The Infrastructure Long Play

60 thoughts on “The Infrastructure Long Play”

  1. Living in a village which was settled in medieval times before there were any roads whatsoever in the area I think you Americans tend to put too much focus on communications.
    I find it a reasonable assumption that if nothing drastical is done to spread wealth and halt urbanisation most of the western world will be heading for a society where the rich new nobility live in certain parts of the big cities. Around them the destitute poor will flock hoping for enough trickledown to just stay alive day to day in the slums.

    Outside of that will be large tracts taken over by timber corporations and farming corporations owned by the nobility and worked by their landless farmhands and sharecroppers. Supplying food to a market shaped by the food shortages caused by large scale destruction of farmland (which we already see)

    However……… I can see one possible remaining middle class. People who hang on to pieces of farmland and woodland and manage it themselves for self sufficiency without debt as a part income and send out family members to work in qualified trades as the other part.
    The poor in the cities will likely not be able to afford to buy the tools or learn the skills of a qualified trade like a plumber or a bricklayer. The nobility will likely shun anything that remotely looks like work as nobilities habitually do.

    In the extremely rigid class society of the imperial capital StPetersburg in Russia and in ither mayor cities too in the 19th century smallholders from autonomous Finland often got those jobs. Often leaving with the last ships in autumn and returning home with the first ships in spring with some savings to supplement what a small farm could produce. They owned tools and they had skills so they were well paid in relation to the locals. Independent proud free craftsmen completely outside the rigid feudal society of Russia. My greatgrandfather and his father were two of them.
    In USA you seem to have the Amish doing exactly this right now…….or am i wrong?
    Just a thought…..

  2. “We’re approaching the seventy year mark of the Highway Era. The cost of maintaining the entire system is beginning to outstrip the benefits.”

    However, we aren’t paying for any new infrastructure either, even as the old infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate. As it happens, I just put up a post on how much each state invested in infrastructure from 1982 to 2016, based on government finances data from the Census Bureau. The answer — not as much as under Jimmy Carter.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2018/12/12/sold-out-futures-by-state-in-2016-debt-and-infrastructure/

    In fact this country hasn’t invested at all, it has consumed. Except in information and communications technology, and to a lesser extent logistics and healthcare. Perhaps the information and communications technology will mean people don’t move as much, and we use less stuff. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

    California’s investment has been particularly low, but it picked up somewhat recently. New England has invested the least of all, aside from the Big Dig and sewage plants to clean up Boston Harbor. “This Old Region.”

    1. I’ve worked on a few proposed infrastructure projects in these states, sometimes required by EPA mandates to clean the water supply or fix leaky water or sewer collection systems. If you want to see a city councilman suddenly turn red and wonder whatever made them run for office, tell them that they’re going to need to suddenly triple or quadruple rates to pay for the debt service on the bonds that must be raised to do the work.

      It is ironic how some of the highest tax states have made little effort to maintain their infrastructure, but they do offer generous pensions to government workers, and even those are often underfunded resulting in cuts to other government services and calls for more taxes to prop them up.

      1. I think in many such (Eastern and Midwestern) cities, it probably costs 2-3x as much to flush your toilet as to fill it.

        It’s a century-old illustration of Johnny’s “technological band-aid”: combined (street drain + sanitary) sewers were a public-health positive in the days when city streets were used for horse-drawn vehicles. Excrement and urine could be washed into the sewers to keep the streets relatively clean, and the “flush” would be directed mainly to the sewer treatment plant…unless it was raining, in which case it would go to creeks and rivers and become the problem of the next town downstream.

        So, among others, DC, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis have built multi-billion dollar “deep tunnels” to hold and store combined-sewer overflows until they can be treated.

  3. Hey man, I’m going to be starting a podcast soon and I’ve found your posts and analysis invaluable. Please be on the lookout for media requests soon 🙂

  4. One thing that is not being discussed is the aspect of migration. I think it unlikely that our modes of transportation will change quickly and far more likely that we’ll see migration out of the “outer areas” to the larger cities. While many people will not wish to do so, they may have to in order to support families. Those that stay will need to make the big changes in life; the others that move will do so to maintain their lifestyle(s) to the best of their ability. If companies such as Amazon, etc. stop delivery to some locations outside of the big cities, those areas may die all the quicker.

