"Megalopolis" is a mouthful of a word. But the idea behind it — strings of major metro areas working together to plan their transportation futures and economic strategies — might just be a secret to America's 21st-century survival and success.
More than 200 million people, two-thirds the U.S. population, already live in 10 megapolitan regions — six east of the Mississippi, four west. And the "megas" are gaining population more rapidly than the United States as a whole — likely to add 85 million more people and a gargantuan $33 trillion in construction spending by 2040, reports Robert Lang of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute.
Most massive of these massive population agglomerations — now 50 million people strong — is the Northeast Corridor from New England to Northern Virginia, the focus of geographer Jean Gottman's seminal 1961 book "Megalopolis." But the Midwest mega (Pittsburgh-Detroit-Chicago) has 40 million people, the Southland (Los Angeles to Las Vegas) 22 million, and the Piedmont (Charlotte-Atlanta) 19 million.
The six "smallest" megas are massive enough on their own: the I-35 corridor (San Antonio-Dallas-Kansas City), 15 million people; the Florida Peninsula (Tampa-Orlando-Miami), 14 million; the Gulf Coast (New Orleans-Houston) and NorCal (San Francisco and Central Valley), 12 million each; Cascadia (Seattle-Portland), 7 million; and the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix), 5 million.
All will have passed the 10-million mark by 2040. But how will the projected growth be accommodated in metro regions already choking on highway congestion and approaching build-out under today's low-density patterns?
Robert Yaro, president of the New York Regional Plan Association, and Armando Carbonell, of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, have been posing that question, suggesting U.S. regions look to Europe. There it's assumed that large-scale urbanized areas — the so-called "global integration zone" running from London to Hamburg to Munich to Milan to Paris and back to London, for example — are the primary units to integrate into the world economy.
So the Europeans have focused on planning that spans national borders, constructing a network of high-speed rail lines, even under the English Channel with the ambitious tunnel there. The new American "megalopitians" are thinking along the same track; a recent University of Pennsylvania School of Design report asserts the Northeast Corridor could reap immense long-term economic gain from improved rail service, even brand new high-speed service, notwithstanding the billions of dollars of up-front investment needed.
At Georgia Tech, researcher Catherine Ross is completing a parallel study on transportation, environmental and economic potentials of the Piedmont megalopolis; in the West, Ethan Seltzer of Portland State University is working on a Cascadia analysis. All are looking at parallel opportunities to "bring along" lagging regions within or close to the megalopolises, just as the European Union's investments have dramatically revived the economies of Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
The goal, assert Yaro and Carbonell, should be nothing less than a true intermodal network — rail, highway, water and air links that relieve congested airports, divert some of the alarming rise of truck-borne freight, and with increased flexibility make us less vulnerable to terrorist attacks and disasters.
The megapolitan crowd talks of federal incentives and dollars. But given Washington's empty cupboard, the suggestion is for far more dependence on public-private partnerships, private investors, congestion pricing, user fees and other ways to start the movement bottom-up, generating critical levels of investment in the great and wealthy megapolitan regions themselves.
With America's "political class" embroiled in hot but tangential red-state/blue-state issues, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program says the first priority must be on building "rich and robust networks across regions" sparked by leaders from all sectors — large employers and key entrepreneurs, university and hospital presidents, foundation heads, faith-based and union leaders, newspaper publishers and others.
It sounds tough, but a breath of fresh air: the idea of assembling the leadership needed to deal with the challenges — and geography — of the new century.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
© 2005 Seattle Times