By Dom Nozzi
After my many years of observing the situation in the US (particularly in “enlightened” cities that should know better), I’ve come to conclude that almost nothing can be done proactively to discourage newly-developing nations from ruinously widening their roads.
Because car travel is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle, we find that nearly everyone in an auto-centric culture becomes a cheerleader for big roads and big parking lots—be they Democrats, Republicans, Anarchists, Socialists, Environmentalists, Feminists, or whatever.
When our communities adopt car travel as the way to get around, the imperative is to do everything possible to make cars happy instead of people. That eventually makes it impossible to travel by means other than by car. And the more we are forced to make trips by car, the more compelled we are to fight for bigger roads and bigger parking lots.
It terrifies me that this is a zero-sum game. That is, every time we make cars happier, we concurrently worsen our community for people.
Unfortunately, I only see two ways out of this road to ruin:
First, communities might no longer able to devastate themselves by widening roads because they can no longer find the money to do so. Happily, this is increasingly becoming the situation in certain parts of the US. It is no mystery why certain places are suddenly becoming enlightened about promoting transportation choice. The reason for enlightenment is that they cannot afford to continue doing everything for cars. This scenario is the more likely one to save us from disaster.
A second way is to elect wise, courageous people who have the vision to be leaders on this issue. Not likely since, as I point out above, most voters are car cheerleaders. Sometimes, however, voters make a mistake and vote for someone who “gets it.” But then, it becomes a question of whether such an elected official can, before leaving office, quickly find the allies and the strategies to effectively “cut the legs out” from the forces that are driving us toward a doomed future of sprawl and auto dependence. To do this, the official must somehow find ways to put a number of major and minor community roads on a “diet” (remove travel lanes), stop any plans to widen roads, put a halt to the construction of big parking lots, and reduce the size of existing, over-sized parking lots (preferably by redeveloping them with buildings).
In general, the second way (electing leaders) usually happens only if the first way (bankruptcy) has occurred.
Note, too, that I am an enormous advocate of traffic congestion in urban areas. I much prefer the more effective tool of charging people to drive on roads (sometimes called “congestion fees”), but establishing such fees is almost always politically impossible.
That leaves us with second best: congestion. Congestion is an effective tool because it adds a “time tax” to people who drive cars. The time tax starts discouraging one of the most important problems we see in the field of transportation these days: The low-value car trip (the person who, say, drives across town on a major street at rush hour to rent a video).
As an aside, congestion is also helpful because it discourages people from living in sprawl locations, it slows car speeds, it reduces the severity of car crashes, it promotes densification and infill, it promotes transportation choice, it reduces air pollution and gas consumption, it promotes mixed use, and it helps smaller, locally-owned businesses. There are a number of additional benefits, but I’ll stop w/ these.
Because “low-value” car trips are ordinarily not discouraged (because we make it “free” to drive on roads), the time tax that comes from congestion can play a useful role. Some of those low-value trips might happen before or after rush hour. Or use a different route. Or be by transit, bicycle or foot.
The last thing we want is to have low-value trips clog up our major streets at rush hour—particularly because there are higher-value trips on the streets.
The disastrous, common “solution” to streets clogged partially by low-value trips is to bankrupt ourselves by pouring millions of public dollars into widening the clogged street. Widening, of course, short-circuits the self-regulating influence of congestion. After widening, we are, in effect, subsidizing and welcoming low-value trips at rush hour.
Not only that, but the millions spent usually only alleviates congestion for about 5 years, after which the congestion re-emerges. But this time, it is congestion on a bigger road (frankly, I prefer congestion on a 3-lane road to congestion on a 6-lane road).
It is irrational and sickening to see communities destroy themselves—at public expense—to subsidize low-value car trips.
How many times must we say it? How many times must we point out that “We cannot build our way out of congestion”?
As I often say, we are our own worst enemies. Which traps us into driving ourselves, in a downward spiral, down the road to ruin…
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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