The Navy has its heart set on building 55 littoral combat ships. So far, each is costing around $700 million. That's about half the annual federal subsidy for all of Amtrak. For one ship. And although it looks "like Darth Vader on the sea," as the New York Times put it, one doesn't have to be an amateur naval historian, although I am, to see this craft could be sunk by the ghost of Billy Mitchell flying a 1920s bomber. This is another deeply troubled defense program, plagued by cost over-runs and likely not just to disappoint but actually put our security at risk. Imagine how we could be using this money, or the trillions we're spending for wars in Afghanistan or Iraq — and there, as Everett Dirksen would say, we're talking real money. Such an exercise lets us better understand the opportunity costs of the course we're pursuing into decline.
One important effort should be retrofitting suburbia for a high-cost energy future, which is inevitable no matter how much we frack or use the dirty oil from our good friends to the north. Of course, most of American suburbia was built for the car. Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built since World War II. Place-making and civic design were lost. Massive, cheap, look-alike construction, laid down on an industrial scale, has continued and metastasized, bigger and uglier, decade by decade. All this was heavily and stealthily subsidized by taxpayers and federal policy, encouraged by a brief moment in history when gasoline was cheap and America was less populous. Jim Kunstler rightly calls it "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." Now it's a built environment whose time has come and gone. Exurbia is done. Much of the rest of suburbia will face ever-greater stresses.
Could some of it be saved and improved? Yes.
A big element would consist of providing alternatives to driving long distances in single-occupancy car trips. This means adding transit of all modes. Each has its strengths; only one kind won't work. So populous farther-out suburbs should have commuter rail and bus rapid transit. (BRT is often held out as a bait-and-switch to kill rail; but BRT alone is rarely enough because it almost never has completely dedicated right-of-way, so is at little less risk of facing congestion than any vehicle). Closer in 'burbs are well served by light rail. A good bus system is the backbone. All must offer frequent, convenient service and be clean and safe. They must connect. I'm talking about much more extensive and intensive service than is found in most of America. Along with this, set up Zipcar locations so people can rent a vehicle quickly when needed. Also, add smaller circulator buses that run through subdivisions and reconnect with the transit nodes at the town center.
Another piece of my wild utopian scheme would be creating real town centers that centralize retail, restaurants, etc. at transit hubs. Some older suburbs already have them. Others have the bones in the likely decrepit or "old town-ized" main streets of the little towns they once were. Still others might appear hopeless, but consider all the empty big boxes and shopping strips surrounded by their vast parking lagoons. Imagine bulldozing this, laying in a street grid and building a human-scale town center? In the neighborhoods themselves, blow out the cul-de-sacs and have walkable streets that connect to something. Start taking down tract houses and replacing them with individualized, period revival houses. Real neighborhoods. A real "small town."
This is hardly social engineering. Look at surveys, including the one DMB did before embarking on Verrado, and this is the kind of place most Americans would like to live (good schools often lure them to soulless sprawlville). Nor is the transportation element about "forcing us our of our cars" (reality will do that soon enough). It's about offering choices. Who doesn't like choices? Indeed, getting a hundred million vehicles off the streets would actually make driving fun again.
Some sprawl is irredeemable, doomed for slow (or fast) abandonment. Other suburban locales will remain viable thanks to their urban quality, stability and closeness to cities, which are rebounding. But even they will be forced to do some reinvention as the elements that made suburbia possible become more costly. Otherwise, contraction is inevitable for many reasons, among them that millions of younger people and older boomers simply don't want the old suburban "lifestyle."
Think what a "first-mover" advantage would come to the suburbs that adopted this strategy now (it's already enjoyed by the American suburbs, largely in the Northeast, that already have the elements described above). Imagine the jobs and new industries that could be created and supported, the innovation and technology unleashed, the economic distortions changed into healthy, constructive incentives. Gosh, it would even help the planet, influencing the billions who want a 1970 "American lifestyle" and helping ameliorate our own huge environmental bootprint. Making even a stab at this would have provided a major economic stimulus, and there was never a better time to borrow with rates so low. The unleashed productivity and innovation, as well as backing off toxic subsidies for sprawl and reversing the slumming of suburbia, would have more than repaid the Treasury. But there would have been plenty of room for private initiatives.
I know. I know. This is totally impractical. Never happen.
Maybe so, but the littoral combat ships are totally impractical. They and hundreds of other expensive follies are happening and keep happening. They have powerful, entrenched supporters, while doing what I propose actually has potent enemies. So thanks for dreaming with me for a moment.