but land use and policy move at a much slower speed than technology. That’s the tension that we’re constantly fighting with: how do we speed up these land-use issues and policy issues to match the pace of technology.
The future is one of pretty much what we have now; maybe it operates a little bit better; the technology’s cleaner. I don’t think we’re going to see helicopter-based transit or teleportation.
I look at drones and I think, “Where are they going to land?” Are they really going to land on top of a building and then add vertical delay to my travel time? Until there’s a building design that has a pod (I think Amazon actually has a patent for this) I’m not going to take that stuff very seriously.
Look at land use and pick a city. Commercial corridors are still pretty much where they were a long time ago. In DC when they extended Metro into Virginia there was a decision made to go down Wilson Avenue, and then to go on the highway. Wilson is where all the action was and it’s still where all the action is. The part that goes to Falls Church is in the middle of the highway; no one uses those stations, and it’s still dead because the land use doesn’t really comply.
My answer is probably pretty boring in that respect.
I will disagree. This is the stuff that is going to make everything else we want to do possible.
Sure! We’re always going to be inventing cool stuff. I look at videos of autonomous vehicles—and they look awesome. Technology is always going to be way ahead of us. But: how do we integrate it into our cities. Even walking required building sidewalks and building bridges across the Seine…
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