    We’re noting that commerce will drive changes but it’s interesting to speculate how corporations may attempt to control the changes (to their advantage).

    1. I don’t see a single adaptive response happening. Instead a see a collection of different patterns emerging. Yes, globally large cities are getting much larger as rural populations move toward opportunity. But I also see a shift of people moving from mega cities to medium sized cities. I also see small towns in highly desirable areas attracting a certain demographic. And almost all the new growth continues to be in suburban type development in established metro regions. The term “city” doesn’t necessarily mean skyscrapers. It usually means suburban strip malls, cul-de-sac subdivisions, and garden apartment complexes.

      1. Yes, I spoke far too generally; there will undoubtedly be a more nuanced movement but the direction seems to be the same: towards a more centralized gathering. The dispersion that took place via the interstates is bouncing back in a sort of yo-yo effect, generally speaking.

        My wondering tends towards how corporate interests will try to take advantage of this phenomenon. They can certainly affect it directly, if they so choose, but I doubt many will try that route. It may be worthwhile to see how they choose to indirectly affect such movement.

          1. Possibly.

            To get down in the weeds: There is a significant risk profile difference between urban street, suburban road, and highway miles, and between urban and suburban parking. So the insurance companies will have to be able to distinguish where and how people drive and park.

            Of course, this can be done by use of the same plug-in boxes that the companies currently offer for “lower rates” while collecting personal driving info. So the technology exists and it is already somewhat accepted.

            But people who commute 25 miles or more each way might not favor such a system unless it saves them money. And the result might be more cost piled onto the urban poor for where they live and drive.

            1. Bigger picture. Car insurance will increasingly require vehicles to be chipped and tracked. People currently opt in for a discount. In the future you’ll have to pay extra to opt out. Then you won’t have a choice at all.

              Law enforcement might get on the same bandwagon. Run a red light? Ding. Instantaneous e-ticket. Speeding? Ding. Real time e-ticket. Illegal left hand turn? Ding. The accumulated cost of driving will go up while everyone is forced to be a good driver all the time. And there’s all that revenue for the underfunded police pensions.

              Now think about all the cash strapped municipalities that will need to maintain roads without “increasing taxes.” Each time a vehicle passes a city or county road it will be charged per mile “user fees” (not a tax.) Towns with a lot of traffic that just passes through will adopt these user fees first since the locals won’t object too much. Let the outsiders pay. These fees could be time-sensitive to reduce traffic at peak times. It’s the same concept as parking meters. If you don’t drive or park you don’t pay the fees.

              1. Very insightful. Road costs would be born more directly by those who use them – not that that would be a bad thing. This of course assumes the tracking chip system will have few “exceptions chips” that bestow privilege to certain vehicles – earned or otherwise. I’ve always felt that a good way to balance demand for public services would be to better align the costs of those services with those who are clamoring for them.

              2. Gotcha taxation, eh?

                But yeah, I can see it coming too. My insurance broker has sent me several letters telling me that I can save some on insurance if I let them put a tracker in my car. No thanks, but I don’t doubt it will one day be compulsory.

                Traffic cameras already can already result in a ticket by mail. Expensive tickets at that.

              3. I don’t disagree at all, Johnny. Not so much “bigger picture” as just a matter of time. Voluntary plug-in modules were just the first step down the road you describe.

                Those of us with toll-road transponders already are subject to this. While traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike I am always careful to stop at least once at a service plaza so that my elapsed time between exits doesn’t constitute long-distance speeding.

                Presumably the powers that be will find ways to force that same full-cost loading onto air travel, goods trucking, and transit.

