This is the third in a series of articles about how poorly the public interest is represented by many Canadian municipal governments. In a previous entry, I showed how developers are able to bend our representatives to their will and in this entry I will provide an example of how public servants do it.
In both entries I use a careful examination of a particular case as my medium. These cases are not unusual events. On the contrary, I chose to examine them in detail, and nail down exactly what happened, because they seemed to be typical of situations I have observed repeatedly in case studies of urban development issues in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Portland, Oregon and other cities.
The suggestion that developers could be motivated to promote their own interests over those of the public will come as no surprise. Their job is to make money and their responsibility is to their shareholders, not the public. But some readers may find the suggestion that public servants could also promote a narrow interest at the expense of that of the public harder to swallow. Therefore, let’s look at what their motivations might be.
It’s important to begin by remembering that no one is objective. We all carry our biases with us. Many of these are based on our professional or occupational training. The expression, “to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, sums it up nicely. Similarly, to many road builders, speed and ease of automobile access is the primary urban development concern.
Most engineering designers and managers now at the peak of the profession were educated in engineering faculties where the dominant tendency was to think of road-building as a technical matter, in which road design involved the projection of traffic demands and the efficient accommodation of that traffic at a manageable cost. In that climate of thought, the suggestion that there is a social and an environmental dimension to road-bulding was not taken seriously and, when such suggestions came from politicians or members of the public, they were resented as “political interference” and as an assault on the engineers’ professional integrity. This belief-system is still very much in evidence, especially among the decision-makers in municipal public works departments.
The ideas about road systems that are being applied in North American cities typically have two sources that are important for our purposes: developer proposals and the traditional norms and conventions of civil engineering. The contribution of developers is that they decide on the parcels of land that they see as profitable spots for development and propose them to the city. In Winnipeg and many other cities they have good reason to expect a sympathetic hearing from local government.
It then becomes the obligation of the city to work out the development of the rest of the city’s transportation system to accommodate recent and expected future development. For example, a burgeoning of new subdivisions at Winnipeg’s southern edge in South St Vital and South St Boniface contributed to a city decision to build an expressway serving that part of the city – Bishop Grandin Boulevard – and occasioned the opening-up of an under-used and heavily subsidized bus line into Island Lakes, one of the new subdivisions. It also eventually stimulated the replacement of the Norwood and Main Street bridges with a massive new eight-lane structure. These bridges, located downtown, are part of the road system leading to the newer southern subdivisions.
While money was readily available for these extensions of the transportation infrastructure, as as well as a long list of other, similar extensions in all directions from the centre of the city, funds for the maintenance of existing infrastructure dwindled. A meticulous 1998 survey of the state of Winnipeg’s infrastructure found a massive disparity between the amount needed to maintain existing infrastructure and the amount actually being spent. Regional streets, for example were found to be $10.2 m a year short of the required amount. Even more drastic was the situation of residential streets, which were found to have benefited from an average annual budgeted expenditure of $2.5 m, compared with a requirement of $30 m, a disparity of $27.5 m. The overall infrastructure deficit was estimated at $1 billion or more.
In all of these respects, Winnipeg was following the conventions of modern North American city-building: developers decide where they want to locate new development and pay for some of the services immediately required by the new subdivisions. The city ensures that they become connected into the city-wide service network, and that the city-wide network is expanded as necessary to accommodate them. It is in deciding on the character of this expansion that long-established norms of the engineering profession take over.
Many examples could be found, but a recent case in point was that of the Norwood Bridge, an inner city-suburban link referred to above. When the plans for the Norwood Bridge reconstruction were being mooted, city officials presented four alternatives, including the following two: It would cost $78 m for a six-lane, divided bridge that was pictured as providing a “fair” level of safety, and “poor” traffic capacity, accommodation for transit and accommodation of traffic during construction. By contrast, an eight-lane, divided bridge that was rated “good” in all four categories would cost only $80 m. That was an easy decision: only $2 m extra for a vastly superior bridge.
Such “easy decisions” are standard items in the arsenal of public servants who have made up their minds about which course they wish their political masters and the public to pursue. Council chose an eight-lane bridge, and it soon became obvious – as it often does in such cases – that the “easy choice” was not so easy after all. By 1998, the cost of the new bridge had escalated to $102 m. And with only one of the two spans built – still less than the six-lane alternative that was portrayed as inadequate – traffic line-ups at rush hour had greatly eased. The final cost of eight-lane span was $113 million, $33 million more than originally promised.
