11 July 2008

Highways - a thing of the past?

I wanted to merge my interests in highways and the growing economic crisis in at least one post, so here it is:

Constructing and maintaining highways to improve the flow of traffic is good and fine, but this predicates that there will be increasing rates of traffic to justify the maintenance of existing roads, the construction of new roads and highways, and money available to finance this activity.

The way this economy is going, between the collapse of the credit markets, the limitless rise of petroleum prices, and the torpid immobility of anyone in power to do a damn substantive thing about it which does not make the situation worse, I would be surprised if, in five years, there are any cars even left on the road. I fear that we miss the mark when we discuss new highway construction. The economic picture increasingly points to a future where we must really simply consider basic survival, both physically and as a discrete society. I fear that in the future (sooner than you think), the concept of building roads will be a memory, a thing of the past.

In a society where traffic counts are decreasing (and this is already happening) and real and fanciful wealth is shrinking daily, there is just no way that a continued investment in highway infrastructure makes much economic sense. The State should vacate the field of transportation and permit private initiative to find more efficient, less fuel consumptive means of transport in this coming age of austerity.

Jim Kunstler is right. Our current transportation policy, patterns of urban development, and way we sort our society is unsustainable over the long term, as it is predicated on a continued supply of inexpensive petroleum, which is of course no longer the case. Environmental regulations, geopolitical realities, imperial hubris, and economic mismanagement have brought us to a hard place indeed.

Of course in Kunstler's view, the problem is that we do not have enough State intervention in our lives.  The hard fact is that State subsidy of the suburban boom - mortgage exemption, subsidy of highway construction, cheep credit a la Greensham, etc. - has led us right into the present predicament. Regulations and zoning laws which more or less require that new development be constructed to sprawling low density standards is also a major contributor. Dense, human scale development of the sort common in the 19th and early 20th century is actually illegal in most cities nowadays, unless the powers that be decide to waive the rules (which they do from time to time when the payoff is right). State intervention also serves to decrease the apparent price of transport infrastructure to near zero for the individual user, causing gross imbalances of supply and demand.

The free market would never be as wasteful. Resources, in transportation and otherwise, are scarce and must be allocated efficiently, which capitalism is expert at doing. Private ownership would institute a rational transport pricing scheme as a start to this process, and restore the supply-demand balance.

The whole concept of State "planning", which is supposed to replace this process and place it in the hands of 'disinterested public servants' (an oxymoron and a lie if there ever was any) is a joke, and only serves to propogate the problems. (In reality, politics plays much more of a role in the process than anyone cares to acknowledge.) The solution - to live within our means - will require a drastic rollback of the State socialism which envelopes the fields of transport, real estate, and in fact every other field, and to let freedom reign.

That means no four lane highways to nowhere, while overloaded freeways in urban areas choke with traffic, and broken down transit systems lock poor Blacks into a limited circle of poverty and lack of choice.

Or more likely, it means no more highways. Soon oil will be too costly an input to be of any use in any private sector transportation scheme.

Also, please be so kind as to submit an answer to my new poll, which asks the most important question of our age - the vital question of survival which no mainstream media dickhead would ever dare emit from his lips! Polls close at 5 PM Central Time on Monday!

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