                1. Back in the 1960s they were worried about this on the New Jersey Turnpike. One got a stamped ticket when one entered and had it stamped again when one when paid at the exit. Even back then, they could compute your driving speed from entrance to exit. The system was already computerized.
                  They didn’t do this. My uncle said it was because they didn’t want things to get too crowded at the rest stops. Having zipped along on that very road at 75, I think he was right about this, at least back then. This is now. Who knows when they’ll start ticketing based on toll information?

    2. The Versailles Effect – the cities are where the rich folk gather. If inequality continues to increase, they’ll be the only ones left to sell goods and services to, so anyone wishing to make money will have to locate near them. Leaving the rest of the country to the (vastly expanded) underclass and anyone who drops out of society to do their own thing.

      Manufacturing required a lot of labour, so the benefits were spread throughout the population – it wasn’t trickle down, not really. Modern billion dollar companies don’t need to employ anywhere near as many people, so you get a few very well paid jobs versus many decently paid jobs. It doesn’t help when you have government policies oriented towards growing the former kind of jobs rather than the latter (“We need to grow the knowledge economy!”).

      I’m trying to figure out what the next 50+ years looks like if current trends somehow manage to persist. Worsening inequality, environmental damage, massive use of coal to make up for declining oil (there is probably enough to tide us to the end of the century), technological unemployment, socialism for the poor (crappy government flats, crappy government healthcare, crappy government soylent…) and possibly some kind of UBI for them to spend on opiates, probably a load of turking jobs, the top 15% skyrocketing ahead of everyone else (literally, in a few cases), regular civic disruption in sprawling megacities… I’m 24, so I fully expect to live in whatever world we have over that time.

      1. You’re forgetting that natural gas is cheaper, cleaner, and more available, and easier to move than coil, and that solar energy is increasingly cheaper than natural gas.

        Synthetic liquid fuels from NG are possible, as are engine modifications for existing vehicles- but we’re getting really good at lithium batteries and there’s already electricity in every home and business.

        A standard wall outlet charges 20 miles per hour.

        You can buy a new or used electric vehicle (Nisaan leaf) from this year, last year, two or even four years ago, for exactly the same cost as the most popular vehicle in america (F150, of course).

        None of these make it worth re-paving 120′ diameter cul-de-sacs fronted by dilapidated tract homes. Or even 40′ streets fronted by the same. We’ll get a lot more gravel.

  5. Energy seems to be of primary relevance here. We started with human power, then wind (sailing) and domestic animals fed on crops (canals & wagons), then rail powered by wood & coal and then finally vehicles powered by oil. But to your point, I’ve been dubious of the ability of our society to maintain the initial capital expenditures we’ve made particularly regarding the interstate highway system.

    Syracuse, NY has to replace I-81, which is an elevated highway, and some people are pushing to go back to a more community oriented grid system while others are pushing for extravagant things like a tunnel. No one is questioning where the resources will come from tho maintain these complex systems over time. I hope the grid systems wins but I’m not hopeful.

  6. I speculate that we won’t ever go back – not willingly. Some remnants survived from each transportation mode, but the North American way of life would have to experience an EXTREMELY drastic change before we’d all be content to live by waterways or railroads again and wait for supplies to arrive.

    No, the economy is built on a game of musical chairs that is deathly afraid of commerce dwindling or even slowing down at all. Whatever comes next will have to move goods even faster if we are to continue with our current methods and habits.

    1. I’m not advocating a return to a previous era. I’m just observing how things played out in the past. Extrapolations suggest a faster more ubiquitous transportation system as you describe. But what exactly will that look like? Is it physically possible? Who will win and who will lose? Time will tell.

      1. Drones and exoskeletons are my prediction. Drones replace delivery trucks (mostly) and cars, and exoskeletons allow humans to run very fast and still be safe.

  7. Only a decade or so away from roads being left to rot as freight is transported not just the last mile, but the last inch as drone technology improves. Very exciting and impossible to imagine more convenience, but could increase social isolation even more than the suburbs.

