What type of highway does all of the following? Erodes our inner cities by exporting jobs to the far suburbs. Increases urban air pollution in violation of Environmental Protection Agency standards. Gobbles up precious farmland, parks, and green spaces edging our cities. And soaks taxpayers with tremendous costs, both direct and indirect.
The answer is the circular highway around our cities, called the "loop" or "bypass." It's had a terrible track record over the years, and yet many mayors and members of Congress now want to build more.
As a nation, it's time to reject the giant loop highways and adopt alternative transportation systems that promote economic growth and environmental protection.
If you live in a large American city, chances are good you know all about the colossal donut, that six- to 60-mile, uninterrupted highway ringing your metropolis. (In coastal cities, the system tends to be a semicircular bypass.)
People in Atlanta call their donut the "Perimeter." In the Washington, area where I live, it's called the "Beltway" - that famous girdle separating official Washington from the rest of America.
These circular highways have been the bedrock of metropolitan economic growth since World War II. New subdivisions, industrial parks, and strip shopping complexes have clustered around the circles like barnacles, stretching endlessly in all directions. Suburbanites at any one point of the circumference are offered the promise of visiting all other points - north, south, east, or west - by driving 70 miles an hour.
But the sprawling economic growth associated with beltway systems has come at enormous cost. The flight away from compact, well-planned city cores toward vast stretches of outlying cul de sacs, parking lots, and grassy business "campuses" has hastened the demise of family farmland and the destruction of fragile habitat for endangered species.
If current trends hold in my state of Maryland, "sprawl development" will gobble up a chunk of territory nearly the size of Rhode Island by 2020. And by emphasizing car travel over public transit, beltway systems contribute enormously to urban air pollution.
Then there's the architectural wasteland of suburbia itself, where no real town center - or soul - exists amid the endless chaos of Jiffy Lubes and Fuddruckers.
Now, as American suburban sprawl reaches second- and third-generation status, cities across the country are ready to make it worse. They're considering building "outer" beltways, literally second, larger highway rings up to 15 miles outside the first ones.
The D.C. area is currently debating a $1.1 billion first stretch of such an outer beltway. Atlanta also is talking about a 235-mile outer system; the circumference would average 35 miles from the city center. It's so expensive - $5 billion - that the Atlanta Regional Commission fears it might bankrupt the city. Houston, meanwhile, is well ahead of the pack, now completing a third beltway and considering a fourth, a 177-mile ring called the Grand Parkway.
Haven't we had enough sprawl development? City leaders are right to promote future economic growth. But if highways were the ticket to bigger, better cities, then Los Angeles would be heaven.
The fact is, building new roads to expand economic development is like loosening your belt to overcome obesity. It allows you to eat more - land and resources - while postponing the ultimate and obvious unsustainability of the system.
We simply cannot keep traveling this road.
So why not just say no?
That's what Portland, Ore., said two years ago to a mammoth outer bypass system. Instead of increasing highway capacity, the city decided to reduce demand for automobile travel and the sprawl that comes with it.
Portland's new planning orientation, which follows a groundbreaking study called "Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality Connection" (LUTRAQ), concentrates future growth into centers and corridors served by first-rate public transit. The city also encourages businesses to implement flex-time and telecommuting programs, boosting national trends that allow people to work at home and further reducing demand for highways.
A better way
Politicians of both parties in Portland now embrace LUTRAQ as the city's best pro-growth strategy. It revitalizes existing neighborhoods, preserves farmland, supports car-independent living, saves taxpayer money, creates jobs - and protects the environment.
Now that's smart growth. Big cities across the country would do well to follow Portland's lead.
It's time for a permanent moratorium on the circular, pollution-choked highways that for too long have been leading our nation down a road to ruin.
* Mike Tidwell is a writer in Takoma Park, Md., and an activist with a citizens' campaign to stop Washington's outer beltway.