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The Opportunity to Create the Hyperdense Cities We Need

As billions for infrastructure flow from Washington, moving away from dependence on the automobile will require new cooperation between federal grantmakers and state and local recipients. Are carless cities in our future?

Aerial view of Hong Kong at sunrise.
Hong Kong, one of the world’s largest cities, is both the most population-dense and the lightest consumer of energy per capita.
For good and bad, the New York City metropolitan region was torn down and rebuilt after World War II at the command of Robert Moses, a shadowy figure who mastered state and local bureaucracies, consolidated power, forced immigrant and Black residents out of their homes, and made way for major bridges and highways leading into and through Manhattan.

Historians credit Moses with preparing New York for the automobile age and facilitating the growth of its suburbs. They also condemn him for the human costs of remaking the landscape of America’s largest city.

Moses’ power was made possible by infrastructure dollars — by one tally, over nearly half a century he spent more than $27 billion in 1968 dollars, which would amount to more than $200 billion in today’s dollars — authorized by New Deal programs and allocations for the national highway system, and spent by public authorities across the state that answered to no one but Moses.

We now have the opportunity with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last November, to redesign urban landscapes across the country just as Moses did in New York, but this time moving away from facilitating privately owned vehicles and toward hyperdense mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-accessible communities.

State and local governments will soon be drinking from the IIJA’s $1.2 trillion funding firehose. While the law provides plenty of money for roads and bridges, grant programs that have long funded public transit will see geometric increases in funding levels. New multibillion-dollar programs will launch to fund such amenities as bike paths and pedestrian walkways.

Spending these new infrastructure dollars would be easier if local leaders had what Moses had in abundance: a clear vision of a modern city and unchecked power. Yet an examination of how IIJA funds will be spent reveals a more complex relationship between federal grantmaking authorities and state and local governments, one in which both Washington bureaucrats and states and localities will need to agree on what they think modern cities should look like, and where local planners will need to bridge competing local interests.

Hanging in the balance is a generational opportunity to redefine urban life. The Infrastructure and Jobs Act could reinforce suburban sprawl or dramatically strengthen the centripetal force of hyperdense cities. And there is perhaps no more prominent advocate of hyperdensity than Vishaan Chakrabarti.
Vishaan Chakrabarti delivers a TED Talk in 2018.
Vishaan Chakrabarti delivers a TED Talk in 2018.

Cities Without Cars

Chakrabarti, an architect and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who served in the early 2000s in the New York Department of City Planning, has a vision for Manhattan: no privately owned cars. None. By removing privately owned cars, Chakrabarti hopes to strike the coup de grace to automobile reliance and instead push New Yorkers into public transit. It’s a view of urban life that can surely apply to cities other than New York.

“The last big infrastructure bill we passed in this country was the [1956] Federal Highway Act,” he said in an interview, noting that the law that authorized construction of the Interstate Highway System served to form American cultural dependence on privately owned cars and literally pave the way for outward migration to the suburbs. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Chakrabarti says, could spark a similar reassessment of living demands. “If we did it once, we can do it again.”

Not without objections, he concedes.

Conflicts between more short-sighted public opinion and ambitious plans for a modern city seem inevitable in 2022. In Dallas, advocates have long called for removing a stretch of Interstate 345 that cuts through downtown, a move that could accelerate downtown’s growth while making automobile commutes from the suburbs considerably less convenient. Chicagoans became familiar with the struggles of building hyperdense communities during the waning days of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, when the planned 55-acre, $6 billion Lincoln Yards development was nearly derailed by activists concerned about the shortage of affordable housing units and public subsidies for the project. Only after developers agreed to additional affordable housing units was Lincoln Yards approved, and construction began late last year.

Chakrabarti emphasizes that cities hold massive leverage over developers of high-rise buildings to ensure a substantial number of affordable housing units and sustainable design. “There are only two legal ways to print money in the United States: the Federal Reserve and an upzoning,” he says.

Indeed, despite warnings of a massive migration into suburbs and rural communities during the initial months of the pandemic, the demand for urban living appears largely unaffected by COVID-19. Residential real estate values in places like Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop and downtown Boston have climbed to near or above pre-COVID-19 highs.

Why hasn’t COVID-19 reversed demand for urban living? Likely because the pre-COVID-19 reasons for living in cities remain. In his 2013 book A Country of Cities, Chakrabarti points to studies showing that when cities double in job density, worker productivity jumps between 6 and 28 percent, and he notes that residents in hyperdense communities report lower levels of obesity and more active lifestyles.

He also points to another, seemingly paradoxical, benefit of hyperdense cities: As density and productivity increase, energy consumption and carbon emissions decrease. Among the world’s largest cities, Hong Kong is both the most population-dense and the lightest consumer of energy per capita.

A Need for Regional Consensus

The value of hyperdense cities may be clearer than the process for building them.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $550 billion in new infrastructure spending over the next five years. To put this spending in context, the 2009 Recovery Act (commonly called “the Obama Stimulus”) included about $48 billion in new transportation infrastructure spending.

The U.S. Department of Transportation alone will be awarding around $200 billion in new spending authorized by the IIJA, including tens of billions in grants — funding comparable to all infrastructure spending in the 2009 Recovery Act — for pedestrian walkways, expanded transit, bike lanes and bike sharing programs, and other hallmarks of urban density.

Yet future conflicts loom. For cities that have spent 70 years building infrastructure around highways and cars, creating demand for transit and micromobility will not come without skeptics. As IIJA dollars start flowing, building hyperdense communities may require, somehow, forging regional consensus. The absence of a coercive force like Robert Moses may soon be clear.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), a state-commissioned planning agency for the city and its surrounding counties, stands in territory Moses once occupied in New York, yet clearly employs a lighter touch. Far from simply dismissing potential opposition as Moses was infamous for doing, CMAP’s board includes appointed representatives from the city of Chicago and the surrounding regions, and its long-term strategy was adopted in 2018 by its members with few public objections. Will unity in Chicago hold with Washington about to open its checkbook?

“What we’re trying to do is start having that conversation,” said Tim McMahon, an executive program coordinator with CMAP, noting that the organization has engaged community leaders in hopes of avoiding future conflict. “Then, how do we do this so it makes sense for the region … versus communities fighting one another?”

To remake urban landscapes, the Biden administration will need clarity from both the senders and the receivers of infrastructure dollars. If it wants, the U.S. Department of Transportation could make clear that it will not spend those dollars to fund suburban sprawl. The next step will need to come from grant applicants. For the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to deliver visions of hyperdense cities, regions and organizations like CMAP will need to agree on a plan for local development and submit grant applications that will not be undermined by local resistance.

Chakrabarti concedes that his designs to remove privately owned vehicles from cities “are meant to be provocations” and spark collaborative conversations among community members. To win over skeptics of hyperdense, transit-reliant cities, Chakrabarti urges cities to provide samples of what future designs could look like — closing a street for a weekend, for example — and then earn buy-in incrementally.

The power to make Chakrabarti’s visions reality, in other words, will need to come through persuasion and not the kind of force Robert Moses wielded.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Thomas Day is a senior consultant with Intueor Consulting and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at
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