The Highway Era Is Over. When Will Our Institutions Catch Up?

The highway era is over. The construction of the Interstate Highway System is essentially complete.

How much has changed at American transportation agencies since the 1960s? Photo: Youtube
How much has changed at American transportation agencies since the 1960s? Image via YouTube

Americans will continue to log lots of miles on highways, but for the most part, the job of building them is over. We’ve already connected the places worth connecting by highways.

The problem is that transportation agencies — especially state DOTs — haven’t caught up. In their training, organizational structure, and policies, most state DOTs are still oriented around building highway capacity in a neverending quest to eliminate car congestion. Times have changed, but they have no grand new purpose.

In a recent editorial at NextCity, the Brookings Institution’s Adie Tomer and Jeffrey Gutman argue that our institutions need a new framework to meet modern challenges:

For all the flaws under the post-World War II approach, reducing congestion was a clear governing principle. Now cities and regions need to go back to the drawing board and formalize new objectives. Is it designing denser communities that support shorter distances between places? Is it to improve the amount of regional jobs people can reach in a given timeframe? Is it removing the physical barriers that separate communities? Whatever the objectives might be, each community must define accessibility on its own terms.

Cities and regions will then need new ways to measure progress against those objectives. Decades of refinement led to an elegant system — formally known as Level of Service (LOS) — to evaluate roadway capacity and prioritize expansions. Delivering similarly powerful systems will require a whole new round of investments in data and software, plus brainstorming around new performance measures. This process is already underway in California, where the Office of Planning and Research is developing a performance measure based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to evaluate the environmental impacts from future real estate developments.

Implementing an access-first approach to transportation can be done, but it won’t be easy. Even with theorists pushing the concept for decades, cities and countries face real hurdles to move these ideas into practice. Formal guidebooks must be revised to reflect updated thinking. Political battles must be waged with actors looking to maintain the status quo, including developers who’ve already invested in land on the urban fringe. Urban planners must address persistent challenges around spatial mismatch, especially as it affects low-income households and their accessibility needs. Finally, regions will need to decide how to balance broadly shared economic benefits against fiscal realities, whether that’s upfront capital or long-term maintenance.

Other frameworks for assessing the success of transportation systems have gained momentum in recent years. University of Minnesota professor David Levinson, for instance, has been developing a way to measure access, or how easily people can get places, as opposed to how much traffic congestion they encounter. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has developed AllTransit, a tool to measure how well transit provides access to jobs and opportunity. And as Tomer and Gutman mention, California now measures traffic generation instead of vehicle delay, which could be a huge breakthrough for designing transportation systems where people take precedence over cars.

Unfortunately, U.S. DOT might further entrench the old paradigm with its proposed rules governing how states and regions measure congestion. Without strong leadership from the federal government, the enormous task of modernizing transportation agencies will be more difficult and slower.

16 thoughts on The Highway Era Is Over. When Will Our Institutions Catch Up?

  1. Angie… obviously so much smarter than the fed DOT, and the state DOT as well, with the grand pronouncements. “Even with theorists pushing the concept for decades”. Theorists have been pushing a smorgasbord of concepts for decades, some good, some terrible. We have a representative system of government. What is lacking is real consensus. Not within the transit geek echo chamber, … real consensus. The population as a whole have not bought into the vision that theorists have expounded. It seems transportation advocacy has veered away from measuring and developing consensus, and turned to measures and mechanisms designed to divert public approval and further their own agenda. It’s become a divisive issue, and not a unifying issue. That’s the concern that should be questioned.

  2. I actually wish I had seen the post. As it stands, I am left to assume that the poster, motivated by an array of past negative emotional associations, ranted about those associations.

  3. The fundamental issue isn’t LOS, it’s a failure of planning due to car-centric/car-only design. A switch to VMT just means going from measuring if/how long the cars have to stop to measuring how far they’re traveling. But the focus is still squarely on cars. Perversely, using VMT as a metric will probably actually make the issue of highway building worse because constructing a new highway in some places would shorten trip distances, thus lowering VMT.

