Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jobs: public transit vs. highways

With official unemployment in the United States above ten percent (considerably higher when counting underemployment and workers who have given up looking for jobs), it is good to see President Obama calling for massive investments in public energy improvements. But his recent praise of Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1950s-era promotion of the Interstate Highway System, as reported in a recent Bob Herbert column, was off the mark, especially since his speech was made before a startup solar energy company that says it will save tons of greenhouse gas emissions "which is equivalent to removing 4,500 cars from the road each year for the life of the project."

The irony here is that those 4,500 cars--and millions of others polluting our air year after year--owe much of their presence to the very same interstate highway system that Eisenhower championed. There is no question that highways, long touted as a solution to unclogging urban areas, in fact accomplish precisely the opposite, generating enormous sales of automobiles, as consumers seek to take advantage of more rapid car traveling. More highways mean more cars, not fewer.

This was noted decades ago. As one critic (Helen Leavitt, Superhighway Superhoax) wrote in 1970: "Our great urban centers have been subject to the busy concrete mixers and asphalt rollers in the guise of progress, where the ribbons of highway they create are further strangling automobile traffic, adding to the already dangerous air pollution levels and displacing the city's residents with still more cars while transportation daily becomes more difficult."

Who primarily benefits from the Interstate Highway System? As Leavitt noted, after Eisenhower made his proposal, "Capitol Hill was flooded with lobbyists representing contractors, oil, auto, real estate, trucking and concrete interests, all bent on establishing the biggest pork barrel legislation in the history of the United States."

Certainly, highway construction creates jobs. But jobs can be created by other undertakings, such as massive investments in public transportation. Thousands of employees are needed to build public rail systems; additional thousands of permanent jobs can be created to operate them, to maintain them, and not least to devise new technology for ongoing improvement.

Given the prevalence of the automobile in this country, and the fact that we take superhighways for granted, it is difficult to imagine what life in both urban and rural areas would be like if, instead of all the highways, we had efficient, safe, clean public transit, transporting thousands of people daily in comfortable high speed trains or other cleaner-energy "people movers." Difficult, but not impossible.

Think of fewer cars clogging our streets. Fewer accidents--yes, while highways are generally safer than unmended roads, fewer cars necessarily mean fewer crashes, and less road rage.

And try to think of the affordable housing that would not have been lost to highway expansion. And the rural areas that would have remained bucolic. And the large urban areas that would not strangle themselves on endless traffic jams and greenhouse emissions. In fact, when the occasional highway is removed, as the Preservation Institute notes, life becomes far more pleasant.

Jobs? Obama, and Herbert as well, are right to stress the central importance of job creation today. But we can do that without glorifying a boondoggle that has worsened our quality of life.

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1 comment:

Vanessa Weber said...

There is a phenomenal architect and urban planner named Andres Duany who talked about precicely this. He says one of the most ironic aspects of highways is that they are constructed with the intention of easing traffic when they in fact do the opposite. Duany says traffic growth is directly porportional to increases space, so that the more highway lanes available, the more cars will come to fill them up. Cut down on highways, cut down on cars.
My question to auto, cement, and oil lobbyists is, don't they get carsick?