Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

A. Institutional Challenges of Emerging Megaregions

Urban sprawl or a geographical expansion of existing urban areas is not a static phenomenon, but a continuing process occurring in most U.S. metropolitan areas. With regard to population growth projections, most of which will be concentrated in urban areas over the next 30 years (UN-Habitat, 2011), it is reasonable to assume that a significant amount of population and economic activity in the U.S. will be accommodated within megaregions (Figure 1), networks of major metropolitan centers and their areas of influence (Ross and Woo, 2011).

This image shows 11 Megaregions overlaid on the map of the U.S. They include Cascadia (Western WA, NW Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas Triangle, Central Plains (parts of OK, KS, and MO, Piedmont (AL, GA, SC, NC), Midwest, Northeast and Florida as defined by Ross, 2009

Figure 1. U.S. Megaregions (Ross et al. 2009a)

Such concentrations will certainly put more pressure on existing transportation infrastructure in megaregions. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) have increased significantly in the last few decades due to increased average personal trip length, population growth, decreased vehicle occupancy, lack of sufficient transit services and non-motorized travel facilities, and longer commutes due to highly dispersed regional development patterns. Major airports in megaregions are experiencing a growth in the number of travelers and airplane operations which has resulted in an increase of flight delays and travel costs (Figure 2). Export and import commodities in megaregions are estimated to increase by 134 and 124 percent, respectively, by 2035. Most of this growth is dependent on trucking, which accounts for about 66 percent of total domestic commodity movements (by million dollars) (Ross et al., 2008).

This image is a DOT Map showing the major U.S. airports by size. The legend shows three levels smallest to largest amount of passenger travel in and out of each major airport. Cascadia: 2; California and Utah, 6. Coloroda 1. Texas 2. Centrail 2. Midwest 7. Piedmont 3. Florida 3. Northeast 7.

Figure 2. Major airports in the U.S. (Ross and Woo, 2011)

However, the infrastructure investments in the U.S. have been exhausted by an expansion of existing transportation networks focused solely on geographic scope. Since the trends of population and economic growth will continue in the future, a strategic approach to the transportation infrastructure for both passenger and freight movements should be considered. As shown in European and Asian countries (Xu and Yeh, 2011; Ross et al., 2008), adopting the megaregion concept for outlining future infrastructure systems would guide investments towards more sustainable and competitive infrastructure systems within regions.

As challenges and the economies of our metropolitan areas span other neighboring metropolitan areas, rural areas, and states, effective planning, coordination, and implementation are needed for new passenger and freight mobility systems that relieve congestion and enhance economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability. To attain these goals, planning and investments for national infrastructure systems should be made through a new and innovative lens. A megaregion framework enables coordination and facilitates improvements to multi-jurisdictional transportation and other infrastructure. The megaregion framework will present a viable structure providing the link between local, state and multistate jurisdictions for the national transportation system, which is considered the skeletal foundation of the nation's economy that supports and facilitates global competition. The question then becomes how the concept of megaregions can be effectively promulgated, particularly in the fragmented political and planning systems in the U.S.

Although many actors including public, private, non-profit and civic organizations affect the prosperity of regions, there is neither a popular incentive nor mandate for these players to form an alliance. In such an alliance they could work together to achieve smart growth, manage climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, and implement economic development (Innes, Booher, and Vittorio, 2010). All of these activities are closely related to transportation infrastructure systems. Instead of cooperating, such actors often conflict and compete against each other within the same regions.Most public organizations responsible for multi-jurisdictional issues, such as regional transportation, air quality, and land use planning, lack the capacity and authority to change.

Regions in the United States continue to grow and interconnect, creating the need for more extensive integration of infrastructure impacts with regional economic growth. Geographers and planners in Europe have employed spatial planning to define and integrate economic, social, cultural, and ecological policies. This approach addresses the multi-disciplinary and multifaceted aspects of planning spatially providing guidance to the integration of administrative practice and policies.

B. Conceptual Approaches to Regional Governance

In terms of multi-jurisdictional efforts, the concept of ‘city-regions', which go beyond local authority boundaries as "the new and emerging subnational scalar focal point and territorial fix for the global capitalist economy" (Harrison, 2007; Ross and Harbour, 2006), was employed in England's Sustainable Communities Plan (SCP) for the South East mega-city region to enhance the region's economic competitiveness. However, while the city-regions, called ‘new city-regionalism, have growingsupport within economic geography, they have been criticized for a lack of foundational theory (Harrison, 2007).

