In an earlier blog, I referred to our current urban transportation system as dysfunctional, and I stand by that description. Our current system, of course, is largely based on privately owned automobiles and a heavily subsidized network of streets and bridges. To be clear, private cars are terrific at fulfilling certain transportation needs in certain situations. In fact, if you could only pick one transportation option which had to meet all of your transportation needs, most people would choose a private automobile and that choice would be perfectly rational.
The problem is that there is no need to restrict ourselves to only one transportation option, although that is what many of us have chosen to do. In order to make that one tool work, we have made numerous compromises in our daily lives, and governments at all levels have made extraordinary investments and decisions in support of that singular tool. The result is a system that works best for people who are reasonably affluent, but increasingly doesn’t even work that well for them. No matter how nice a car you drive, you still probably spend much more time than you would like stuck in traffic or searching for a parking space.
Up until the past few years, the transportation options that were available were somewhat limited and the collective decision to focus on the automobile may have been the best choice for many communities. Transportation options have blossomed in recent years, however, and even more options are on the way. We need to create an urban environment in which people have a range of transportation options that can respond to the range of transportation needs that each of us face on a regular basis.
If we are going to evaluate various options, it would be helpful to have criteria to base evaluations on. Below are ten criteria that make sense to me, but they are not weighted for importance (although they are clearly not all the same importance) nor are they listed in any particular order. In fact, the appropriate weight for each criteria will change based on the requirements of different types of trips and the varying needs of different people.
Speed. Although pop culture therapists tell us to “enjoy the journey,” most of us don’t care about the journey -- we want to get to the destination as quickly as possible. The sooner I can get to my destination, the better.
Convenience. None of us need more stress in our lives, so we prefer modes of transportation that are relatively easy to use and reasonably reliable. Unfortunately, this criteria can be fairly variable. Modes of travel that are generally hassle-free can occasionally fall apart due to unpredictable problems (e.g. traffic jams, mechanical problems, demand surges, etc.).
Trip Length/Destination Flexibility. Some trips are short and others are long, and for some trips we don’t know the length when we start. There is a value to having the flexibility to change our trip destination and to being able to handle a trip with multiple stops using one transportation mode.
Safety. This is another pretty obvious criteria, but one which we probably don’t give enough thought to in our decision-making process.
Cost. Again, an obvious criteria but one which we often sacrifice for one or more of the other criteria if we have sufficient resources. A complicating factor here is that there are short-term costs (e.g. the cost of gas or the cost of a bus pass) and there are long-term costs (e.g., vehicle depreciation), and there is a human tendency to overweight short-term costs and underweight long-term ones.
Weather Resistance. Those of us who live in the midwest are used to adjusting our lives to adapt to changing weather conditions. Transportation options that work well in all forms of weather are a definite plus.
Environmental Impact. This is one of those criteria that many people, including me, think should be important, but we are likely to sacrifice it for speed and convenience in our daily decision making. So it could be argued that it really isn’t all that important in the end, but a more rational assessment might be that this is another example of people discounting long-term costs. Given two options that are otherwise relatively equal, the more environmentally friendly of the two would probably have an advantage.
Health Impact. This is probably not a criteria that most people associate with their transportation decisions, but different transportation options do have differing impacts on our physical and mental health. Granted, this is probably low on most people’s list of priorities but it might move up as more is learned about the impact of our sedentary lifestyle on our longevity and happiness.
Carrying Capacity. This is an important differentiator when different types of trips are being considered. A commute to work might involve just a briefcase or a lunch sack, but at other times a person might need to transport three kids to a soccer game or pick up four sheets of plywood from the lumber yard.
Fun. This is a highly subjective factor but I don’t think it can be ignored. Some people love to drive their car or ride their bike, and that has an impact on their transportation choices.
In future posts, I plan to use these criteria to do some in-depth evaluations of various transportation and lifestyle options. But for now, I’m going to apply them in a very generalized way to the transportation option that most of us rely upon on a daily basis: the privately owned automobile. This will be a very simplified analysis with very generalized trip assumptions -- an average family in an average midwestern city doing trips with typical household purposes -- and I’m not going to do any type of sophisticated scoring. Instead, I’m simply going to base my evaluation on a four-point scale: very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, and very negative.
Very Positive. In this category I would put the criteria of Speed, Trip Length/Destination Flexibility, and Weather Resistance. Obviously, there are situations in which the car falls short in each of these three criteria, but generally a privately owned car does better than just about any other mode of transportation and meets the needs of the vast majority of trips for the vast majority of people.
Somewhat Positive. In this category, I would put Convenience, Safety and Carrying Capacity. I suspect many of you would second guess these rankings. A lot of people, for example, would probably say that a car is very convenient and has excellent carrying capacity. I would argue, however, that there are quite a few inconveniences associated with car ownership that we have simply gotten used to (e.g., parking, breakdowns, routine maintenance, etc.) and so we tend to under-weight them. I downgraded carrying capacity because we generally oversupply carrying capacity which is much more inefficient that we typically realize. On the vast majority of our trips, most of the seats are unoccupied and most of the cargo area is empty. Other people might question my decision to put safety in this category given the large number of injuries and deaths caused by cars. My response is that if you control for the number of miles traveled (e.g. vehicle fatalities per million miles traveled), automobile travel has been getting safer over time which makes me conclude that the car has perhaps a worse reputation than it really deserves.
Somewhat Negative. The only criteria I would rate in this category are Health Impact and Fun. There are no positive health benefits to be had from getting behind the wheel and the grind of rush hour traffic is an almost daily source of stress. And my personal opinion is that driving isn’t very fun anymore, although many would disagree with me.
Very Negative. That leaves Cost and Environmental Impact for this last category. Again, some of you might think I’m being overly negative on both counts. Auto exhaust has gotten significantly cleaner over the years but it is still a major source of pollution, and that doesn’t take into consideration the pollution caused by fuel extraction and refining, or by the automobile manufacturing process. The shift to electric vehicles may improve the environmental impact but it won’t go away entirely until power generation stops relying on fossil fuels and the battery manufacturing process becomes more environmentally sustainable. Cost is another factor that we probably underestimate simply because we have gotten used to those costs as being a necessary part of daily life. But the cost of driving a car is substantial, particularly if you include the indirect costs of parking, road construction and repair, time lost in traffic and vehicle depreciation. In future posts I will return to the issue of cost and its impact on our society.
On balance, it is fairly easy to make the argument that car travel has more going for it than against it -- and in a general sense I agree. I’m certainly not planning on giving up my car any time soon. But there is a significant problem: we have extrapolated from “the automobile is a reasonable choice for many types of trips” to “the automobile is the only logical choice for nearly every trip.”
Once we made that leap, we started building cities in a way that enhanced automotive travel at the expense of nearly every other mode of transportation. What once was an enticing option has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have a car, living in a midwestern city is hard. And if you do have a car, your lifestyle options are defined by that choice regardless of whether you would like options that provide some exercise, or don’t pollute, or don’t cost so much. Want to ride your bike to work? Good luck with that.
This automotive version of the Faustian bargain is particularly hard on people who cannot drive for one of a variety of reasons -- too young, too old, too poor, too disabled or whatever. Midwestern cities largely fail these people because our cities are shaped almost exclusively around automotive travel. What is probably less appreciated is that in some ways our cities are failing all of us. It is time for the transportation pendulum to swing back toward a more balanced range of transportation options. Unfortunately, cities don’t change very quickly and not every neighborhood will want or need every possible option. But it is time for us to insist that at least some part of every city be given the form and infrastructure to reflect and encourage the full range of transportation choice.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.