America’s Super-Sized Cities

Brian Lee Crowley wrote a piece advocating for more road construction to ease traffic congestions. He points to the example of American cities, which he claims reduced congestion by building more roads. What he fails to mention is that as a result American cities are super-sized, struggling with the cost of maintaining large spread out cities and an already overbuilt road network.

A report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows that American cities take up way more space than cities in any other country by a significant margin.

Twenty Countries with the Largest Areas of Urban Land Cover, 2000

Crowley laments the costs of transit but fails to point out that it is also very expensive to build enough roads to relieve congestion. Using the same Texas Transportation Insitute data referred to by Crowley, researchers analyzed traffic conditions in 70 metropolitan areas and found that regions that spent a lot on road capacity expansion did no better than those regions that spend far less. The researchers estimate that households would need to spend thousands of dollars annually to realize reductions in congestions.

The costs are starting to catching up to Phoenix, Arizona, Crowley’s model of how building roads can reduce congestion. Arizona is currently booming, and spending far more on the construction of new highways than maintenance. The result is a significant and growing state of good repair backlog and higher road costs for residents in Arizona. Just to maintain the current pace of construction, the state needs to spend $62.7 billion over the next 25 years. This does not seem sustainable and eventually the cost to maintain existing roads will eat into the cost of building new roads.

Crowley is right however that North American cities have not successfully reduced congestion using transit. So why is transit investment not a viable fix for congestions in North America, when it has clearly worked in other places? Basically it’s because we haven’t really invested in transit and built land use patterns that support transit. Our cities may build one or two lines, but no city outside of Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, or Washington has really invested in a comprehensive transit network on the continent since World War Two.

Even in the first two of those cities, investment essentially stopped 30 years ago. For example, Toronto has built half a subway in a generation, the bus network is static, and their are fewer streetcars plying downtown routes than in the 1980s. We haven’t done anything to increase transit capacity so no wonder congestion is getting worse in Canadian cities.

The truth is that reducing congestion, whether by building roads or transit is expensive. Just as regions need to spend thousands of dollars per household on roads to reduce congestion, regions would need to spend thousands of dollars on transit to achieve the same ends. It’s very difficult, in fact almost impossible, to build your way out of traffic. The fact that households are not willing to cover the costs makes it a lot harder. That is why most policy makers now focus on far more cost effective transportation demand management strategies instead of building more kilometres of transit and road.

It’s no surprise that in North America we see highway construction as being the answer. As can be seen in the chart below, it is where we have put our money. If we start really investing in transit I know we would see results without having to supersize our cities.

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