Another popular concept in European spatial planning is polycentric development (Meijers, 2008). The European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) views polycentricism as a stimulant of economic progressiveness and improved territorial planning. At the EU scale, polycentricism is credited for creating multi-growth centers across Europe. At the regional level, polycentric regions are believed to eliminate social and environmental spatial disparities formed in monocentric cities, and are also believed to be better equipped for global competitiveness. However, Vandermotten et al. (2008) argue that Europe's view of polycentricism is biased and normative. Moreover, they contend that there is no clear distinction between morphological and functional polycentricity. A morphologically polycentric region consists of a number of self-sustaining metropolises with their own labor pools. A functional polycentric region includes sub-centers that are specialized and complimentary in terms of the global economy. Meijers (2008) also argues that regional growth theories, such as new economic geography, do not discuss much about the form of the urban system.

Hence, the current trends of spatial agglomerations beyond traditional boundaries and the multiple attempts at organizing regions in the U.S. and abroad provide us with opportunities and challenges in both academic and policy arenas.

Going back to the discussion of organizational structures of institutions, the arguments have been focused on the shift "from government to governance" (Xu and Yeh, 2011; Innes, Booher, and Vittorio, 2010; Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney, 2006). Xu and Yeh (2011) summarize three concepts of regional institutions based on history, philosophy, and planning objectives. For example, the "reform-consolidation" concept, which was popular around the 1950s and 1960s, favors strong state interventions to secure a regulatory framework that guides urban expansion with planned decentralization for economic growth. Under this concept, central state-led infrastructure provision at the national scale (e.g. led by federal agency) was influential, and local and regional state initiatives were considered only instruments for achieving central policies. However, the authoritarian style of operations, which is frequently found in developing countries, or centralized (top-down) forms of interventions, pursued by national authorities, have been under attack for the heavy concentration of investment on physical infrastructure. Also, such an approach often increases the inequality between regions due to the heavy provision of infrastructure in specific regions (Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney, 2006).

In contrast, the "market public choice" concept, based on neoliberal localism and urban entrepreneurialism during the 1980s, emphasizes individual characteristics of regions. Therefore, local entities, such as a municipality, are considered the desirable body for regulation and regional development. The failure of centralized approaches and the challenges of globalization raised an interest in bottom-up approaches with an emphasis on local and regional entities (Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney, 2006). In this era, the prevalence of the state-led interventions has been replaced by the encouragement of the market driven deregulation approaches. While this supports project-based urban development, mostly led by the private sector, it results in the lack of a planning system that manages a region-wide urban area and provides a framework for efficiently providing infrastructure at the regional, sub-national, and national scales (Xu and Yeh, 2011).

The third concept,"new regionalism", proposes an institutional shift in regional emphasis from government to governance, and emphasizes public and private-sector partnerships and joint ventures. This type of governance has also shifted traditional hierarchical planning towards a horizontal and network-based planning system (Xu and Yeh, 2011), overcoming the constraints from existing political boundaries. The new institutional forms require a strong coordination of governments at different scales, and public and private actors. The emergence of multilevel governance may provide a framework for governing megaregions, where multi-layered institutions at a range of scales from federal to local, interact for local, regional, sub-national, and national development and infrastructure planning. Under this concept, the role of political entities is to guide the self-organization of alliances and networks.

The traditional power of the national state has been dispersed both upwards and downwards in a global economy. For example, globalization moves the power of the national government to supranational institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, EU, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), by demanding more activities in such entities. At the same time, as discussed in the "market public choice" concept, its power has been dispersed to local and regional entities, and recently to trans-boundary networks (Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney, 2006). The territorial and functional reorganization of the power of the national government means the changes of its boundaries in terms of roles, emphasizing the coordination of the boundaries between public, private, and other actors.

However, the new governance focusing on the interactions of multiple actors sometimes generates unintended consequences, such as obscured responsibilities between actors and problems due to mutual power dependence (Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney, 2006). This suggests an important role for the national level government that can integrate and coordinate different actors at the different levels.

While the authority and influence of the national government moves upwards to supranational scales and downwards to local and regional ones,the megaregion scale certainly poses an institutional challenge in the U.S. because traditional planning has not been practiced at this level.However, the theoretical discussions on the shift of institutions in this chapter, suggest the megaregion scale, where more diverse actors are involved in terms of geography and sector, requires new governance with public and private partnerships.

With federal leadership these cross-sectoral alliances at the megaregion scale can link and coordinate fragmented actors and multi-scale decision making systems. It is an urgent task to facilitate such a development to guide the authority of the national government to become a more effective partner as movement occurs toward creating megaregion transportation governance and planning in practice.

Updated: 5/14/2016
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000