the cost of a road
August 22, 2011, 5:30 pm
Filed under: betaCITY, Cities, Transit | Tags: , , ,


The most practical and necessary proposals are always dismissed as ‘very idealistic’. – Alain de Botton

The ideal of freedom has been conflated with the ideal of personal transportation systems like cars and freeways, and increasingly now, bicycles.  But the relative inefficiencies and high cost of personal systems lead to anything but freedom.

Am I the only one who has noticed how much more talk there is about bikes and bike infrastructure than about public transportation?  Or how the conversation about high speed rail has virtually eclipsed that of downtown transportation systems?

The bike conversation is easier to take on politically because an individual – like a person in a car – can find freedom on a bike, where making new bus or tram or subway lines is a corporate, conflict inducing undertaking.  Similarly, high speed rail may be important, in the way that building the interstate highways in the 1950s was important, but the push takes our focus off of the, arguably more pressing – considering mounting public debt – development of our city infrastructure.

Here is a poster from the BBC that shows the relative cost of building roads in the UK.  Building in North America is no doubt comparable.  The costs of roads and infrastructure are principally borne with tax money; and therefore represent the externalized costs of doing business and living in America.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that a dollar spent on public transportation systems goes much further than one spent on highways, but still our governments continue to spend more and more on the less efficient systems.  Consider the following statistics.  Mass transit uses less land and moves more people:

A standard twin track railway has a typical capacity 13% greater than a 6 lane highway (3 lanes each way), while requiring only 40% of the land. -Highway Capacity Manual

A basic formula of traffic engineering states that one lane of limited access highway can accommodate 2300 cars per hous, while one lane of light rail can accommodate 40,000 passengers per hour.  -J.M. Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere

But America spends more and more on highways instead of committing to building the more efficient public transport systems:

Between 1981 and 1995 the spending on federal highways in the US grew from $9 to $19 billion whilst transit stayed at $4 billion.  -Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy

So, not only is it more expensive to make roads and bridges than public transport systems when measured per capita, it is also a less efficient use of money.  But for some reason, we continue along a route that has left us bankrupt.

Besides cost and inefficiency, the road and car based environments that we are building are unlivable.  They are hard to get around in, to live in and to do business in and no one is challenging the traffic planners and pols who continue to make them.  The way to reverse this illogical half-century long trend is to talk about the money: is the product good? ie. does it make livable environments? Is it efficient?  Does it cost less per capita?

Alain de Botton said, “the most practical and necessary proposals are always dismissed as ‘very idealistic’.”  Is this is the continuing M.O. of the planners and builders of our 21st century environments?

Further information from the article on the BBC:

A mile of new motorway costs on average £30m, according to the Highways Agency. As a rule of thumb, an elevated road costs 10 times more than one on the flat, says French.


The most expensive road per mile is the Limehouse Link. The 1.1 mile (1.8 km) tunnel in London’s Docklands opened in 1993 at a cost £293m. Adjusted for one measure of inflation that would be £445m or £230,000 per yard (£250,000 per metre). It was designed and built in seven years and at the time was the second biggest engineering project in Europe after the Channel Tunnel.

The UK’s last, great, expensive, short roads, Tom de Castella


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