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What we learned last decade about building cities

War, terrorism, the great recession? Sure. But the past decade also taught us a new understanding of the physical systems that support our metropolitan regions.
The I-35 bridge in Minneapolis after its 2007 collapse.

The I-35 bridge in Minneapolis after its 2007 collapse. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua Adam Nuzzo, U.S. Navy/via Wikimedia Commons

It's become popular sport to deride the first decade of this century, the 2000-2009 years, as a downhill ride of terrorism, war, and economic depression.

But there's one multi-syllabic word that enjoyed a big comeback, after decades of neglect. That word: infrastructure. We at least began to think about the physical systems that support us, nurture us, and make much of life possible.

I posit that the "aughts," as they have been called, were in fact a decade of infrastructure breakthroughs. Sure, we didn't spend enough on it, or even more than in previous decades (I know of no official list of infrastructure projects, so it's hard to tell). But I would argue that infrastructure did crystalize as a subject in the hearts and minds of the country's citizens and opinion leaders as a subject worthy of attention and focus. A decade ago, even the word "infrastructure" was hardly known outside the specialized worlds of public works departments. Now editorial writers bandy it about without explanation and debate how much we should spend on it.

The opening salvo in this attention on infrastructure may have been the attack on New York and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Although the twin towers arguably were not infrastructure themselves, they involved so many systems of rail lines, water lines, power lines, and so forth, that the nation's attention was turned to them. In addition, the possibility that infrastructure systems in general, particularly transportation, but also power and water, could be used as instruments of terror highlighted infrastructure's importance.

When New York City began to rebuild, attention turned almost immediately to making infrastructure, in the form of new or revamped train stations — arguably a signal of America's capacity for renewal in the face of danger. One of those new stations, the new PATH station at World Trade Center, was designed by the most famous designer of infrastructure in the world, Santiago Calatrava, the famed Spanish architect and engineer.

Then there was the Interstate highway bridge collapsing in Minneapolis, in 2007. This focused our attention on the vast litany of rusting and decrepit bridges and other infrastructure, and the need for funds to repair them. The replacement bridge was built and opened in just over a year — a compliment to the capacity of professionals to work fast when needed.

A year later, we saw the future President Barack Obama campaigning on something called an "infrastructure bank." Once elected, he would persuade Congress, in a massive economic recovery act, to appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars for all types of infrastructure — to jumpstart the economy but also as an investment in the future. Not incidentally, this spending included billions for intercity train travel, whose initial grants were recently announced. This is the first significant investment in intercity train travel since the early 20th century.

Looking abroad, China, India, Korea, Spain, and other countries began during the decade to build highways, airports, entire new subway systems, and high-speed rail lines at furious rates. It was the decade that breathtakingly beautiful bridges opened in Europe, like the Millau Viaduct in France and the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This rising tide of mega-projects would help pressure the United States to at least contemplate spending and investing more on similar projects.

We began to use our streets — a kind of infrastructure, after all — more wisely in an number of cities. Rather than just being concourses for cars, streets were opened to cyclists, pedestrians, and even loungers. Cities from Chattanooga to St. Louis began converting one-way streets back to two-way streets, to better accommodate a diverse street environment. Parts of Broadway running through Times Square in New York City, where formerly thousands of cars had traveled, were turned into public plazas with chairs and tables!

We began to understand better how infrastructure is paid for — or not. There was greater acceptance that government subsidizes all forms of transportation, and that no mode pays for itself. The latest on roads was a 2009 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which concluded that "there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today." A typical example was a highway outside Houston that was projected to cost $1 billion over its 40-year life span and generate only $162 million in gas taxes.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 1:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I hope you are right about trends changing. Mike McGinn has made some missteps, but he is spot on about the need to change the 520 bridge to accommodate rail. Oil comes from faraway places with people who don't much like us. We somehow still manage to suck up a vastly disproportionate share of it from the world, but can we count on trading those pieces of paper called dollars for so much of it for much longer?

I don't think so. Unless we start preparing to deal with the end of that arrangement, and soon, things will get very interesting.

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 7:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Who else is contemplating the restriction of air travel between England Norway and France? It's good material for emission reduction argument/discourse.

A cut/cover seawall combo project uses half the cement. There goes your sidewalk material into a hole. :^( .Look. Mercer Mess West II will ruin Lower Queen Anne, friends, adding 20,000+ vehicles from Day 1. Alaskan Way will get that much new traffic, and more, and worse, worse accidents. Are you people thinking at all ???

Tunnelite builds the best seawall, best utility relocation, best emision reduction, best sidewalk way, double best transit way with trolley however it's put back.

I'm tired of you all NOT using your cognizant realism to accept the frank truth that Tunnelite is the BETTER choice. I swear, some of you cl*wns must know this and cower before you bosses. Greg Nicky Was Right. Tunnelite!

Have a good weekend all. Give thought to air travel restrictions I am personally thankful for the opportunity to learn in a crisis for some. Fly less folks. Build good European or Asian style high-speed trains.

Personally, I prefer Talgo with either 150mph diesel/electric or 200mph catenary. Conserves electricity for LinK and Max-type rail addressing worst traffic problems most effectively experts agree, and European/Asian models prove.

Talgo can operate on both modes, therefore, technologic advanced. Amtrack Talgo to SLC (the return of the Amtrak Pioneer route), but then to LV and LA.

SLC is the Transfer Point to a Twice a-Day Zephyr also running Talgo's to Denver and other close points on existing and desparately needed upgraded-track. ACELA requires much more new route but averages only 30mph faster times. California OK. Perfect, but expect ONLY 135mph "average" times if that. 600 miles in 4 hours, 44 minutes and 44.4 seconds. I am begging you folks 2 reconside Tunnelite NOW for your sakes, not mine. Care.

TUNNELITE. . .TALGO. . .

Wells

Posted Sat, Apr 17, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

What a bunch of chickenlivers. Too fn bad. Even the editors don't mind letting paltry responses to good articles go under appreciated. Shhh. Quiet. The Tunnelite nut is back. Pick the tunnel on whether it will work, NOT whether it be an inconvenience to your wallets nor whether it will cost too much. The Deep-Boor is a horror. Many tens of thousands of extra cars and trucks through Mercer Mess West, (possibly on Thomas to Elliott). And the same on Alaskan Way/Belltown, parking hassles, bike lanes in traffic, sidewalks not near as good as with a cut/cover tunnel.
Grow up. Weenies.

Wells

Posted Sat, Apr 17, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Edit: Pick the tunnel option (DB or Cc) NOT on whether its "construction" will be inconvenience, and/or cost too much. Just wanted to make that clear. The DB will be more of an inconvenience indefinitely, expensively so. Nah. You no bettuh. You smarT. Punks.

Wells

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 4:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Great point Alex. I never sat down and thought about it like that, although in transportation obsessed Seattle I think infrastructure has always held a higher place in the publics mind than it did on a national level.

bgtothen

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