Can Emerging Nations Avoid the Unsustainable, Ruinous Path the US has taken with Regard to Transportation?

By Dom Nozzi

Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.

While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.

We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.

Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral, even as growing numbers of us see that transportation “improvements” are, on balance, increasingly ruinous.

The over-emphasis on providing for cars has destroyed the severely hampered the financial condition of households, as well as the finances of local, state and federal governments. This over-emphasis has also significantly increased the number of injuries and deaths in the US, has significantly degraded quality of life and civic pride, has substantially harmed the natural environment, has drained the lifeblood out of most American town centers (downtowns), has taken away travel independence for seniors, children and others without the ability to drive a car, has wiped out smaller and locally-owned businesses in the face of emerging Big Box retailers, has promoted unsustainable suburban sprawl, has resulted in countless wildlife deaths, and has substantially contributed to the US becoming a nation of loners – a nation where we barely even know our neighbors, and much more rarely bump into friends and family.

The following is a list of actions a nation should consider if it seeks to avoid this catastrophic path taken by the United States with regard to transportation – a path, tragically, that many emerging nations have eagerly sought to follow over the past several decades.

This list is not ordered by priority.

Road size. In urban areas, roads should be no larger than three lanes in size. Those that are larger should be “road dieted” down to three lanes.

Parking for Cars. Excessive asphalt surface parking significantly promotes excessive car travel and car ownership, reduces walking, bicycling and transit use, reduces quality of life, increases crime, hurts town center economics, and reduces housing choice, housing affordability, and housing availability. Parking supply must be scarce, mostly on-street, and properly priced to achieve a parking use of about 85 percent of spaces at any given time of day. Residential and commercial development must provide owners and renters with the option of paying less for their building space in exchange for not having parking provided (parking cash-out).

Provide for the full range of lifestyle and travel choices. Land development regulations and transportation funding by government must be tailored and calibrated to ensure that regulations vary based on geographic location (compactness is the objective in town center regulations and drivable lower densities is the objective for more dispersed locations, for example). Government funding should be balanced so that excessive amounts of public money is not devoted to car travel.

Proximity. Town centers must be relatively dense and mixed in use. Building setbacks should be relatively small, and important community-serving facilities should remain in the town center.

Street network design. Streets must be well-connected. Dead ends and cul-de-sacs should be rare or non-existent. Street block length should be no longer than 200 feet in distance.

Low Speed Design. Streets in town centers must be designed to obligate motorists to drive slowly and attentively. There are many effective traffic calming tactics to do this.

One-Way Streets. Avoid creating one-way streets. Such streets are detrimental to transportation choice, retail and residential quality of life, and overall quality of life – particularly in town centers.

Gas Tax. Needs to be high enough to compensate for motorist costs, and discourage excessive car use. A properly high gas tax is a key way to achieve energy sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and financial health (the US gas tax has been so low that it fails to achieve these aims, and ends of transferring enormous national wealth to oil-producing nations).

Full-Time Staff. Hire and maintain full-time staff who are highly skilled in providing transportation choices. Too often, government transportation departments have staff who are only skilled in designing for easy car travel.

Strive for “24-Hour City” design. This is mostly achieved by providing for higher density mixed-use development in town centers. Such design promotes safety, quality of life, and economic health. It is also important in promoting travel and lifestyle choices.

Safety in Numbers. Strive for a community design that results in large numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, in part to promote much higher levels of safety for the community.

Happiness and Celebration. Consider occasional and permanent street closures to promote sociability, quality of life, and transportation choice. Design city infrastructure, programs, and festivals that celebrate and promote happy people rather than happy cars. Economic success should be measured not be a rising Gross National Product but by a rising Gross National Happiness.

Conclusion

When a developing nation starts enjoying a relatively large household income, it becomes very difficult to avoid the ruinous steps (or achieve the useful steps) associated with the above actions. Travel by car is extremely seductive, and the zero-sum, self-perpetuating nature of providing for car travel is almost certain to occur once household wealth reaches its tipping point and car ownership is in reach.