    1. Flying drones could easily solve one set of problems. In the immortal words of Doc Brown from Back To The Future, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” But drones could create new problems. Highways and private cars left big chunks of the population behind (by design as well as by accident) in the great migration to suburbia. Drones can fly right over the unwashed masses en route to The Good People. Don’t assume you’ll be in the better category in the future…

  8. At least with canal mania and railway mania in the UK, it was private capital that was lost. But I don’t think we’ll see quite the same trimming with the motorways here in England, given how much the population has grown since they were built. Plus our government didn’t have the same mania as the United States one when it came to building highways…

    To be fair, the railways major trimming came when it was under government ownership, and if they’d left the tracks insitu or at least protected the right of way, a large number of them would have been restored to use.

    I don’t know how many article Strong Towns has posted so far about how the highway network is overbuilt. It’s a fair few – not including this one, which I expect to see up fairly soon. 🙂

  9. Fascinating analysis. The repeating time frame for system transformation is important.

    David Fleming’s remarkable book “Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It” has an entry called “lean transport”. He writes of the eventual failure of modernity’s fast-moving, widely dispersed system for transporting vehicles. “In an age of cheap energy and massive material needs and flows, distance is trivial, opening the way to a comedy of errors, in which everything starts off in the wrong place.” Seems to me the transport system of the future will in most cases need to be more local, much leaner, and slower.

    1. The life span of various forms of infrastructure are based on the natural decay of construction materials as well as the institutional decay of human organizations. It tends to coincide with the length of a human lifespan. If people were like turtles we might build infrastructure that lasted for three hundred years. The so-called discount rate keeps us from “over investing” in things that will last longer than we do.

      David Fleming (and his posthumous co-author Shaun Chamberlin) describe a situation where lobbying for systemic change is depressing since “writing your senator” or “attending your city council meetings” is depressingly ineffective at created change. At the same time, radically reorganizing your personal household affairs while the rest of society charges off in the opposite direction also yields depressingly little in the way of results. But smallish communities can achieve a degree of transformation.

      From my observations these mostly take the form of religious organizations – the Amish and Orthodox Jews come to mind.

      Back at university decades ago a friend and I used to speculate that the underlying global economy would mix the population and physical production to the point where no one lived anywhere near where they were born and nothing was actually manufactured in any one location on the planet. At that exact moment the attenuated vulnerable systems were likely to fail and everyone would find themselves in a peculiar place and very little understanding or ability to pick up the pieces and start over again.

      1. But the survival of the Amish in some circumstances might depend precisely on their complete lack of modernization/adaptation!

        But because their settlements are place-based they will also be somewhat vulnerable (to climate change effects). Droughts, floods, heat waves, and polar vortices hit agrarian communities too.

        1. Religious communities have the benefit of multiple settlements spread out across the landscape so stress in an Amish group in Pennsylvania can be managed by moving to another congregation in Ohio or Indiana. There are Mormon strongholds from Mexico to Canada. Orthodox Jews have picked up and relocated en masse from city to city, state to state. Organizational cohesion and geographic diversification have advantages.

        2. The Mennonites in the Chaco of Paraguay are thriving, and Paraguay has a hot unpleasant climate (I’ve been there). It’s surprising where people can thrive.

    1. Archimedes’ principle is a powerful thing. Tenochtitlan–Tlatelolco was built on a lake and with canals because water was the only form of transportation with the Aztec level of technology that could supply a city of that size (larger than London was in the same era), particularly as they had no draft animals.

  10. Fascinating history lesson. As a Californian, I find inland waterways exotic and mesmerizing. Montreal in summer overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence… sigh. Also, in practical terms, as you point out, shipping is the most efficient. Followed by trains. China understands this and is building a new Silk Road, both overland and maritime to serve the Eurasian corridor, where most of the planet’s population lives.

    As for North America, we have the best freight train system and some impressive waterways, but mostly it’s trucks. And we’re spread far and wide. I think I see where you’re going here…

    The “strongest” roads (in terms of funding and utility to the maximum number of people) will survive, just like the strongest canals and train routes did. But that regional distribution center dependent on a web of state and local roads to deliver JIT crap from China… maybe not.

