“Big Asphalt” has compromised our health, safety, and welfare—but we can defeat it if we try.
By Robert Steuteille, March 19, 2015
In America we have 2.5 million miles of paved roads, and an estimated 800 million parking spaces. Thanks to the "asphalt-industrial machine," which is like a Borg that exists to expand itself, we have the largest asphalt paving industry in the world, producing 400 million tons annually.
The paving promotes more driving, which in turn raises the demand for paving. In the last 100 years we paved a total area that is half the size of Pennsylvania1, and this requires ongoing service and maintenance, which feeds the industry perpetually.
American industrial and professional sectors have evolved to serve the machine. Big players are the asphalt, aggregate, and ready-mix producers, and the paving contractors. These include Oldcastle Materials and The Koch Industries—not household names, because you don't drive to the big box store to buy asphalt. You drive and park on asphalt. Our retail industry, which used to serve neighborhoods and communities, now depends on asphalt. The biggest corporation in the world, Walmart, would not exist at anywhere near its current size without Big Asphalt.
The automobile and trucking industries also are built on pavement. The oil industry feeds the asphalt-industrial machine.
Transportation engineers have long been co-opted by the machine, as have transportation planners and Departments of Transportation (DOTs). These groups apply rules and standards that supposedly promote safety, but mostly serve Big Asphalt—which harms people in many ways:
1) Road-building standards often make us less safe because wide roads promote speeding that kills thousands of people a year. Since 1899, 3.55 million Americans, mostly young and healthy, have died in motor vehicle accidents--more than all our wars combined. Injuries, many of them debilitating, have topped 150 million.
2) The big arterial thoroughfares lined by parking lots devalue communities and suppress economic activity. The values of main streets and downtowns are three times that of newer, Big Asphalt, “edge city” commercial areas, according to one recent study. This cuts into government revenue and raises the cost of services.
3) The automobile-oriented areas damage our health by adding to obesity and diabetes and reducing opportunities for exercise like walking to school or to parks.
4) Impervious surface is the biggest source of water pollution today.
5) Directly and indirectly, the asphalt-industrial machine may be the greatest generator of carbon emissions in the world. The US produces two times the carbon emissions per capita as many other fully industrial countries--such as Japan, the UK, Sweden, and Italy—largely due to the automobile-oriented lifestyle enabled by Big Asphalt.
6) Big Asphalt reduces choices in how to get around, forcing many to spend more of their hard-earned dollars on automobile expenses.
7) Big Asphalt tends to increase traffic problems, due to "induced demand."
8) Big Asphalt has fed at the government trough for 100 years, hitting taxpayers whether they drive or not. Gasoline taxes and user fees — all levied by government — pay for only half of road spending, according to the Tax Foundation. The rest comes out of general funds. Minimum parking requirements determine the size of parking lots—and that’s another direct subsidy of the machine.
The machine has its own research arm called the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), whose annual "congestion index" is used to justify expansion of America's pavement. The machine has its paid talking-head cheerleaders, including Wendell Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin.
Like the Borg in Star Trek, which controls major sectors of the universe, the machine controls the built environment in a large portion of our world. Less than half of one percent of the US is outside the realm of the machine. Historic street grids in cities and towns predate the modern asphalt industry. The machine stuck its tentacles into these places, threatening to destroy them—but was ultimately unsuccessful. Grade-separated highways tore urban neighborhoods apart and blocked them from amenities like waterways or main streets. Thousands of historic buildings were leveled for parking lots. Many more urban freeways were planned, but the people waged a great war in the last century to protect these places and beat back the machine.
The greatest leader in that war was a writer and local activist named Jane Jacobs, but unsung heroes also took part in battles that saved many neighborhoods in cities coast to coast. Other leading figures fight against the machine, including former New York City DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, architect Jan Gehl, urban designers Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, and parking theorist Dr. Donald Shoup.
In historic cities and towns, we still have choice in how to get around. We can walk, ride a bicycle, take a train, use Uber--or drive if we wish. In most of our nation, the asphalt-industrial machine determines how we travel. The machine that we created in America is now more powerful than any individual. It is spreading to other parts of the world such as China, the Middle East, and Latin America and paving those places, too.
In order to create a sustainable world for our children, we have to take back control from the machine. But where to begin? Just 2.3 percent of the total land area of the US is urbanized, and that's where 72 percent of the US population lives. If we can control the machine in these areas, it will no longer control us.
In these urbanized areas, we need small-scale networks of streets that allow a mix of uses and public life to thrive. We must shrink down thoroughfares, travel lanes, and intersections, and get rid of the requirements that demand more and more parking. If we can slow down traffic in urban places to 20 mph, people will stop dying on streets. We make room for more bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and outdoor cafes. Public life will thrive, giving people an alternative to driving, which will reduce demand for pavement. The machine will be furious, because this will put the ravenous creature on a diet. It doesn’t willingly diet; it doesn’t do small-scale.
We have to fight the machine strategically. The first-ring suburbs were the first places in America created by the asphalt-industrial machine, but the machine had not yet achieved its full power in the middle of the 20th Century. Residential streets were still relatively narrow and mostly connected. These areas are where the machine is most vulnerable. We make them walkable and more livable.
At the same time, we continue to revitalize cities. We tear down aging freeways and reconnect neighborhoods.
America looked much different before Big Asphalt. You could walk from coast to coast, through cities, towns, and countryside. That was before we had the same franchise restaurants and commercial strips in every built up area lining enormous unwalkable arterials. That was before the countryside around every city and town was gobbled up with cul-de-sacs that feed the machine.
We take back America and stop the machine from consuming the rest of the countryside. We peel away its support network by recruiting the unwitting foot soldiers in transportation engineering and the DOTs. It won't be easy and it won't be quick, but We The People are stronger, ultimately, than the asphalt-industrial machine.
See more images of Big Asphalt below.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns.
Above—Big Asphalt, and a vision of Big Asphalt transformed. Urban Advantage.
Houston circa the 1980s
Syracuse—the tentacles of Big Asphalt invading a downtown.
You would be hard pressed to shout at the top of your lungs to someone on the opposite corner of this intersection. The corner radii on the left are huge—smaller on the right because of the bridge over the canal. If you have ever tried to cross an intersection like this on foot, you know how scary it is. Put on your running shoes. You'd probably wait 5 or 10 minutes before being allowed to cross.