Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Road Trip

The map above, taken from March issue of The Atlantic Monthly, shows an estimate of road congestion in 2010. Click on it to see a larger version.

Perhaps it's a hangover from my recent trip to Los Angeles, but traffic and transit have been on my mind . There's lots of urban discourse in The Atlantic Monthly of late, perhaps because of the magazine's proximity to think tanks like The Brookings Institution and The Urban Land Institute.

This month, an opinion piece by Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes analyzes America's crumbling infrastructure and assesses the money lost due to congestion around major metropolitan areas. Katz and Puentes point to why infrastructure is such a valuable commodity in a global economy:

The most highly skilled financial professionals...do not choose between New York and Phoenix. They choose between New York and London—or Shanghai. While many factors affect that choice, over time, the accretion of delays and travel hassles can sap cities of their vigor and appeal. Arriving at Shanghai’s modern Pudong airport, you can hop aboard a maglev train that gets you downtown in eight minutes, at speeds approaching 300 miles an hour. When you land at JFK, on the other hand, you’ll have to take a train to Queens, walk over an indoor bridge, and then transfer to the antiquated Long Island Rail Road; from there, downtown Manhattan is another 35 minutes away.
What is the cost of this sapping of energy to Americans in general? This summer, I edited a magazine based in Philadelphia and commuted to their office on Amtrak. There is no regional rail rate between Baltimore and Philly, which means a round trip ticket costs an average of $80. There are folks who actually make this commute, which at an hour and half, is less than the drive from here to DC through rush hour traffic. But the expense...And why, on earth, should it cost $300 to get a train ticket from Baltimore to New York? It makes taking the train prohibitive and encourages everyone to hop in their car.

Commuting on a train is a great thing, when it works. Sadly, Amtrak does not work well. The trains break down quite a bit in the summer heat. One evening, we had to be evacuated from a crowded commuter train with a blown engine. We exited through a single door one by one, crossed the train tracks at night, and entered a new train via one door. It took six hours to get home.

Regional connectivity is something that Robert E. Lang, founding director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, and an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Planning and International Affairs, has studied for some time now. Demographics are shifting, both nationally and internationally. According to Lang, the United States is expecting one hundred million new residents by 2040. Populations are clustering into a series of regional areas that are economically linked. Lang and his research team have described these new areas as megapolitans, which are defined as “super regions that combine at least two, and often several, metropolitan areas.” Think Raleigh-Durham. Lang calls the megapolitan where I live (Baltimore), the Chesapeake Megalopolis (it was also dubbed the Chesapeake Primary by political pundits recently).

Lang says the Chesapeake megapolitan will soon span as far south as Richmond. “Washington is spilling into Richmond,” Lang says. “The people from Baltimore, D.C., and Richmond will be sitting down and chitchatting very soon” about things like transportation, economic development, and environmental impact.

Let's hope so. The irony is that our economy is speeding up via technology, but the very things taking us to that efficient and fast network of computers are decrepit and antiquated.

"We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed," writes James Gleick in his book Faster: Acceleration of Just About Everything. Yet as our concept of time is accelerated, the reality of our efficacy in day-to-day activity is frustrating. "Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era," he writes. "To be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around, as time passes and blood pressures rise."