Are 'Mega-Regions' the Future of Transportation?

Armando Carbonell, chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy discusses the future of the country's infrastructure.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

At the America 2050 Conference in May, thinkers and policymakers gathered to imagine what our country should look like by mid-century. Armando Carbonell from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the attendees. And he joins us from the studios of MIT. Hi, welcome to the program.

Dr. ARMANDO CARBONELL (Chairman, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy): Pleasure to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: One of the big topics that was driving discussions at the forum was the concept of America's mega-regions. Could you first tell us what those are and then how do they help envision a new kind of infrastructure?

Dr. CARBONELL: I'm happy to do it. A series you've been presenting over the last month on infrastructure, by the way, I think has painted a very clear picture of what's gone wrong with our national infrastructure system. We need a national vision and an integrated strategy, but this really has to be informed by the regional differences and a kind of bottom-up process of planning. Mega-regions are big systems of metropolitan areas like the Northeast Corridor that stretches from Boston to Washington. And they are the right scale for major infrastructure decision-making. For example, for big systems like high-speed rail, which Europe and Asia are literally thousands of miles ahead of us in developing.

HANSEN: And so that would help us if we look to Asia and Europe and how they're dealing with their so-called mega-regions. We could learn something from them.

Dr. CARBONELL: These are our competitors. In Europe, which we've studied for some time, we know that the European Union is working across national boundaries to integrate the continent. Something we started out to do here across state lines in the early days, as your series has pointed out. But there's been at least a 50-year gap in national planning for comprehensive infrastructure across water systems, energy systems and transportation.

HANSEN: You know, I would imagine that the founding fathers didn't really think about climate change as they were planning infrastructure. How do you think climate change affects infrastructure planning today?

Dr. CARBONELL: It's clearly making a big difference. And I have to say, I don't think we've thought much about climate change until quite recently. But there is a new consensus that we will be transitioning to lower carbon energy sources, and we need to begin as soon as possible. That and higher energy prices, which we've been reacting to around the country in recent months, represent new realities. It means we're going to have to use new criteria in making decisions about investments in automotive versus transit modes, for example.

HANSEN: In your op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, you recommended some broad changes in mass transit, land use, energy efficient building construction. But you also noted how this summer some families are going to be staying closer to home rather than hitting the road in the family car. How do you think American culture and mindset will need to adapt to a new kind of infrastructure?

Dr. CARBONELL: What I would like to think of is a new geography of opportunity in America. People are going to drive less. They'll buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. When it comes to time to relocate, they'll think about their needs and - I think, in general - choose more centralized opportunities. And over time, I think we will see lifestyle changes. And I base that on what I see happening today.

HANSEN: Armando Carbonell is chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and he joined us from the MIT Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you very much.

Dr. CARBONELL: Thank you, Liane.

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