Do our infrastructure systems put people at risk?

Photo: Traffic on a Chicago bridge
Editor's note:

This post is part of a series exploring infrastructure from an individual’s perspective. What really matters to people when they rely on infrastructure to access economic opportunity? Within each post, we examine infrastructure through the lens of people’s expectations: whether infrastructure is physically accessible, whether services are affordable, and whether infrastructure protects us from risk. Our results show that infrastructure often creates economic barriers and policymakers could do a better job of measuring and meeting people’s needs.

We prefer to take our infrastructure for granted. It’s much easier to wake up every day and assume our monolithic systems will magically work every time we need them. But when disruptions hit—whether a road closure, a power outage, or a water main break—we’re reminded of just how much we need safe, reliable infrastructure to travel, communicate, and thrive.

Risk—the likelihood that an individual may be harmed if exposed to a hazard—is not a foreign concept. It’s often our infrastructure’s most extreme failures, like the Minneapolis bridge collapse or the Amtrak crash outside Philadelphia, that tend to put infrastructure in the news. Recently, much has been written about America’s failing infrastructure systems: transportation, energy, water, telecommunications, and the built environment as a whole. But these narratives inherently fall short, as they focus on the engineering itself, tapping into a sort of carnal fear that physical structures could collapse around us any minute.

Rather than structural engineering, risk is heightened through the way the country plans and designs infrastructure systems. In some cases, it’s design features or regulations that minimize perceptions of potential harm. In others, people may recognize risk factors but may not be able to afford or have access to safer alternatives. Yet in all these cases, the infrastructure and services available leave communities susceptible to continued physical dangers and economic costs.

Thus, it isn’t about America’s failing infrastructure systems—it’s about how America’s infrastructure systems are failing its people, placing them at risk, and ultimately hindering their ability to benefit from economic opportunity.

This design issue is readily apparent within our transportation and land use systems. Today, cars account for more than 85 percent of trips to work, with only about 10 percent of commuters walking, biking, or taking public transit. Not only do the majority of people drive, they tend to drive at high speeds based on street designs that push drivers from slower local streets onto high-speed arterials. Combined with new driver distractions like smartphones, our roads are getting more dangerous (see Figure 1). Over 40,000 people die annually in traffic crashes according to the most recent federal estimates, and that total is rising. Moreover, the fatalities have a disproportionate impact on pedestrians, many of whom are from already vulnerable communities.

Chart: The relationship of traffic fatalities and US annual vehicle miles traveled

In addition to people’s physical safety, American roads are also creating significant financial risks. Budget-constrained state and local governments are struggling to generate durable revenues and too often target investments in new construction rather than needed maintenance. Potholes and poor pavement quality—including only 58.6 percent of our public roads being in “good” condition—are just a couple symptoms of this long-standing failure to manage and respond to risk. As a result, roads in poor conditions—like all across Michigan—lead to a higher rate of vehicle breakdowns and costs to private motorists. For local governments, simply maintaining certain transportation infrastructure is a risk factor to their overall fiscal health.

Chart: Pavement condition of public roads

Our aging, neglected water infrastructure also puts people at risk. Often buried and unnoticed until problems arrive, several water infrastructure concerns are mounting nationally, including the cleanliness and health of the country’s lakes, rivers, and streams. Perhaps most significantly, the lack of safe drinking water is one of the biggest risks facing many individuals today, where places like Flint are just the tip of the iceberg to a significant national challenge. Recent studies show the number of annual health-based violations to the Safe Drinking Water Act rose by 47.8 percent from 1982 to 2015.

Chart: Health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act

Increasingly, our infrastructure systems and built environment are also under threat from a changing climate, with increasingly severe droughts, storms and flooding. From the individual perspective, people’s homes and businesses are especially vulnerable to climate-related disasters like repeated flooding, creating a significant drag on both local and national economies. While climate risk is still difficult to characterize and communicate at an individual level, there is little question that individuals are taking on higher levels of risk in the absence of clearer and updated market signals about where they undertake real estate development. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) collected premiums far below the payments it made in recent years, with peaks around major natural disasters. Said more bluntly: many places around the country cannot afford unchecked development that can put people directly in the path of harm.

Chart: NFIP premiums collected lag far behind claim payments in recent years

Across each of these infrastructure sectors, path dependency is a central theme. The U.S. has invested billions of dollars over decades in order to build and operate the country’s vital infrastructure networks, so it is difficult to undo the design of these networks. In the years to come, we will continue to use the nation’s highway system to get from place to place and rely on local water systems to survive. Many of the nation’s households will also continue to live in places that are prone to higher risk.

Simply put, many places continue to rely on legacy infrastructure systems that fail to account for—or adequately address—risk. But, several places are launching innovative investments and plans in support of safer, more reliable infrastructure networks. We now have replicable models for investing in safer streets, building better water systems, and procuring resilience that can help mitigate the risk that individuals assume when they use infrastructure. For policymakers contemplating the next infrastructure investment or for civil engineers designing the next infrastructure project, addressing this question is key: can this system fail in ways that will place people at risk, and if so, how can we re-think its design?

Thanks to Annibel Rice for research assistance.