Written by: Sara Dennis
This article is the first in a series we’ll be posting about how a city's infrastructure impacts its residents.
Infrastructure has certainly been a buzzword recently, but what does it actually mean? How does it affect our everyday lives? Why is it always in the news?
The term infrastructure describes the various physical and organizational systems and facilities we need to operate as a society, such as the energy grid, our system of interconnecting roads, public transportation and much more. Good infrastructure is critical for a city, organization, country, etc. to function properly and be competitive in the global marketplace. Starting in 1988 our infrastructure in the United States has been graded, first through the National Council on Public Works Improvement report, Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works, then by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Since 1998, the ASCE has issued six Infrastructure Report Cards, using thorough evaluation techniques that rate 16 different categories of infrastructure (railways, parks, wastewater, and more) and average them for a combined grade. To determine each grade, the following things are assessed: its capacity, condition, funding, operation & maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. In 2017, we tied with our previous 2013 score of a D+, with an estimated 4.6 trillion dollars needed over the next ten years to address our current infrastructure shortcomings.
To address these problems, we need to look at the issue holistically, because it would be imprudent to invest only in certain sections of infrastructure but not all. For example, if we invest heavily in our water infrastructure but not in the energy grid, eventually the water infrastructure will fail to perform as expected. Though the different types of infrastructure are all connected and interdependent, we will only focus on the main areas related to transportation (Roads, Transit Systems, Aviation and Bridges) in this article.
Roads are probably what come to your mind first when you think of getting from point A to point B. Even if you don’t drive, you probably use a road to get to school, work or wherever. Despite the ubiquitous nature of roads in our country, they are in poor condition and earned a D in the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report. The report states that our roads are “often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and are becoming more dangerous”. Additionally, the report found that on our highways, one out of every five miles is in bad shape.
These poor road conditions have a number of consequences. In 2014 Americans spent 6.9 billion hours stuck in traffic, equating to an average of 42 hours per driver. This waste of time and fuel, approximately 3.1 billion gallons of it, adds up to combined loss of $160 billion. Furthermore, in 2015, there were 35,092 fatalities involving motor vehicle crashes. To make roads safer, we need to focus on making roads safer for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. To make a road safer, often it is redesigned to reduce the number of lanes, which creates more space to add safety features such as a bike lane, designated transit stops, or pedestrian refuge islands.
Transit systems, also called public transportation, refer to an area’s network of buses, light rail systems (a fast tram or trolley) and heavy rail systems (subways / metros). In the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report our transit systems earned an overall D-, which are incredibly varied by region and city in the US. Only 51% of Americans can get to a grocery store using public transit even though 81% of them live in urban areas. Many of the systems are stressed even though transit ridership is at its highest level in four decades and the overall range of transit is increasing. Numerous transit systems are also quite old, parts of the Chicago “L” rapid transit system that were built in 1892 are still in operation. Overall, the combination of aging infrastructure with habitual underfunding has resulted in a $90 billion rehabilitation backlog.
In the ASCE Infrastructure Report aviation scored a D. The problem with our airports is currently capacity, not their current condition. Airports in the US currently serve 2 million passengers a day, and congestion is continuing to get worse. Furthermore, 24 of the top 30 major airports are expected to experience a volume of traffic similar to the Thanksgiving peak at least once a day every week. Expansions and renovations are key to keeping up with these changes, however, there is a federally mandated limit on how much airports can charge passengers for these facility upgrades. Because of this, airports have trouble keeping up with investment needs, which has created a $42 billion funding gap between 2016 and 2025.
Many of the bridges in the US are nearing the end of their design life. Currently, there are 614,387 bridges in the US, of which almost four in ten were built 50 years ago or more. Despite the old ages of our bridges their infrastructure earned a C+ in the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report; still there are many improvements to be made. The report also found that 1 in 11 (9.1%) of bridges were structurally deficient – meaning that they are currently safe to use but at risk of becoming unsafe. On average there are 188 million trips over these structurally deficient bridges per day. The number of structurally deficient bridges has been steadily going down over the past decade due to an increased awareness of their importance, however, there is still an estimated $123 billion backlog of bridge rehabilitation currently needed.
All around, to enhance our current transportation infrastructure we need to invest in it and start planning for the future. It is important for elected officials to show leadership in this area, and to keep sustainability and resiliency in mind as we work to make improvements. With our roads and bridges we need to focus on rehabilitation the current structures, while our transit systems and airports will need expansion in addition to rehabilitation.
Check out the rest of our series about how a city's infrastructure impacts its residents: Walkable Infrastructure in Cities, Growth and Infrastructure in a Growing City, Building Accessible Infrastructure for Everyone, and Air Quality, Infrastructure and Public Health.