The Timeless Way of Building Roads

Noted architect and designer, Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building (1979) wrote:

There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

In contrast, the great transport networks of the past eschewed the local beautiful places. They were made by people detached from the places these links served. They had to be, as the networks connected many places, and aimed to do so efficiently.  Though these networks paths are ancient, modern roads are built upon the travels of earlier indigenous populations or even animal trails, following what may seem today to be obvious convenient corridors. These corridors traded off the initial cost of construction for a reduction in long term travel times. Time savings measured often not in minutes per day, but millions and billions of minutes over centuries.  Many of these routes connected timeless places with each other and went through wilderness or later farm land.

With the advent of the railroad, the highway, and later the superhighway, networks, particularly, but not only, urban networks subsequently not only connected, they disconnected. They disconnected timeless places with themselves, severing places and obliterating one community for the gain of other communities. This was the modernist program, it was a reaction to timeless earlier pre-industrial paths which did little to disrupt local communities (though there was the inevitable complaints about early turnpikes and canals as well). But once scale became relevant, removing local access in the name of removing local friction ensured there would be tension between the needs of the neighborhood, village, or town and the needs of the region. The road would not only benefit the region as a whole, it would specifically disbenefit the local, who would bear the costs of severance and negative externalities, but share none of the access. This was certainly overdone, but that doesn’t mean none of it was worthwhile. There is value in faster connectivity, we measure this in travel time savings or land costs. Modern society would be impossible with the fast well-connected networks that enable the safe and efficient movement of people and goods. It is harder to determine how much value was lost by forced relocation and breaking the fine-grained social and economic networks in the neighborhoods like St. Paul’s Rondo.

Many newer projects try to reduce these impacts, for instance by boring under rather than bulldozing through communities,  (tunnels like Boston’s Big Dig, Seattle’s Alaskan Way, and parts of Sydney’s WestConnex are examples), but because of the new additional costs, these newer projects also are no longer efficient, their initial costs will never be recovered by future benefit, so we must question why they are constructed in the first place.

Transport corridors rarely bring joy. It is seldom that the journey is the reward. We certainly can do better in this regard, but we also must accept transport is a derived demand, and depends on the desire to go from one place to another. Destroying places to connect places is a strange way of achieving this end, but in the real-politic of planning, some places and people are more valued than others. It recalls everyone’s favorite planning villain, Robert Moses, who said something to the effect that “If the Ends Don’t Justify the Means, What the Hell Does?”

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