    1. East of the Rockies, those RDCs are typically strategically located at or near important N-S/E-W interstate highway junctions, often served by rail or nearby rail-to-truck break-bulk terminals. They’ll survive; the most-valuable interstates will get tolled and the cost will be inside the prices of goods.

      It’s the “prime” (last-few-miles) delivery that will suffer with gravel roads and delays.

      1. Small goods can be efficiently delivered via Unmanned aerial vehicles.
        Things with a poor value-to-weight ratio that can’t be pumped will suffer the largest increases in delivery cost, or necessitate pickup.
        We see this already with garbage. Exurban residents have to move it themselves, or pay dearly to have someone else move it.

  11. Fascinating stuff, looking forward to the “what’s next” posts. Modes and systems that once worked –completely without fossil fuels– could work again but there’s no guarantee that they will be revisited, at least not before a lot of other things are tried.

    I have a feeling that there will be a lot of pain and suffering first, four horsemen type stuff, before thing settle down and people look to the past for inspiration. “Well, that didn’t work, guess we’ll have to dig out this canal thingy…again. Hey, anybody seen those Irishmen lately?”

  12. In some ways this has already begun. I can take you to roads here in ND that once were paved but are now going back to being a graveled surface due to higher maintenance costs of paved roads and the smaller population living in these rural areas.

  13. As new economic conditions force a transition from roads and cars to whatever comes next, I think there will be a lot of pain involved because roads facilitated such a diffused development. In some places perhaps new centers can be formed but a lot of the exurbs will probably become almost worthless. Without cheap fossil fuels I cannot imagine any practical way of living too far from work and the supply chains. A few people could live off the grid but most have neither the ability or inclination to do that.
    When the country was built along rivers or canals or rail lines we didn’t have this type of development. So I think we are in for some brutal adjustments this time.
    Connecticut has a lot of old mill towns with intact downtowns, places like New London, Norwich, Willimantic, Torrington, etc., just waiting to be reinvigorated when the road era becomes too expensive. But for now, the trend is still McMansions.

    1. What if the primary constraint on road travel isn’t the cost or availability of fossil fuels? What if the cumulative cost of maintaining the roads is the bottleneck? That’s a much more interesting question.

      1. I booked a plane tickets today.

        From Orlando to Austin, so my parents can come and see the home I’m buying (on absurdly cheap credit).

        I used a few of my cheap flight tricks; but it was still a regular ticket on a real airline, no miles or funny business.

        $17 per person, per direction.

        That’s 1.7 cents per mile.

        Could we possibly keep the interstate running on that?

        Just like the mill towns and the rail towns, I sometimes wonder about the fly-over states.

      2. Yes, and if that’s the case the political fallout will be ugly. The rural and exurban people who drive a lot will feel abandoned by the urban elite, as the roads deteriorate. I would expect that primary roads will be maintained far longer than secondary roads.

  14. Johnny,

    It’s a compelling review. So what’s next in your opinion? What’s the next big infrastructure shift? We won’t be able to afford the interstates and car culture much longer. What are the replacement candidates? I have a very hard time believing it will be AV’s. I can make a strong case for bicycles, but that doesn’t knit together a continent. Is it local, local, local and cheap + digital infrastructure?

    Infrastructure really has always been about facilitating commerce and trade, with obvious winners and losers. Curious how you think it all could play out. Even with a rough economic transition, we will still have an interconnected, global economy in some fashion.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

    >

  15. It’s a good column, and certainly as one technology is superseded by another the old stuff may be left to rot. A couple of minor points. Freight rail traffic is currently going strong in the US, (though passenger rail is another story). There is also a lot of river barge traffic in the midwest and some areas of the east where the rivers (to a westerner) can look like inland seas. In fact, barges bumping into bridges is something of an infrastructure concern in some parts of the country. Certainly, though, some routes have been abandoned and railroads were overbuilt in the 19th century with plenty of lines proving uneconomic. New England mill towns largely declined as clothing makers moved south and then abroad rather than because railroads supplanted canals. Textile mills do need plenty of water as they were huge users of dyes.

