Small Cities, Big Roads, Part II

A few weeks ago I did a post on the phenomenon of small American cities with huge, expensive bypass roads built around them. Last night, I was indulging one of my other hobbies and checking out Civil War battlefields in Kentucky on Google Maps, and I discovered that Kentucky apparently has a thing for these absurdities.

Even tiny Springfield, KY, population around 2,500, gets a bypass! Now, as I wrote in the last post, it’s entirely possible that small towns like these bypasses, since they take traffic off of local roads, but that doesn’t mean the investment is justified (and taking cars off of local streets also means taking them away from local businesses). I also decided on a hashtag to use for this project: #smallcitybigbypass–if you find another example, hashtag it on Twitter!

There was one other oddity to call out from the Bluegrass Region:

The traffic volumes (interactive map available here) on both of these highways barely reach the level of a two- or four-lane urban arterial (and the traffic volumes on many of the “urban” bypasses are even lower). But instead of delaying drivers by just a few seconds to stop at a light, we invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a fancy interchange. It’s the ultimate unfairness in the American transportation-funding scheme: we accommodate the every desire of drivers, trying to eliminate any possible inconvenience at massive expense, while transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists have to fight for tiny scraps. Alternative transportation advocates like to frame their requests for more funding in terms of reparations for 60 years of policy that has favored roads, but I’m not sure even that rhetoric captures the true inequity of the situation. We haven’t just favored roads; we’ve built a truly decadent infrastructure system for drivers, while everyone else gets shoved out of the picture.

Small Cities, Big Roads: the Story of American Infrastructure

I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging recently (though I did post my final papers), but the semester’s over now (thank God), so here’s a fun little celebration post.

Chuck Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns, among others, have been doing a good job documenting the absurd overbuilding of American infrastructure. I spend too much of my time daydreaming by zooming around the country on Google Maps, and in doing so I’ve noticed a trend that I think typifies the kind of obscene overbuilding that has so thoroughly screwed up the American transportation system.  As it turns out, many, many small American cities have ridiculous bypass roads that must have been built at great expense to taxpayers. I’m not talking about freeways, mind you; I approve of not destroying towns with those things. I’m talking about much smaller highways, the kind where driving through a small city isn’t going to cost you too much time or make you slow down from 70 mph. And the impact of diverting those highways to save a couple of minutes can be devastating to smaller towns or cities; the highways are often the economic lifeblood of a smaller town, and pulling cars away from Main Street and to a bypass can kill a town for good. (That being said, I should acknowledge that sometimes communities do ask for bypasses, to get traffic off their roads or because they think it will preserve a small-town way of life.)

Without further ado…multiple examples of the genre of “Small American Cities with Big Bypass Roads!”

Westerly, RI (Population 22,787): RI-78

Burlington, WI (pop. 10, 464): WI-36 (bypass opened in 2010 at the cost of $118 million. Remember, this is Paul “fiscal conservative” Ryan’s congressional district)

Bennington, VT (pop. 15,764): VT (actually extends a little into New York too) 279. This one’s special because it bypasses a good bit of countryside too:

Upper Sandusky, OH (pop. 6,596): US-30

Xenia, OH (pop. 25,719): US-35

Those are just a few examples; I’m sure there are dozens more. I’m also sure that some of the citizens of these towns prize these bypass roads, thinking they divert fast cars and loud, heavy trucks from local streets. And maybe they do. But as the Burlington example demonstrates–and I remember seeing the road under construction on a family roadtrip to Wisconsin when I was in high school, and marveling at the vastness of the earth-moving in a totally rural area–the costs, both fiscal and ecological, are enormous. Aren’t there better ways to calm traffic, keep people moving, and keep the economy pumping than these enormously wasteful exercises?