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A Changed World

Communities around North America are waking up to a changed world. Our expectation for continuous improvement of the systems that support our lifestyles, transportation choices and patterns of housing has been shaken. Budget cuts are forcing communities and governments to reconsider priorities; in Washington State a new user fee was introduced for users of recreation trails, to shore up the previously tax-payer funded parks budget – gaps are showing in the list of priorities. In South Carolina, the DOT is on the brink of bankruptcy, apparently partly due to massive system expansion projects. Funding vs expectations.

Charlotte SkylineWe expect that the bridges, roads and other infrastructure we rely on every day will be functional, with little knowledge as communities of whether those we’ve entrusted the responsibility of maintaining, or at least warning of trouble with these structures are asleep at the wheel, hamstrung by budget limitations or just hoping to make the best decision with available resources, which, in some cases just might not be enough to meet safety expectations.

In Montreal last month, a section of tunnel collapsed, with some speculating that the level of inspection was inadequate, or that issues raised may have been somehow overlooked or bumped to the bottom of the pile by other more pressing concerns.

“I thought the provincial government learned a lesson after the inquiry into the collapse of the Laval overpass,” said Nicolas Girard, transportation critic for the Parti Québécois. “We have to know when the last inspection was and we have to see that report. There is an obligation on the part of the government for transparency here. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the Turcot Interchange and the Mercier Bridge, there is a systematic refusal from the minister to make inspection reports public and that is unacceptable.”

Read more: Narrow Escape – Montreal Gazette

Unfortunately, I think there are many communities that are realizing that Montreal may not be that different from the place that they find themselves in. Sure it may not be bridges, but I can almost guarantee that it is roads and water systems. I’ve previously posted on pavement management, which for the non-technical types might seem like a pretty dry topic, but its worth asking whether your community is engaged in a program that meets these criteria. What you are likely to find, is that most communities have under-invested in pavement management (and water and sewer) for decades, so the level of expenditure and effort required to bring the funding into a sustainable balance point is such a reach for most communities that they cannot imagine even suggesting to the taxpayers that the level of funding should increase by 20, 50, 100, 200% – whatever is required is likely far enough out of reach to be considered unattainable.

A Caveat on Spending

Now, I have to point out that this should not be seen as a license for engineers to start dreaming up infrastructure renewal or expansion projects because the funding is there, (or not!). One of my favourite posts of the past couple of weeks is this one, (quoted below), and the follow-up that expands on the topic, and counters the amendments to the report made by the ASCE. The premise of the ASCE report is that without significant investment in infrastructure, the economy will suffer.

[The ASCE estimates that the cost of transportation deficiencies]… to households and businesses is $1.042 trillion. Well, ASCE states that to reach “minimum tolerable conditions” (a pretty sad standard) would take an investment of $220 billion annually. Over 10 years, that’s $2.2 trillion. Yeah, you read that right. The American Society of Civil Engineers wrote a report that suggested over the next decade we spend $2.2 trillion so that we can save $1.0 trillion. And you wonder why we’re broke.

The ASCE Infrastructure Cult – Strong Towns.

Charles Mahon, the author of the pieces on Strong Towns is a Civil Engineer, but one, like me who see that the transportation solutions we’ve come to expect are more often than not a continuation of the cycle of unfunded liabilities that communities have found themselves in. If you are not already, Strong Towns is a good blog to follow for fresh concepts in municipal planning, finance and transportation. They are not afraid to dig into the numbers and challenge the assumptions in engineer’s reports.

Note that neither Strong Towns or myself are advocating letting infrastructure fall apart, but that the rationale for spending needs to be challenged on almost any project that assumes growing need.

The Mysterious Case of Disappearing VMT

Critical thought is required to determine the right size for solutions – did you know that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is declining in many Western Countries, even in neighbouring US cities such as Seattle and Portland. For a recent peer reviewed article on the issue of declining VMT, click the link after this excerpt:

 Traffic engineers will need to fundamentally change their traffic models and their assumption that increasing road capacity is their main raison d’etre. The rationale for roads will shift away from accommodating cars to being much more inclusive of other modes – light rail, buses, cycling and walking. Road diets and traffic calming will become the skill they need to lead with rather than being pushed into.

In cases where road capacity has been reduced such as in the demolition of 6 km of high capacity freeway through the centre of Seoul to create an urban stream and boulevard, average speed across the city actually improved and there were no adverse traffic impacts (www.design-e2.com – Seoul: Stream of Consciousness). This and other similar road diet projects that have been implemented around the world with similar experiences (Schiller et al, 2010), must lead to a change in how the traffic engineering profession conceives traffic, not as a “liquid” that will flow over everything if space is removed, but as a “gas” that compresses according to the space constraints imposed on it. Peak car use will generate a growing rationale for removal of high capacity roads and conversion of space to support transit, walking and cycling and the urbanism of the new city.

Going down? Newman and Kenworthy on Peak Car Use | World Streets: A New Mobility Agenda.

 A Changed World

These articles and links point me to one conclusion, that we are facing some serious changes in the fundamental assumptions for infrastructure in our communities. The old ways of doing infrastructure will become less useful as we struggle to maintain what we already have.

I’d like to offer a challenge, a bonus question – “What will aging demographics do to these stats?” Here are some behaviour drivers to get you started:

  • Some forms of taxation revenues will decline, (income and sales taxes for a start).
  • Elderly people do not have to make the daily commute to work, or drive the kids to school.
  • At some point many of these drivers will no longer be able to drive at all for health or eye sight reasons.
This is one segment of society, think about the behaviours in others.
Whether or not we are at “Peak Car Use”, the economic basis for many of our communities decisions is changing. Most communities are well aware of their current and future unfunded liabilities – buildings, pipelines and roads that need repair or replacement in the next twenty years – the challenge is right-sizing these projects and determining available funding mechanisms. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

2 thoughts on “A Changed World

  1. As usual, another interesting and thought-provoking article.

    Yet another unbudgeted part of our live along with unfunded pensions, health care etc., etc.

    Future generations will have to play catch-up or drastically alter their way of living. We have a lot to answer for.

  2. Mike – you’re one of the few bloggers I’ve seen cover the increasingly important topic of wastewater treatment. It would be interesting to see your comments on this part of infrastructure, since – compared with highway potholes – it’s largely unseen and taken for granted.

    Claudius Jaeger
    Jaeger Aeration

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