    1. Notice I said routes that survive must be profitable – or at least maintain enough political will to be subsidized. Water and rail freight are infinitely more cost effective than road or air transport, particularly for heavy items like grain, coal, timber, ore, etc. So rail links between major sea ports and inland destinations are doing very well. But try and get a barge or a freight train to deliver to your local Target, Applebee’s, or Jiffy Lube. Suburban land use patterns require mode shift.

      Your comment that New England mills declined because industry migrated to the South is complimentary to my view that new transportation modes enabled that migration.

      1. Southern mills were all about cheaper (and non-union) labor once the South had matched the North in building rail infrastructure.

        Your post doesn’t mention it, but it is clear that transportation infrastructure in the US has also opened industrialization opportunities in lower-cost US labor markets in addition to real estate development opportunities. “Sunbelt” (southern and southwestern states) development occurred in the US from WW1 up to the 90s, and if you look at where the “foreign” automakers are putting plants in the past 10 years, it continues. Cars are, of course, both politically sensitive and really big and heavy…it’s usually more efficient to build them on the continent where they’re sold and to ship by rail then truck. (The exception is extremely high-value, low-production models.)

      2. One thing that is not being discussed is the aspect of migration. I think it unlikely that our modes of transportation will change quickly and far more likely that we’ll see migration out of the “outer areas” to the larger cities. While many people will not wish to do so, they may have to in order to support families. Those that stay will need to make the big changes in life; the others that move will do so to maintain their lifestyle(s) to the best of their ability. If companies such as Amazon, etc. stop delivery to some locations outside of the big cities, those areas may die all the quicker.

        We’re noting that commerce will drive changes but it’s interesting to speculate how corporations may attempt to control the changes (to their advantage).

  16. With the change to electric power, the road system may survive a good bit longer. But they’ll be paid for differently and it will be unpleasant. When you’re pumping “de novo” energy from the ground it’s like printing money.

    In France the canal system is still in operation – one traveling in a pleasure barge will encounter large commercial barges heavily laden with rock, sand, grain, etc, bulk items that really take advantage of waters buoyancy carrying the load. The commercial barges typically carry the captain’s car and may be operated by a married (or I suppose unmarried) couple.

    Perhaps in the downslope of energy availability the US will rebuilt certain high value canals. But not likely.

    1. I don’t think I believe we’ll have a “downslope of energy availability”. Natural gas discovery outpaces increase in use.

      We’re going to leave coal in the ground that we’d have excavated under the market dynamics of just a decades ago.

      Solar power is plummeting in cost to comparability with natural gas in many populated areas.

      Solutions that seemed totally necessary 20 years ago- hydrogen energy storage, shale oil, biofuels- are now economically unnecessary, as battery technology improves.

      1. There was just an article (can’t remember if it was Slate or Citylab) to the effect that the electric grid can’t handle a rapid shift to EVs. So distributed solar will need to accompany it. I believe Elon Musk understood this early on…hence the solar and battery investments.

        1. The push for either “Drill baby drill” or a conversion to green electric vehicles are both supply side techno fixes. What’s wrong with living in a walkable neighborhood where you don’t need to drive half an hour to get to anything?

          The suburban culture pushes back against this concept because the assumption is that cramped high rise communist apartment towers and filthy buses are the alternative. What’s wrong with plain old Norman Rockwell Main Street towns of the kind we built back in 1890?

          What we’re going to get is a weird hybrid of suburban sprawl that’s patched by new technologies of every kind, lumpy half assed infill development along commercial corridors, and a landscape shaped primarily by maintenance costs for public infrastructure, insurance premiums, etc. None of that is sexy. But we’ll manage.

          1. Johnny, have you read about (or visited) Carmel, Indiana?

            A high end version of what you suggest is coming.

            But to me, the most interesting adaptations will be in places like your old favorite Colerain. Every city/metro has them.

          2. And “what’s wrong” with looking back is the American Progress narrative only allows looking forward.

            That embedded DNA in our culture almost reflexively rejects old solutions in favor of techno fixes…the new and the modern. (Like you, saying what I see whether I like it or not.)

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