Roadhogs - The Inequitable Distribution of Transportation Resources

There is only shame when one builds infrastructure that benefits only a few on the backs of the many. Globally, larger and larger shares of public infrastructure spending are being unjustly dedicated to roads built solely to move cars.

Tanzeel Merchant
Updated: Mar 14, 2014 01:01:15 AM UTC
Vast parts of the surface of most cities are paved concrete roads dedicated to the private automobile.Photo credit: Tanzeel Merchant

A recent trip to Los Angeles left me flummoxed at the vast amounts of the surface of that city that are paved roadway. The picture alongside is of an inner-city street. At rush hour, streets like this one are packed bumper-to-bumper with cars. The rest of the day however, they look like this-- vast, empty and underused, slowly cracking and bleeding the valuable resources that went into building them.

Roads and streets are and were always meant to be a shared resource. Through history, roads have played critical roles in enabling local and global trade, commerce, migration of people and military conquests. Streets and roads are also vital spaces for residents to interact and socialize. They are often spaces for festivities, prayer, sport, markets and even insurrections. These days however roads are dedicated primarily to the movement of cars. In his wonderful book, Walking Home, urban designer and architect Ken Greenberg traces a single road as it changes and widens from a walkable, vibrant environment in Toronto's historic core, to a wide, faceless and dangerous wasteland in the suburbs. He writes, about the wide, car-centric suburban road: "We are meant to drive here. The street is no longer recognizable as a shared public space; it is a single-purpose traffic artery."

Globally, larger and larger shares of public infrastructure spending are being dedicated to roads built solely to move cars.
Photo credit: Michael Harding

Globally, larger and larger shares of public infrastructure spending are being dedicated to roads built solely to move cars, and I would argue, inequitably and disproportionately so. As the emerging middle classes in developing countries grow wealthier and purchase cars as their preferred means of transportation, governments are pooling scarce resources into accommodating them in already congested cities. Instead of building transit to move people, cities like Mumbai keep building "flyovers" and widening roads, piling cars over cars and doing nothing to address the real problem. In the developed world, even scarcer public funds are being used to subsidize new roads in suburbs even while the cost of servicing older roads rises. Drivers pay barely half the cost of the construction and upkeep of highways in the US. Across the world, the culture of owning a car and being able to commute in it is seen as a right, rather than a luxury. Growing traffic, gridlock and pollution make one wonder why.

Crumbling and packed railway stations such as this one handle 7 million daily commuters and are a lifeline for Mumbai's working class.
Source: Shutterstock

An excellent article by Naresh Fernandes in The Guardian, titled Cities in motion: why Mumbai's new air terminal has gone off the rails, points to a concerning trend in how national and local governments are building infrastructure to service the rich at the expense of everyone else. He notes that governments can't find the money to upgrade Mumbai's crumbling CST rail terminus-- a lifeline for the working class that alone handles 3.75 of Mumbai's 7 million daily commuters, but they did find US$1 billion for a luxurious new airport that will service 100,000 passengers a day. He notes how roads have been privatized by cars; "To watch Mumbai traffic in motion is to see the ferocious sense of entitlement in which India's moneyed classes have wrapped themselves. Mumbai's vehicles refuse to give way to ambulances, and honk furiously at old people and schoolchildren trying to cross the street. They never stops at zebra crossings, frequently jump red lights, and routinely come down the wrong way on no-entry streets... And this sense of self-importance is pandered to by the government's budgetary allocations. Though the vast majority [ 88%] of Mumbai's residents use the overburdened public transport system to get around, a disproportionate amount of development money has been poured into road projects."

A car with one passenger occupies over 1,000% more space on a road as compared to a bus, or walking or cycling.
Source: @Urbandata

A recent post on @urbandata's twitter feed brought some fact to this argument. The image alongside, based on research by Bruun and Vuchic, clearly shows how a car with one passenger occupies over 1,000% more space on a road as compared to a bus, or walking or cycling. Taking transit, walking and cycling also have significant environmental and health benefits. If a government's true objective was to increase mobility, speed, and comfort at the least cost, its first priority and biggest bang for the buck would be to use public money to increase transit and walkability on roads, and its last priority should be to encourage the use of cars on those same roads. Yet, the reality, whether in the US or India, is very different.

While there is pride in having a world-class airport, there is only shame when one builds such infrastructure that benefits only a few on the backs of the poor. In his article Fernandes goes on to say "As incomes expand, traffic is growing at a rate of 9% a year, with an estimated 450 new vehicles being added to Mumbai's narrow streets every day. As a result, peak-hour traffic crawls ahead at an average of 10kmh – less than half the speed clocked by winners of the city's annual marathon. It merely proves the adage so beloved of planners around the world: "Building more roads to prevent traffic congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity."... The city's middle classes have become so enamoured of their privatised comforts, they are forgetting that great cities get their reputation not from the access-restricted pleasures they afford the few, but the public amenities that are available to all." 88% of Mumbai's residents who are heavily reliant on public transit would benefit greatly from an ambitious city-wide, 63km underground and elevated rapid transit plan launched in 2003. The Mumbai Metro was supposed to have been completed by 2018. Instead, a decade later, the city has built 60 flyovers to reduce journey times for cars, but barely 11km of the new Metro line has been constructed. The stub that is being built with a 4-year delay and 200% cost overrun has yet to carry a single passenger.

Whether it be the vast paved expanses of Los Angeles or the packed corridors of Mumbai, citizens should be demanding that their governments make better choices and use their money better. Refocussing scarce transportation resources away from enabling more private automobiles on bigger roads, and focussing instead on building affordable, efficient transit and walkability on existing roads, would deliver far more benefit in not just moving people better, but also in maximising infrastructure investments equitably and justly, and improving the quality of life for all.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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