  4. It’s horrible being booted off a comment board for expressing an opinion; left to wonder what stated was truly objectionable or an undue censoring a difference of opinion. Perhaps the comment was truly trollish and rightfully deleted; no way for the original commenter and others to know.

    Urban travel consists of 4 basic modes: cars/trucks, mass transit, walking, bicycling. When automobiles dominate, they present a severe impediment not only to the other travel modes, but to their own optimal function as well. As such, driving could be considered a “constitutional inequity” and a “transportation monopoly”. In order for travel via automobile to adequately function, so too must the other travel modes function. This assessment may have as much influence upon planning for situations today as well as for tomorrow’s technology: Is the notion of self-driving cars just another way for automobiles to dominate? (Note: Skeptics of that technology are unduly censored.)

  5. The government switch to VMT is still avoiding the politically unpopular core issue with road use, that it’s practically free. Pricing or quotas for roads is and has always been the only sensible method to limit road congestion (and its associated environmental impacts) when the population density increases. With proper road pricing or limits in place, the shift to higher density transportation will occur in the most efficient way possible. Instead, what the government is trying to do is satisfy and increasingly dissatisfied public by creating further transportation system inefficiencies.

  6. Actually switching to VMT does help in pricing strategies, because if the performance is based on VMT, then people begin to think of miles traveled as the public good rather than free flow travel. So pricing VMT is established as direct link between what is being taxed and what is being provided.

  7. It may lead to more roadways, but there won’t be the incentive to build them as restricted access highways, versus roadways. Because the speed of travel is not the concern, but rather the distance traveled.

  8. There are a bunch of people on disquis (and other sign in portals) who make silly ideological arguments that have nothing to do with the article or even the theme of the webpage that they are commenting on. is really bad. I’ve looked at a few of this posters’ pages and they have thousands of posts, but they block you from seeing where their posts are being left. Assuming Mr. Fried ejected one of those jerks, good riddance. I wish more websites would be more proactive in keeping the topic on the article and not strange conspiracies.

  9. This still avoids the cost of congestion and pollution on people’s lives. Only direct road pricing will correctly quantify the environmental effects of automobile usage, and make users directly accountable.

  10. Honestly, I’d prefer a limited-access highway in a lot of places because unlike the stroads that surface streets inevitably turn into, a limited-access highway has one express purpose: moving cars. They tend to do that pretty reasonably well. It’s the stroads that come about by trying to mix limited-access highway capacity with a surface street that is really the problem.

  11. There’s no way to know why Fried deleted the post. Moreover, I’d prefer reading an ‘on topic’ reply to my theory about transportation system design than a
    defense of censorship.

  12. Actually, there is a way to know why Ben Fried deleted the post. Just scroll up a bit and read his explanation of why he deleted it.

    As someone who wasted precious seconds of my life reading the objectionable post, I agree with Mr. Fried. It was “irrelevant, off-topic blather.”

  13. What is it about “I’d prefer an ‘on topic’ reply rather than a defense of censorship” do you not understand? You’ve either rejected my theory, or it’s above your head, or you enjoy wasting my time. In any case, there’s little difference between censored and approved off-topic blather.

  14. Using VMT taxes seems logical as a disincentive to drive everywhere for all travel purposes. Electric cars (EVs), particularly plug-in hybrid (PHEVs) offer incentives to be considered. PHEVs distribute electricity resources to more households than all-battery (BEVs). The smaller battery pack of PHEVs reduce the cost of photovoltaic rooftop arrays which being smaller and simpler are more complementary to regional utility grids. Fuels for PHEVs would retain their higher cost (disincentive) while reducing average trip distances whereby more trips become possible without having to drive (incentive) reducing VMT while enabling walking, bicycling, mass transit and transit-oriented development. Etc

  15. Relying on gas taxes is not the appropriate solution, we are experiencing that failure right now. When gas prices go up, people use less gas, and the price falls. It looks like we have reached a balance. Also, if you do the calculation between the price to fast charge your electric car at a public station, and the price to fill your car with gas, you will see that it’s about the same. People believe roads are free, and this is a major issue. Nobody is seeing the large capital costs and congestion costs. These costs need to turn into direct user fees, so the system can become more efficient. Supply & demand, it’s simple economics. Read this wired article:

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