The future of cities—a main focus of this issue of Urban Land—could be considered the centerpiece of the Urban Land Institute’s entire program of work. How and where we will live and work and how we will get from one place to another in the decades ahead are issues that will shape urban growth patterns and change our approach to planning, design, and development. Ours is an increasingly urbanized world, one in which more people live in urban areas than rural ones, and one in which connections between urban areas determines metropolitan competitiveness.

In this century, mobility and ease of access— not just within urban regions, but between them—will determine which metro areas thrive and which languish. The Obama administration’s focus on a high-speed passenger rail system is encouraging. The president’s recent announcement of $8 billion in state grants for high-speed intercity passenger rail systems is a much-needed step forward in improving connections between the nation’s urban areas. Grants were awarded for 23 high-speed rail projects, including lines connecting Tampa to Orlando; Los Angeles to San Diego; Oakland to Sacramento; Eugene, Oregon, to Seattle; Chicago to Kansas City; Minneapolis to Chicago; Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C., to Boston; New York City to Buffalo; and Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

While significant, the $8 billion covers a small percentage of what is actually needed to complete these projects. But it is an important signal that the federal government recognizes the importance of transportation investments as a way to create jobs for rail line construction, enable cities to reach a wider employment base, and ensure that U.S. cities are globally competitive in the 21st century.

This emphasis on infrastructure is long overdue. America’s last stand as a world leader in infrastructure came with the creation of the interstate highway system in the middle of the last century. In the decades since, the United States has steadily fallen far behind Asia and most of Europe in virtually all other aspects of mobility-related infrastructure— airports, public transit, and certainly intercity passenger railway systems.

As a result, America has become more a follower than a world leader in transportation infrastructure. The continued investment shortfall—and the implications of delay—are documented in the new edition of our infrastructure research report, which is published annually by ULI and Ernst & Young. (An overview of the report, Infrastructure 2010: Investment Imperative will be presented at the ULI Real Estate Summit at the Spring Council Forum, April 14–16 in Boston.)

In terms of high-speed rail, by 2025, China will have more than 8,100 miles (13,000 km) of rail lines either planned, under construction, or in operation. Currently, the United States has little more than 620 miles (1,000 km) of high-speed rail planned, under construction, or in operation, with most of that in the planning stages. We must do better, and the high-speed rail program from the Obama administration is a sign that we will do better.

For starters, the funding system for the high-speed rail reflects the reality that U.S. cities have evolved into multijurisdictional urban regions. Funds are allocated to states through a competitive, merit-based system that encourages the type of collaboration among urban regions that is critical to the success of any transportation system serving multiple jurisdictions. It is a significant improvement over the traditional formula-based system long used for allocation of federal transportation funding.

America’s cities, regions, and states will benefit from this new approach to both the funding of projects and the types of projects funded. For years, other countries have developed best practices in leveraging public financing and providing innovative, highly efficient systems that emphasize high-speed rail. In the United States, we have tended to focus exclusively on maintaining what we have rather than rethinking our options and looking for new solutions. Relying on existing networks and systems will only hamstring future success.

Americans must recognize that the nation’s standard of living cannot be sustained on infrastructure systems planned and built during the 20th century, when the country had only half its current population of 300 million. It is time to invest in the infrastructure we need—not just to accommodate the existing population, but also to serve 120 million more people by 2050, most of whom will be living in urban areas. By using high-speed rail to improve mobility between our urban regions, we can improve the economic prospects of the places that produce 90 percent of America’s gross domestic product.

Going forward, the cities and countries that will enjoy a bright future are the ones that will look at infrastructure as an economic imperative. This means taking a new approach to transportation infrastructure—one that is tied directly to land use, with the end game being long-term sustainability.