Newly built automobile-oriented infrastructure may be popular with senior city leaders and planners, but it’s a market failure in the making.

Energy Blog: Urban Planners Must Look to Tomorrow's Needs

Oct 7, 2019

by Michael E. Webber

Transportation has emerged as a stumbling block to reducing carbon emissions. The energy density of liquid fossil fuels is a great match for powering vehicles. While supporting alternative fuel sources or electrification is a key step to reducing emissions, perhaps the best infrastructure solution is the one that can keep the vehicle parked: dense urban and suburban areas where destinations are close enough that you can walk to them.

Unfortunately, building—or keeping—such places is easier said than done.

That’s not because there isn’t a demand. A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors found that nearly two-thirds of Millennials prefer walking as their transportation for errands, and Millennials prefer walking to work at twice the rate of Baby Boomers.

However, today's senior city leaders and transportation planners cut their teeth decades ago in an era of hollowed-out inner cities and the rise of the suburbs predicated on single-family homes and privately owned automobiles.

This movement to the suburbs created rush hours and traffic jams because of the coherence of people traveling in the same direction at the same time (from suburbs to cities in the morning and from the cities to the suburbs in the evening). 

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Today, many of those leaders and planners—scarred by the demands of peak hour traffic, which still plagues them today—go back to the playbook in vogue when they were young: adding lanes to limited access roads and highways at the expense of pedestrian connectivity.

But widening highways to ease traffic congestion is a little bit like loosening our belts to solve obesity. Because our transportation infrastructure can last over a century, addressing today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions is an expensive proposition we will be stuck with for a long time.

Even in progressive, future-minded Austin, where I have lived the longest and which experiences consistent growth over the decades, county and city planners are considering incredibly expensive concepts to create double-decker highways with flyovers that reach to the sky, disrupting views and bringing more noise, traffic, and tailpipe pollution into the urban core. The city just finished an expensive, years-long, delay-ridden project to add a lane to one of the city's major highways and traffic got worse after the project’s completion.

While those lanes might help the out-of-towners passing through or the suburbanites commuting in for work, they are a blight on the city that divides neighborhoods and worsens the quality of life for people who live there. That means planners are investing their limited funds to help people who live out of town at the expense of those who live in town, when they should be incentivizing the opposite.

Newly built automobile-oriented infrastructure may be popular with city fathers, but it’s a market failure in the making. The Wall Street Journal picked up on the problem earlier this year while reporting on the real estate market. Baby Boomers are having trouble selling their big houses in the suburbs because the next generation of home buyers want to live in walkable areas. This is the canary in the coalmine for a fundamental shift going on in front of our eyes, and this generational disconnect might mean we are doubling down on solutions that future urbanites reject.

And, it’s not just a generational disconnect, it’s also a gender disconnect: the Realtors' survey found that women—especially young women—prioritize walkability and access to public transportation options more than men.

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Some European cities that rebuilt after World War II on the model of car-centric American cities are now going back to their pre-war roots. To reduce pollution and energy use, many of these cities are pushing to make the post-car urban landscape a reality by reducing speed limits, banning cars on certain days or entirely, turning streets into pedestrian corridors, and replacing car parks with bike parks.

It’s time for American cities to follow their lead. Instead of simply pouring more concrete, we should consider denser urban living with more options: mass transit, bike lanes, walkability—and a smaller carbon and energy footprint. That way we are preparing for what the cities of the future want and need rather than what cities of the 1950s preferred. 

Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His latest book, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, was published by Basic Books.