Living without projections

We don’t need better projections to build a nation of Strong Towns. All we need is a clear understanding of the relationship between infrastructure spending and growth. Good infrastructure spending is not designed to induce growth but is the proper response to successful patterns of development. This is not a chicken and egg argument; it is the difference between gambling and investing.

In The Projections Fallacy, (July 23, 2012) I made the case that there is a terrible track record when it comes to making traffic projections. The only thing we are consistent with is being wrong. Advocates for building a better model to get it right this time fail to understand that they are working in a realm that is simply not conducive to modeling, particularly over the decades-long time frames they extend their supposed insights. That this is a ridiculous pursuit prompted me to make the following statement:

There is a certain contingent out there that is already pounding out their email to me demanding that, if I’m so smart, I provide a better way of estimating. There’s the fatal flaw in our current system. I’m not so smart, but neither is anybody else. The big difference here is that I’m not pretending to be able to predict the future.

After receiving a lot if backlash from people who wanted the best model possible — flawed or not — because modeling was essential to making good decisions about the future, I pointed out in Better to be lucky than good (July 31, 2012) that it was human nature to prefer the illusion of certainty that came with expert prediction and analysis. Even when we know their projections are, at best, educated guesses wrapped in a veneer of complex analysis, we feel better narrowing our decisions based on the advice of experts. I quoted economist Noreena Hertz, who said in a TED talk about our over reliance on experts, “We’ve surrendered our power, trading off our discomfort with uncertainty for the illusion of certainty that they [the experts] provide.”

Then, in Why we need projections (August 2, 2012), I explained why the American system of growth and development that we have adopted in the Suburban Experiment makes projections — as ridiculously flawed as they may be — a necessary part of the process. Our hierarchical pattern of development forces a city into making one of two flawed choices: over sizing trunk infrastructure in anticipation of future growth or risk being inundated with crippling levels of congestion. Projections derived from modeling are the opiate that allows the masses to continue down this path, despite the horrible track record.

I ended these posts with this insight:

America needs to abandon the failed Suburban Experiment and adopt a different model of local development.

So what would a different model look like? First, it would not require modeling or projections. In that sense, it would be resilient to human error. Its development would be incremental, again making it resilient in the face of future uncertainty. The upside of doing things right would be great success while the downside would be localized stress, not widespread decline or system failure. It would be implemented at the local scale without the need for massive subsidy, expert intervention or an exchange that sells out future generations.

What I’ve just described is the traditional development pattern, the historical framework of development that was ubiquitous across the world up until the Suburban Experiment. Here’s how it worked:

A town is formed with one street. There is no traffic to speak of. The thought of congestion is a distant dream of everyone who fantasizes about the place growing. Whatever mode of travel one wants to use here — automobile, bike, walk, horse and buggy — the modest street is going to be just fine.

Over time, the town grows. More streets are added in a grid pattern as neighborhoods emerge. The proximity of these neighborhoods gives people a lot of mobility options — they can drive or walk just as easily — and so the notion of congestion becomes, in a sense, a self-regulating phenomenon.

As the town continues to grow, neighborhood centers start to form to supplement the original downtown, which itself continues to mature and intensify. Traffic in all forms starts to buzz around these centers like bees at so many hives. At this point, it becomes self evident — not because of a projection by an expert but because of what any observer can see happening — that a higher speed connection between neighborhood centers would be a benefit.

Now you have a streetcar. Or a bus. It runs between the neighborhood center and downtown or, in time, between neighborhood centers. Of course it pays for itself. Not only is the ridership there and essentially guaranteed, but the line makes each neighborhood that much more valuable, an increment in valuation that is captured through a land tax to pay for the construction of the line. People can still drive but, because there are options, congestion is, again, self-regulating.

Things continue to grow to the point where, despite adding more street cars/buses and increasing service, the trolley or bus lines just can’t keep up. Each of the neighborhood centers are growing, the surrounding neighborhoods are maturing and intensifying and the place is really happening. New, incremental growth on the periphery is creating additional neighborhoods and new centers are forming. Using the same grid system, what can be done?

Well, at that point, build a subway or some other type of high-capacity rail service. If the ridership is there, the land value is there and the demand is there, this is another self-evident investment. Experts will be needed to design and construct the system, but not justify its existence. Outside subsidy won’t be needed to “juice” the growth; the demand for intense infrastructure emerges from the success of the place.

The grid system of the historical development pattern can accommodate enormous amounts of traffic without needing massive up-front investment, without ever becoming so congested as to be unworkable and without needing any projections on future growth.

In fact, at any point in time — at any point in the evolution from one block village to Manhattan — if growth stops, nothing terrible happens. The city does not collapse or fall apart. Neighborhoods on the periphery, where there has been modest speculation, may experience distress, but a no growth scenario brings stagnation — a lack of progress — but not collapse.

Okay, if this makes sense within a place, what happens between cities? Once again, if we focus on building connections between places and not corridors of strip development, the need for projections simply melts away. It is relatively easy to add capacity to a road between two successful places in response to their success, particularly if that road is not required to serve a new batch of strip malls, suburban subdivisions and big box stores every mile or two. More lanes can be added, a bus or HOV lane designated or a rail line justified by the growing success of the two cities being connected.

I know this is difficult for many of you to get your mind around because you perceive expanding infrastructure as being a catalyst for growth, not the result of growth. And while I know I need to spend some time in a future post explaining how we transition from our current system to this new (old) approach, it all begins with that insight: infrastructure spending should never be in anticipation of growth, but only in support of places that have been successful. 

If we made that one change — reserved our limited infrastructure dollars for the places that have proven to be successful — it would dramatically alter the nation’s economic trajectory in a positive direction.

I realize I’m going to get a lot of pushback on this, especially from our many new readers that may not understand what I mean by a “successful” place. Without rehashing old conversations, I measure success based on financial productivity and a set of long term objectives. In the United States today, the most financially productive neighborhoods are those utilizing the traditional development pattern (see Minicozzi, Joe). Oh, and gated communities are not “successful” any more than my children and I splitting a pizza where I had seven pieces and they shared one would be successful, particularly if I used money from their piggy bank to pay for the pizza.

And my transit friends, once again I leave you in the cold. Your current strategy of increasing federal transportation spending so there are more table scraps for your wishes is simply not a Strong Towns approach. I’m totally with you — the answer is transit — but successful transit systems are a byproduct of a successful place, not a proxy for one. Focus on building Strong Towns and the demand for your passion will emerge with full public support and all the funding you need.

We don’t need better projections to build a nation of Strong Towns. All we need is a clear understanding of the relationship between infrastructure spending and growth. Good infrastructure spending is not designed to induce growth but is the proper response to successful patterns of development. This is not a chicken and egg argument; it is the difference between gambling and investing.

Let’s stop gambling, start investing wisely and build Strong Towns.

Top image credit: MnDOT

Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.