Infrastructure is both one of our most important political issues, and also one of the easiest political concerns to ignore. Infrastructure, and especially transportation infrastructure, matters because it is the literal foundation upon which social, economic, and political exchanges occur. Put another way, infrastructure is the system that eases these various social interactions. Without a system to connect people and places together, the transfer of goods, ideas, and capital would be exceedingly more difficult, if not downright impossible. But, despite this importance, transportation infrastructure just is not that exciting to many people: it rarely generates the kind of passionate debates that we see around other political issues. We just assume that infrastructure should be there, and that it should work. However, when we fail to look seriously at infrastructure, we are actually failing to take seriously core questions about economic development, equality, and our relationship to technology that have far reaching implications.
Any discussion of infrastructure needs to keep two issues in mind. First, different types of infrastructure produce different kinds of effects. A country that is linked together by a system of railways is going to develop much differently than one that has designed itself around a series of rivers and canals. The cost of transportation, how barriers of terrain and weather are solved, which cities develop into hubs, and even the speed of travel will all differ as a result of choices made around infrastructure development (Schivelbusch, 1987). This links to the second important feature of transportation infrastructure worth remembering: infrastructure development is a political phenomenon. Infrastructure networks are not naturally occurring phenomena. Even when infrastructure systems take advantage of natural features, such as rivers or harbors, human choices are still necessary to develop and maintain those systems. Hence, decisions about the type of infrastructure to develop and where those transportation networks connect reflect the distribution of political power within a system (Lefebvre, 1991). Taken together, these aspects of infrastructure serve as reminders that not only are decisions about infrastructure political, but that these choices will have far-reaching consequences for how subsequent economic and political events unfold.
This power of infrastructure to shape how economic and political development progress was especially true in the United States. Obviously, the United States was not a blank slate when settlers and colonists first arrived, and then later pushed westward: the continent was home to many indigenous people, who had their own infrastructure system. But, the early American republic was certainly a frontier nation, with no modern, Western transit systems such as existing road or canal networks. Hence, political decisions about how and where to build infrastructure in the United States has, time and again, exerted profound impacts on the nation’s development.
A revealing example of how transit decisions shaped economic development is evident in how railroads came to antebellum Iowa. In the mid-nineteenth century, Iowa, like many frontier states, was hungry for a better transportation system. The state was rich in resources, but essentially landlocked. Thus, railroads presented a real opportunity for the state to develop its agricultural potential. However, Iowa’s political leaders were wary of accruing debt. As a result, Iowa’s state constitution limited the state’s ability to take on debt. In practice, this meant the state could do little to support nascent rail projects, leading the state to lag in rail development. But, at the same time, the federal government was beginning to offer land grants to states in order to support railroad development Sensing an opportunity, Iowa’s political leaders appealed to Congress for a land grant. Eventually, in 1853, Congress provided Iowa land grants to support rail development in the state. However, while Iowa had requested grants that would support a dense network of rails that traversed the entirety of the state, Congress only granted support for railroads that cut across the state in an east-to-west route. In effect, rather than giving Iowa railroads that would promote local development, Congress funded a railroad that would connect Iowa to the Atlantic coast (Hofsommer, 2005; Larson, 1984). In doing so, Congress favored building a core-periphery relationship between Iowa and eastern states, limiting Iowa’s economic growth to primarily agricultural goods. Thus, we can see how early choices about infrastructure established an economic relationship that, through continual reinforcement, lasted for decades.
But the golden age of American railroads was not the only time where these kinds of long-term economic relationships were established through infrastructure planning. Following the Second World War, the United States embarked on a massive infrastructure project: the interstate highway system. But the interstate system, like all infrastructure, was a political project. The interstate highway system reflected a decision to connect both distant cities, as well as individual central cities and their suburbs, together via automobile. The decision to connect cities through cars and multi-lane, high speed roads, rather than through mass transit systems, had a profound impact on American cities. Interstates served to cut off some parts of the city from others, acting as literal walls to corral minority populations. At the same time, as more American relied on cars, urban mass transit systems atrophied, making it more difficult for struggling residents without cars to access jobs, shopping, or other urban amenities. Consequently, interstates directly contributed to the growth of suburbs, racial inequality, and the economic abandonment of America’s inner cities (Caro, 1975; Gutfreund, 2004; Henderson, 2013; Jackson, 1985; Kay, Lewis, 1997). Hence, infrastructure’s impact on economic development is not just an artifact of a distant age. Instead, new infrastructure problems, arising from changes in technology and economic context, continue to raise this problem anew.
What these brief anecdotes remind us is that infrastructure, while often overlooked, is a vital part of how social, economic, and political systems develop over time. Infrastructure is, not surprisingly, a path dependent system where early choices are constantly recreated and reinforced. In the case of transit infrastructure, the system in question is actually a material piece of technology, held together by concrete and steel. While any social system is difficult to change, the fact that transit technology is especially difficult to remove and reroute cannot be overlooked. Obviously, no transit system is permanent or beyond revision. But the high costs in both altering very physical roads or rails alongside the political difficulty of altering social arrangements makes undoing early choices about infrastructure difficult.
With this in mind, it is worth thinking about current infrastructure challenges we face. One glaring example of the hard choices we face moving forward is how we will make use of ride-share and self-driving vehicles in our cities. These technologies offer an exciting chance to limit our reliance on the cars and roads that have choked our cities with traffic. But, how do these same technologies limit the transit options of poorer Americans? A reliance on ride-share, instead of a quality mass transit system, could lead to great flexibility for middle class commuters while continuing to strand poorer Americans in neighborhoods with few opportunities. Therefore, the choices we make about these systems will have long and profound impacts on our system, some obvious and others less initially evident. Given transportation infrastructure’s large impact on system, it is important that we engage in these conversations with both care and a special consideration of our transit plans impact the most vulnerable in our society.
Zachary Callen is an assistant professor of political science at Allegheny College. His first book, Railroads and American Political Development (University of Kansas Press, 2016) addresses issues of federalism and transportation infrastructure in American state building. He is currently working on a project examining governance in rural cities.
Caro, R. A. (1975). The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. New York: Vintage.
Gutfreund, O. D. (2004). Twentieth-century sprawl: highways and the reshaping of the American landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Henderson, J. (2013). Street fight: the politics of mobility in San Francisco. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Hofsommer, D. L. (2005). The Hook and Eye: a history of the Iowa Central Railway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jackson, K. T. (1985). Crabgrass frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kay, J. H. (1997). Asphalt nation: how the automobile took over America and how we can take it back. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Larson, J. L. (1984). Bonds of enterprise: John Murray Forbes and western development in America’s railway age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lefebvre, H (1991). The production of space, trans. by D. Nicholson-Smith. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Lewis, T (1997). Divided Highways: building the interstate highways, transforming American life. New York: Viking.
Schivelbusch, W (1987). The railway journey: the industrialization of time and space in the 19th century. Berkeley: The University of California Press.