Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Review: Building a World Class Transportation System by Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns recently released a short e-book laying out his analysis of the problem with our transportation system, and his plan to fix it. The core insights of Strong Towns derive from a brilliant realization: that by merging our analysis of planning, design and transportation engineering with public finance and economics we can discover surprising truths about what produces growth and prosperity on a fine-grained scale.

 He begins by contrasting the current wave of transportation infrastructure building with previous waves, specifically the construction of the railroad and interstate networks. In contrast to today, previous systems were essentially 'low-hanging fruit': relatively small investments reaped huge gains in productivity. The returns on subsequent building was much lower: connecting two high-performing places creates more wealth and opportunity than connecting two medium- or low-performing places.

 Two subtler points emerge from this story. One is an institutional ratchet effect. During the 'high-return' days, certain institutional norms and arrangements formed and became locked-in, even as the landscape of infrastructure in the US changed dramatically. This idea of 'drift' (or political decay in words of Francis Fukuyama), where policy institutions don't keep pace with changing realities, is rampant here.

 The second point is more philosophical: by maintaining the institutional inertia of infrastructure building even as the ROI of these investments tanked, information-processing and planning-fallacy concerns became more potent. Without the feedback mechanism of prices to coordinate the effective use of scarce resources, infrastructure decisions are largely based on the priorities of the political system. As the low-hanging fruit was picked and finding high-value investments became more difficult, the political system's inherent informational limitations became more apparent (and more costly).

 A large chunk of the book is devoted to articulating the core Strong Towns concepts and laying out a specific reform proposal. I don’t have much to add on this, only to say that his forceful argument against using excess tax revenue from financially-productive places (i.e. those that generate more tax revenue than they consume in public services) to build stuff in non-financially-productive places isn't a blanket argument against all geographic redistribution. His case is limited to the narrow domain of transportation spending, and even then his claim is actually optimistic. Marohn is saying that even a poor place with low growth can be 'financially productive' in an infrastructure sense, so long as it fully appreciates the full tax revenue and maintenance implications of public investments. This is where his framework’s conclusions intersect with localist and resilience-oriented movements.

 The non-partisan, crossover appeal of Strong Towns is a big reason for its success: it uses economics-style analysis (traditionally associated with conservatives) to arrive at conclusions traditionally associated with liberal urbanists. This leads to novel and intellectually satisfying arguments on many topics. A good example is the suburbs: liberals have long disparaged this pattern of development, but often in scattershot, wishy-washy, and vaguely elitist ways. Strong Towns gives us at least one good reason why the suburbs are terrible: the ratio of private investment to public investment is such that these regions are a net drain on the public purse.

 In general the book is good, although its target audience suffers from a 'missing middle' problem. For someone who's unfamiliar with Strong Towns, this is a solid introduction that encompases most of the approach’s flavor. At the other end of the spectrum, this book will be valuable to readers with a technical or professional interest in learning about the finer details of a Strong Towns vision of policy. For amateurs already well-versed in the framework, but lacking a reason to deep-dive into the particular magnitudes of financing ratios, this book is somewhat lacking.

 Marohn concludes by gaming out the winners and losers of his public finance reform proposal. It's an interesting attempt at political analysis, but it seems half-baked: some of his claims are overly optimistic, and the actual coalitional breakdown of any major reform in transportation will likely be as familiar and intractable as always. At times the book slips into the, "nation of whiners" and "people are stupid" rhetoric (common among certain subversive urbanists), which is obnoxious, although perhaps understandable given the epidemic amount of wrongness that exists in this field.

1 comment :

  1. Smart, pithy summary Will; confirms what I know of Marohn and my quick skim of the book. p

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