Over-providing for car travel is zero-sum in the sense that providing for car travel inevitably makes travel by transit, walking or bicycling more difficult. Over-providing for car travel is self-perpetuating in the sense that, as just noted, non-car travel becomes increasingly impractical when we provide for car travel. Providing for car travel is also self-perpetuating because it inevitably creates a growing army of motorists who demand their elected officials single-mindedly provide for the enormous road and parking design changes, and provide for the sprawling, low-density land development patterns that car dependence requires.

The inevitable result of the zero-sum game and the self-perpetuating trap is the over-emphasis on providing for car travel.

Short of major resource (particularly oil) disruption, then, there is no turning back on a world of car over-emphasis, once growing wealth brings car ownership to a society.

At first, the enormous costs that inevitably follow the nearly impossible-to-avoid scenario of over-emphasizing car travel tend to be invisible due to the seemingly wondrous glare of the joys that car travel seems – at least initially — to promise. Avoiding the false glory of a car-based society requires immense wisdom and leadership on the part of the elected officials of a society.

The near impossibility of a nation successfully avoiding the transportation trap the US has fallen into suggests to me that the best hope for emerging nations in our era is the rapid onset of Peak Oil and other car-based resource constraints — constraints that make following the car-happy path of the US a path that is financially and politically impossible to follow. Unless such constraints emerge quickly and aggressively, the seductive lure of a car-based world may be too difficult to avoid.

If a nation is not able to learn from history, it is doomed to repeat it. And the seductiveness of car travel may blind emerging nations from the lessons of US transportation. Perhaps all nations, then, will be doomed to follow the US transportation path and be forced to learn for themselves.

_________________________________________________

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4 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

4 responses to “Can Emerging Nations Avoid the Unsustainable, Ruinous Path the US has taken with Regard to Transportation?

  1. yason

    “Those that are larger should be “road dieted” down to three lanes.” — just curious, you’ve mentioned this before. Do you mean three lanes each way or three lanes all together, i.e. 1+1 for one way and another way, and the third one which alternates as a left-turning lane for the main lanes? It is my opinion that three lanes to each direction in city areas would be disastrous for good quality pedestrian city life.

    Also, you’ve been saying the same about one-way streets. I can imagine the detrimental one-way street such as 2-4 lanes (or more) of high-speed traffic. But what do you think of one-way streets in all their forms? Is there something inherent to being one-way or just the way one-way streets can be used as a high-speed artery? I know quiet residential streets that are one-way, with on-street parking on both sides. The streets are so narrow that you can’t drive very fast, so traffic calming happens because of physical limitations instead of head on traffic–even if it’s one-way.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Three lanes in each direction (6 total travel lanes) is WAY too many lanes. I don’t think we should ever have such a road configuration anywhere. As you say, such roads are disastrous. When I say four lanes to three, then, I am referring to two travel lanes in each direction dieted down to one in each direction and center turn pockets.

    As for one-ways, I believe that all forms of one-ways, including those that are only one lane (usually in a couplet form), are, on balance, detrimental, with the possible and rare exception when a road diet is only possible by creating a one-way (this scenario is much more rare than most believe). In my opinion, even one-lane one-ways create excessively high, inattentive (and therefore toxic) car travel. In my view, it is preferable, almost always, to have a two-way street w/ parking on just one side, rather than a one-lane, one-way street with parking on both sides. Such one-ways might keep traffic slower and more attentive, but they tend to create inconvenience, wrong-way travel, a frequent need to go out of one’s way to get to a destination, can be harmful to residences, and are usually toxic for business (which lose a direction of travel for customers).

    Too often, one-ways are considered the only option for a more narrow street section, when in reality, there are a great many opportunities to instead create my favorite street type: the give-way street, where motorists are obligated to give way to on-coming cars as the street is too narrow for each to pass each other in the two-way section.

    Dom

  3. Reblogged this on At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog and commented:
    When I visit emerging or even European countries, I am saddened by seeing mistakes on the ground that America has made three decades before. Why can’t we learn from each other? Is it because people and cities are so giddy with new found wealth that they can’t resist the temptations of over-development, sprawl, or car use? I stumbled across this blog entry that attempts to answer this question and thought I’d share. Please enjoy!

  4. Pingback: Is It Too Late for America? | Great Streets San Diego

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