By Dom Nozzi
Gigantism is killing American cities, as it killed the dinosaur and the Roman Empire. On average, a person consumes 17 times more space when driving the average car than a person sitting in a chair. That is an enormous, unsustainable consumption of space.
It helps explain why (a) It only takes a tiny number of people to congest a road; (b) An important reason why, therefore, we can’t build our way out of congestion; and (c) Why it is counterproductive for transit/bike/pedestrian advocates to state that their solutions will reduce congestion—the size issue makes it essentially impossible to reduce congestion in a city that is not losing population.
The key is to design communities so you can avoid congestion if you don’t like it. For example, congestion avoidance can be created by providing alternative travel routes, providing residential property that is close to work/shopping/recreation, imposing congestion fees, etc.
Some people claim that the relatively large size of cars today means we need to encourage smaller cars to help us on congestion or other transportation issues. However, even smaller cars congest a road rather quickly because even a subcompact consumes quite a bit of space (compared to transit, walking or bicycling).
The problem, in my opinion, is our underpricing of all car travel/parking, which leads to overuse of car travel, and an inducement of “low-value” car trips (going out to rent a video at rush hour, for example).
Gas taxes are slightly better, as is pay-at-the-pump car insurance — both of which send a price signal to people that driving less means lower costs, thereby incentivizing less driving (particularly less “low-value” driving). A problem with both of these tactics is that they are not differentiating between car trips. Trips at non-rush hour and on little-used roads are more desirable from a societal point of view than trips at rush hour on heavily used roads. Because of this, congestion/toll fees tend to be best, as they can be calibrated to charge more or less, based on where and when you are driving. In the end, we need market-schooled “behavioral” economists to fix our transportation system (and elected officials with the wisdom and leadership willing to let them).
Gigantism comes even from small cars. We must stop pursuing the impossible task of reducing congestion (actually, congestion provides cities with a lot of benefits—as I note in my other writings). The task is to create ways to avoid the congestion when it inevitably comes.
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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