New president, same infrastructure problems. Here's why it's different this time.
Another presidency has passed, four more years during which grandstanding over America’s crumbling infrastructure problem once again produced very few results. Our bridges still need fixing. Yes, our airports are falling apart. But as these projects languish, the very way we use our cities and transportation networks has been changing. New technologies are providing new answers to old problems. The election of Joe Biden brings a conversation about infrastructure that has long been waiting in the wings to center stage.
Biden ran on promises to address the long overdue repair and modernization of highways, roads, bridges and airports. However, his administration’s ambitions go further, with a plan to address the infrastructure America will need both to combat climate change and modernize urban transportation. This includes a plan for 500,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles, changes to our cities that allow drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and others to safely share the road, and investment in critical clean energy technologies.
This isn’t our parents’ infrastructure plan, but we’ve long left behind the world that many of our aging politicians are clinging to, and at an impasse for doing anything about. We need to adapt our infrastructure to match our changing cities and create the future our country and planet needs. Thirty-seven million city-dwellers are expected to change the way they travel over the next ten years. Passenger vehicle use is expected to decrease by 10 percent while cycling, walking, public transit, and ride sharing increase. The increasing demand for ecommerce delivery is expected to result in 36 percent more delivery vehicles on inner city streets by 2030. The pandemic has only accelerated these trends.
Simply put: infrastructure today is not just about filling potholes and repaving. Of course, when we can’t even pass an infrastructure bill despite it being the one issue that Democrats and Trump could agree on during his term, it might seem difficult to imagine how we will get from being unable to fix critical roads to the lofty goal of zero emissions by 2050. But frameworks are already in place, and many of the infrastructure projects we need do not bear the kind of price tags that traditional infrastructure upgrades do.
For example, curbside technology that optimizes the way delivery vehicles stop has the potential to reduce tons of carbon emissions every year. Idling cars and trucks produce 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year in New York City alone. Pilot programs have cut down idling vehicles by up to 6 percent. Other programs funded jointly by incubators and local governments have incentivized delivery companies to switch to electric vehicles. Amazon’s plan to have a fleet of 100,000 electric delivery trucks by 2030 alone will cut its annual carbon emissions by four million metric tons. If these kinds of projects were extended broadly through larger government funding and private-public partnerships across the country, they would save vast amounts of carbon annually.
This same technology can be deployed to make our streets work better. By analyzing parking patterns and incentivizing parking turnover, the average American would save 17 hours per year searching for parking, at an estimated cost of $345 per driver in wasted time, fuel and emissions. After shifts were made in approaches to public parking on one college campus, the number of cars driving around in search of parking went down by 20 percent. Using one study’s estimate that 30 percent of all traffic is people searching for parking, this translates into a 6 percent overall reduction in traffic. It also means a great reduction in emissions and greenhouse gases, when you extrapolate across the country.
Investing in Smart City infrastructure projects can also address increasing traffic congestion. These kinds of infrastructure initiatives leverage technological advancements to improve the flow of traffic and save energy. In 2016, under the Obama administration’s Smart Cities initiative, the DOT granted Columbus Ohio $40 million to prototype the future of urban transportation. By 2019, Columbus had doubled the number of mobility services in the city, and was vastly outpacing national rates of Electric Vehicle adoption. Advances are also being made to create roads that harvest energy, smart intersections that reduce accidents, and street lights that use sensors to save energy.
Other, simple, easy-to-implement infrastructure projects can have huge bang for the buck. Reconfiguring city streets to favor zero emission micro-mobility options such as bikes and e-scooters have a relatively low price tag. The average price of a bike lane in the US is $130,000 per mile, with huge implications for public health, safety, and reducing pollution. To put that number in perspective, the price tag for the same mile of subway line is around $1 billion.
There’s no denying that $2 trillion is a hefty price tag. But spending this money will save us money in the end. In 2015, the Department of Transportation released a report estimating that between lost time, wasted fuel, and emissions, the total cost of congestion neared $160 billion per year.
These infrastructure projects also save lives and healthcare costs. In one Vision Zero initiative, the Seattle Department of Transportation launched a collaborative process to review conditions along one mile of city streets. After one year, crashes were reduced 15 percent overall, with injury crashes down 30 percent and pedestrian and bicycle crashes down 40 percent. Columbia University researchers ran a cost-benefit analysis revealing that the gain in quality adjusted life years vastly outweighed the monetary cost of implementing a 45.5 mile bike lane in NYC. A British study found that active commuting such as cycling and walking was associated with a lower risk of Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes of mortality. In Copenhagen, the cycling population contributes $261 million a year in public health savings — enough to pay off the cost of protected bicycle infrastructure in under five years.
Despite the promising return on investment, with a divided government, Biden’s infrastructure plan faces an uphill battle. But as we rebuild our urban centers in a post-pandemic world, there is an opportunity for a reset. We have seen a shift towards cycling and scooting over driving, we’ve changed the way we get the goods we need, and we’ve transformed streets into people-centric pavilions. We have begun the process of getting from where we are to the less car-dependent world we know we need to create.
It is in all of our interests to invest in that future now, no matter which side of the aisle we sit on. Policymakers need to act quickly to ensure the policies and infrastructure investments surrounding city streets — from real estate allocation for commercial vehicle parking and loading zones to expanded space for cyclists and pedestrians — reflect the changing needs of our cities and towns.
Let the cities and streets we all walk on together be the one political issue we can unite on, as we continue forward into this new era.