On Megaregions

Jeff Hargarten wrote: Welcome to Laurentide — the Twin Cities as a mega-region: A map created by university researchers reveals the Twin Cities to be the center of its own universe of commuters  in the StarTribune.

So Megaregions are back as a topic.

Just as there is more economic activity and commuting within cities than between cities, and within metropolitan areas than between metropolitan areas, there is more activity within megaregions than between them. So there is some advantage to thinking about megaregions as a territory over which some economic and transport decisions should be made. It should not be the dominant framework (as local travel and economic activity within a metropolitan area is much greater than the trade between such areas).

But for intercity travel, it might make sense to think of nearby metropolitan areas as interacting. And as historically transport was increasingly faster over time, the area of daily interaction steadily expanded. In the city of the 1800s, when people traveled at walking speeds, cities were much smaller than they became first with the streetcar, and then with the automobile. Even now, in the Northeast corridor, there are a reasonable number of people who regularly commute between nearby cities (Philadelphia to New York, Baltimore to Washington), and a smaller number who commute longer distances (Washington to New York), usually on a less-than-daily basis, but often enough.

While transport had gotten faster over time, though recently it seems to have stagnated. Some people view high-speed rail  (very fast trains) as the next logical step. I think the Internet is the next step, which leads to a more global community with worldwide interactions, rather than HSR. It depends very much on the context, but in most of the US, HSR doesn’t pencil out in a market where it competes with other modes at anywhere near their current costs.  Autonomous Vehicles will emerge as well, and inevitably lead to people who own such vehicles being willing to travel longer distances, as it will lower the costs of travel (since people will not need to engage in the driving task and can do other things with their time in motion).

The key planning problem I think is that land use decisions are made very locally (at the township or municipality level), while important transport decisions are made at the regional or state level. Yet land use decisions generate demand for streets and highways outside of the local jurisdiction that permitted them, while transport decisions affect local governments. Clearly local governments are not keen to let metropolitan areas make land use decisions, or even have veto powers, and similarly cannot be responsible for regional transport decisions.

The Metropolitan Council is an unusual Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) as it has some operational responsibilities in transit and water and wastewater, as well as in distribution of grants. Existing planning organizations have enough difficulties executing their existing mandate, it is hard to imagine them growing. They may become members of Megaregional Organizations. It is not clear what role a Megaregion Organization would have beyond advocacy. Would it have any responsibilities for actual infrastructure? MPOs that cross state lines are notoriously difficult.

If we properly priced things like pollution and congestion and access to public facilities, this suburbanization and exurbanization would be less of a problem, but we give away the right to travel on the roads at any time of day regardless of how many people you congest, we give away the right to pollute the air (with some regulation, but hardly enough), and we subsidize public works like water treatment, sewer, local streets, schools, and parks for new development.

It is also not clear if the Twin Cities is truly part of a Megaregion with any other large metropolitan areas (Duluth, St. Cloud, and Rochester don’t count), it is pretty far from Chicago (compared with say Milwaukee or Indianapolis). Maybe it is just a “region”. Clearly the region will continue to expand into the exurbs, particularly as the habit of “going to work” changes from something done daily to something done weekly for many people as the ability to work at home for some tasks continues to grow. Traveling an hour once or twice a week is less onerous than traveling a half-an-hour daily.  On the study that was cited in the Hargarten article, see https://transportist.org/2016/12/09/on-supercommuters/ . I have some issues with the methods and assumptions about the daily commutes of supercommuters as drawn from ACS data.

My quotes from the article:

“There really are these kinds of natural regions. I think this is the way in which the economy is working,” said Tom Fisher, a University of Minnesota professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center. “It’s also part of the conversation about how the global economy rests on cities.”

As a caveat, David Levinson, a professor of transport at the University of Sydney, points out that mega-commuters – defined by the Census as those traveling 90 or more minutes and 50 or more miles to work – and others making similarly long journeys don’t necessarily make those commutes daily, and not always from their home city.

But Levinson said there are advantages to considering mega-regions as targets for central planning around economic and transportation decisions, though it shouldn’t be the primary framework for such discussions.

Some of those challenges involve the development of physical connections between cities, by way of roads, high-speed transit and other means. Experts also cited political polarization and a lack of cohesive regional planning as particularly strong barriers standing in the way of regional development.

Levinson said that although transportation has historically sped up over time, it’s stagnated recently. To him, digital commuting via the internet may emerge as the next logical step to further tighten economic bonds across cities. Self-driving vehicles, too, could take some of the pressure off drivers and allow them to travel longer distances while also engaging in other tasks.

“The 20th century version [of regional competition] has Minneapolis competing against St. Paul. But in the 21st century the competition has to be with other regions. Otherwise we’ll be less successful globally,” Fisher said.