Over-building of bridges and roads exacerbates the dilemmas Winnipeg will face in future. Increased road and bridge capacity has two consequences: First, an improved route draws traffic as it becomes the route of choice for drivers who previously favoured other routes. Sooner or later, this increases pressure on city council for further road works. For example, traffic line-ups on a bridge may be replaced by tie-ups on narrower roads leading to and from the bridge. Such consequences are not unanticipated by engineering staff, and resulting public demands for widening of the road leading away from the bridge may be seen by them as long-overdue recognition of necessities they understood to begin with.
A second consequence of increased bridge and road capacity is reduced travel time to the urban fringe, which leads to an increase in the economic viability of sprawl and leap-frog development. The upshot is intensified political pressure from developers for the approval of subdivisions that will be costly to serve. And once the new, typically low-density, auto-dependent subdivisions are built, they provide a fresh supply of citizens who have no convenient means of getting around other than the private automobile. It is a vicious cycle, in which each new attempt to solve the problem of allegedly inadequate road capacity has the ultimate effect of exacerbating it.
The high priority accorded road projects tends to crowd out alternatives. In Winnipeg, city council has readily agreed to one road project after another, heedless of the fact that each one exacerbates the sprawl dilemma. Meanwhile, transit facilities that could contribute to the amelioration of sprawl are postponed indefinitely. Since the mid-1970s, plans have been underway for the construction of the Southwest Transit Corridor, a rapid transit line consisting of cost-effective diesel buses running on a concrete strip dedicated exclusively to transit.
This line is considered viable because it connects two population concentrations – downtown and the University of Manitoba – along the relatively heavily-populated Pembina Highway corridor. It would ameliorate traffic congestion along Pembina Highway – the artery connecting the University of Manitoba with the inner city – and encourage cost-effective, compact development along the route, in contrast to road and bridge projects’ encouragement of sprawl. Estimated total cost for the entire facility would have been $70 million in 1997 – less than the lower-cost alternative for the Norwood Bridge, which was deemed inadequate. However, postponement of rapid transit has been a routine feature of City Council’s annual budget deliberations for at least two decades, and remains so in 2007.
In short, Winnipeg’s city council, and many others, neglect their duty to the interest of the city as a whole when they accept the norms of traditionally-minded civil engineers as the final word on the extension of transportation infrastructure. As well, instead of, in effect, delegating to developers the right to decide where the city will expand, cities could exercise their authority to determine the location of new subdivisions. In theory, that power is being exercised now by city councils through their planning departments, but in practice the main influence over those decisions rests with developers and road-building specialists.
Winnipeg could have developed very differently. It seems very likely that the Norwood Bridge project could reasonably have been much more modest than it was. With a less auto-dependent, more compact form of development, the suburban road system – of which Bishop Grandin is only one example – could have been less extensive, and the transit system less of a drain on the treasury. In their development of roads, as well as the full range of other municipal services, Winnipeg, like other cities, is expanding rapidly, at ever lower densities, primarily in response to developers’ calculations about where the profit picture looks favourable for them, without serious consideration of how all of these developments will be tied together with infrastructure and serviced.
Winnipeg’s suburbs sprawl, its inner city decays and the costs of servicing all of this uncontrolled development spiral out of control. As with any political discontent, the causes of this state of affairs are complex, but a very important cause is the inability of our local political institutions fully to address the complexities of the problems that face us.
To read the other two posts in this series click here and here.
Want to find out more? This article draws on research presented in Christopher Leo, “The North American Growth Fixation and the Inner City: Roads Of Excess.” World Transport Policy & Practice, 4 (4) 1998, 24-29. The article was reprinted in John Whitelegg and Gary Haq, eds, The Earthscan Reader on World Transport Policy and Practice. London: Earthscan Publications, 2003, ch 20.
A very useful source is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck (New York: North Point Press, 2000), especially chapter 5.
Two books by Anthony Downs are helpful as well. The first (Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992) treats traffic congestion as a problem in its own right. In the second (New visions for Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994) Downs expands his field of view, placing traffic problems in the wider perspective of metropolitan development, and reaching some different conclusions.
Evidence that there are alternatives to the sad state of affairs in Winnipeg, and many other cities, may be found in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Western Bypass study: Alternatives Analysis (Portland, OR, 1995) and in 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Making the Connections: A Summary of the LUTRAQ Project (Portland, Oregon, 1997).