The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High transportation costs limit mobility, fueling inequality

The absence of robust transportation infrastructure hurts us — and not only at the gas pump

U.S. consumer prices cooled in October but remained at decades-high levels, according to government data released Thursday. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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In April, Americans paid 8.5 percent more for goods compared with the year before. An 18 percent increase in gas prices initiated this surge in inflation. Although prices at the pump have since stabilized, the recent decision by oil-exporting countries to lower production in November raised fears that rising fuel prices will worsen inflation again in the coming months.

Changes in gas prices have a sweeping impact on the United States because so many households rely on their cars to commute. Even people who live close to their places of work, child-care providers and other destinations often drive because they lack access to safe pedestrian roads or reliable public transit. These realities expose people to the whimsy of volatile gas prices.

This is not the first time that the American economy faced systemic vulnerability due to high transportation costs. The frequently cited 1970s energy crisis may be the most vivid example in public memory, but it was not unique. An examination of events in the 19th century shows that the insecurity stemming from constraints on mobility worsened inequality and entrenched an existing social hierarchy. And these past cases highlight the urgent need for a coordinated public policy response today.

In the first decades of the republic’s independence, the absence of robust transportation infrastructure in the country’s interior caused tremendous hardships. The vastness of the expanding country, combined with the Appalachian Mountains blocking easy east-west movement, complicated domestic travel and commerce. Financial historian Peter Bernstein notes that the cost of carrying commodities by wagon from Buffalo to the New York capital, Albany, during this period “often involved sums equal to five or six times the value of the goods themselves.”

This drove many farmers to grow a handful of highly valued staples that would justify the heavy burden of transporting goods to the market. In the second decade of the 19th century, these commodities were wheat and cotton as European buyers sought them to feed both their war-ravaged population and burgeoning textile industry. While the export of these cash crops led to periods of intense economic growth, it also meant that declines in trans-Atlantic trade or the oversupply and falling price of just a few goods could devastate the entire economy.

When the first of these crises occurred in 1819, much of the commentary focused on bad banking practices that had amplified the downturn. However, some prominent public figures like economist Mathew Carey identified weak internal commerce and the resulting reliance on exports as the root source of the systemic failure.

People like Carey believed that the country would produce a more diverse set of goods and consume them domestically if Americans could traverse their own country more easily. John Quincy Adams, who won the 1824 presidential election, agreed and proposed federal projects to construct interstate canals and roads.

But a growing coalition in Congress opposed public spending on transportation infrastructure. Various ideologies united these detractors: Some believed that the elimination of the national debt superseded other goals, while others did not believe the Constitution authorized the federal government to pursue such projects.

With federal action often stymied by political paralysis, state governments took up the mantle of constructing local transportation networks. Some were extremely successful. The state of New York completed the Erie Canal in 1825, opening a route for bulk goods to move by shipping from the Eastern Seaboard to areas west of the Appalachian Mountains like Ohio and Illinois without traveling all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and back up the Mississippi River. This development permanently secured New York City’s position as the preeminent commercial and financial center of the United States.

But newer states — with fewer people who could contribute resources through taxes and bond purchases — faced substantial impediments to pursuing these costly developments on their own. In 1841, Indiana defaulted on bonds it had raised to build a canal connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River before the project was even completed. Indiana eventually received federal assistance, but the default hurt the state’s ability to borrow money for years, and it ultimately transferred control of the finished canal to its British creditors.

With state governments chastened by these experiences, private corporations took the lead in adopting railroad technology. The federal government played a supporting role, providing developers with land grants and other resources. Later on, in the second half of the 19th century, this system of private-sector-led infrastructure development with little public oversight contributed to the growth of powerful railroad monopolies and rising inequality.

The uncoordinated development of transportation networks also had social and political consequences. In the southern United States, more sparse and belated transportation initiatives left many small farmers disconnected from the market. In the decades before the Civil War, this allowed enslavers who owned large plantations to further expand their wealth and political power in the region because they could more easily transport their goods to the market. They then agitated for the enforcement and spread of slavery, which drove the sectional division that culminated in the Civil War and sowed inequalities that persist in our society today.

It was not until the early 20th century that the Progressive movement and later Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s made certain forms of active government participation in the market more politically acceptable. With this new mandate, the Eisenhower administration launched an aggressive plan in the 1950s to expand the country’s interstate highway system. However, this effort again fell short of equitably distributing the benefits of mobility to all Americans. In addition to making car ownership and affordable gasoline (a major issue in the 1970s) prerequisites to movement, the project also partitioned many cities where planners chose to construct high-speed roads between neighborhoods, deepening segregation and inequality.

Today, natural barriers to movement in the country have been largely overcome. But artificial ones created by roads hostile to pedestrians and a shortage of reliable mass transit force Americans to depend on personal vehicles and costly gas purchases. This is an immense economic burden on ordinary households, not to mention a threat to their health.

In response, the federal government has begun to address such challenges to mobility. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, extends $3 billion in grants to local governments that want to build safe roads connecting neighborhoods that are cut off from one another by urban highways. This is in addition to the $1 billion in grant money that the government allocated in 2021.

But more could be done to expand the reach of public transit and broaden intercity connections if the goal was to limit the capricious toll of gas prices and enable mobility.

As in the 1820s, detractors today may also cast doubt on whether public resources should be allocated to transportation infrastructure that ensures more equitable access to mobility. In these instances, people should consider the deep cost that the country incurred over the past 200 years from inaction and halfhearted measures: deepening inequality and a more fragile economy constantly affected by the volatile price of a handful of commodities.

There is no reason to be more reticent today than we were 200 years ago — and certainly not to preserve a status quo that remains taxing to so many.