It’s time to go on a national road diet


It seems like every other week there is some new trendy diet being promoted on cable or in periodicals. Well…in the world of planning, road diets are currently in vogue. Generally, a road diet means reducing the number of lanes from the standard of 20 that road builders prefer to three, then using the excess for a new airport or bike lanes. Yes…I am being a tad sarcastic, but in some parts of Michigan and other states, there will never be a need to construct new runways for air travel.

In my proposal for a national road diet I am referring to transferring a minimum of one-third of transportation funding meant for highways over to passenger rail, light rail, modern street cars, clean buses, bike trails, ferries, and pedestrian improvements. It will be a difficult effort, but if this nation is going to cure its addiction to oil, help reduce global warming, and re-energize the economy, it is a vital and necessary step.

Before the road building lobby wigs out, let me say this. As a kid and young adult I thought super highways were majorly cool. I collected road maps as a hobby and wrote papers on why some exits along Interstate Highways develop into mini Vegas strips while others do not. However, I had an epiphany about 22 years ago when I became an avid wildlife watcher (especially birds) and began participating in environmental organizations. Two decades later, I am an avid bike commuter and supporter of passenger rail and mass transit, not more highways.

In addition, as it turns out, more jobs are produced by mass transit projects than highway projects, according to a story from Wired:

“That’s the analysis of stimulus spending by Smart Growth America, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and U.S. PIRG, the public-policy lobbying group. Smart Growth America found that every billion dollars spent on public transportation produced 16,419 job-months, while the same amount spent on highway infrastructure projects produced 8,781 job-months.”

Similar results were found for adding bike lanes versus resurfacing projects and road upgrades, according to a post on Grist.

Living in Michigan and having a grandfather who was a Ford dealer in the 1920s means I do not take this transition lightly. But, for the sake of our nation, our children and grandchildren, and the planet as a whole, business as usual is unacceptable. It is time to turn the tide from the individual automobile to mass transit and other forms of alternative transportation. Cars should be secondary, not the driving (bad pun) force.

Is this going to be easy – no. Is it going to be exciting – yes.

As professional planners, it is part of our job to analyze the tea leaves (no relation to the Tea Party) and base future efforts on that analysis. Guess what? The leaves and just about every other aspect nature is bluntly telling us to get our collective “stuff” together and change our course before it is too late. Global warming is real and climate change is underway whether we are ready for it or not.

Go ahead climate change deniers, whine all you want about climate-gate and whatever other minuscule shreds of weak deniability you want to conger up. Go ahead oil, auto and highway lobbies, have a collective fit. The simple fact is the Earth is warming, and doing nothing is not reasonable or rational, it’s irresponsible. Besides, according to recent studies noted above, alternative transportation projects produce more jobs. Factor in the improved public health derived from added exercise and it sounds like a win-win-win situation to me.

So, my proposal is on the table – transfer at least one-third of all future highway funding to alternative and green forms of transportation. It may be a bit pie-in-the-sky, but that’s a preferable aroma to the stench coming from carbon and fossil fuels.

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