“You said to never take the freeway”

Posted: March 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Sorry, any chance to use a Matrix quote has to be capitalized on, right?

So, to follow-up on yesterday’s blog, I thought I’d take a look at one of the most ridiculous inventions of the last century: freeways

Before I give my opinion, let’s list some facts:
1.)  Freeways cost money to build and maintain
2.)  Freeways cost more money for highway patrolmen and/or the nefarious speedcam
3.)  Freeways are often noisy and unsightly
4.)  They don’t accomplish their stated goals

That last one may have been a surprise to some, so I’ll back it up.

A recent study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow shows that building a freeway to serve the residents of a community actually reduces that population by 18%.  No, the massive concrete beast didn’t eat up the area that those people’s houses used to be in.  But by creating a new tool for their commute, you’ve now told them that with a few adjustments, they could live somewhere else and still make their same commute.

If suburb A builds a highway to connect to suburb B, that’s going to effect the distribution of commutes not only between those suburbs but also the commutes in the region as a whole. So there are going to be these externalities where someone in suburb C has a faster way to get to work, so they’re going to start using it and filling up this new highway. And a business downtown might say, hey, there’s this new infrastructure, let’s go locate out there and I can have a lot more space to work with. So anytime one part of a region changes something, it’s going to effect population and employment throughout the metropolitan area. So I think it’s important to engage at the regional level.


For some anecdotal evidence, consider our freeway growth in Phoenix over the last 15 years, and how our suburbs look now.  More than once I’ve turned slightly to my left or right and asked Anie “why the hell are there business out here”.  Well, the answer of course is because there are people living out here.  So then you consider why do people live out there.  Certainly nobody moved to the suburbs in the hopes that someone would come along and build a Wal-Mart out there for them to work at.  No, of course, they moved there because they were working in the “city” and were okay with commuting from the suburbs to their jobs.

So lets consider the radius each of us would drive for a commute in terms of a number of minutes instead of miles.  Myself, I don’t like the idea of a commute that’s over 30 minutes at most.  Spending an additional hour of unpaid time just to get to my job and back comes out to an entire day I’d lose each month just in commuting.

To me that’s not worth it.

But let’s just work with that number.  In 30 minutes, I could drive X number of miles on surface streets.  30 Minutes = X Miles – W wait at lights.  Well now, that’s a second variable and sometimes I might be late if I lived exactly 30 minutes away from my work.  Plus I wouldn’t have time to get my coffee or chat up someone I met in the hallway… Better idea to give myself a buffer.

Then along comes the freeway.  Well now, if I take the freeway, I don’t have to wait for traffic lights.  Now I can get my coffee, flirt with Suzie in reception, and even check my fantasy baseball team before my boss gets in.

Except after a little while I realize that the freeway is SO FAST, I could move a bit further out and still get to work in the same 30 minutes.

Then later on, another freeway gets built that connects to the first one, and now I can live really far and maybe my commute only increases to 45 min, but I get to live in a “new” neighborhood and have a slice of the suburban dream.  Plus I’m sure my kids don’t mind that besides the 10-hour days at work, I’m spending another couple of hours on the road to and from.  Plus errands.  Those are always fun to run late at night.  Or pawn off on the spousal unit.

And best yet, I can always look back and chuckle at the years when we had to live in “the city”.  Oh, how dirty it was, being a train rider.  Running to the corner shop instead of the Galleria.  And imagine trying to parallel park our mini-van in those old neighborhoods.  Oh my, that WOULD be terrible!!  Ha ha, the comedy.

Yes, the suburbs are my distopia.

More from Baum-Snow:

A lot of people think that decentralization is about fleeing to the suburbs out of central cities, but if you look at the change in the spatial distribution of the population across large metropolitan areas, you find that it’s really much more of a spatial phenomenon. You see that the population density in the more peripheral regions of central cities actually went up quite a bit over the last 50 years, while the population of the central business districts went down.

Of course, as Baum-Snow admits, there has been a welfare gain from the implementation of major roadways in several cities simply by allowing industrial workers to not have to live so close to the plants they worked at.  If they worked hard, they could save up and move out of the slums into one of those great George Bailey houses and raise their kids there.  This is true in places like Detroit, Chicago, Pennsylvania, etc.

This was never true in Phoenix or most of California.  Here, our use of freeways is only to supplicate the developers and consumers who were enticed by the allure of “cheap” land.  If we’d been interested in using a decent amount of urban planning 50 years ago, we could have avoided a large chunk of the sprawl we have.  Instead, we’re spending more and more money to build freeways to neighborhoods that:

1.) don’t need to exist
2.) aren’t “neighborhoods”, just a collective of houses and commuters.

In part 2 of this, I’ll look at how freeway-related sprawl impacts our neighborhoods.

(this is Day 2 of the 30 day blog challenge. )

4 Comments on ““You said to never take the freeway””

  1. 1 Blog Challenge To Do List « [This Blog Needs a New Name] said at 11:03 am on March 27th, 2010:

    […] 1: done Day 2: done Day 3: also done Day 4: this baby right here Day 5: well…. what do ya […]

  2. 2 I love cities « [This Blog Needs a New Name] said at 1:47 pm on March 28th, 2010:

    […] you know from my previous post about freeways, urban sprawl is something I definitely cannot get with.  In truth, even when I lived miles away […]

  3. 3 Road Zombies (Yes, it’s a real thing) « [This Blog Needs a New Name] said at 10:56 am on June 6th, 2010:

    […] I wrote about freeways and about how much I love urban life.  Then today, while going through my feed reader, I came […]

  4. 4 America Loves Transit « [This Blog Needs a New Name] said at 10:56 am on June 6th, 2010:

    […] recent comprehensive survey.  Of course, I’ve been writing quite a bit this month about our road systems, urban living, and the effects commuting can have on our lives, and according to T4A, it looks like […]

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