The Self-Perpetuating Vicious Cycle

By Dom Nozzi

Because it enables fast, long-distance travel (compared to walking, bicycling or transit use), and because it consumes so much space, car travel inevitably spreads out and disperses homes, offices, civic and cultural facilities, shops and jobs into sprawling, low-density patterns.

Car travel is a zero-sum game in which a car trip has a ripple effect on how people travel: Each car trip discourages others from walking, bicycling or using transit. Because car travel spreads homes, offices, shops and jobs to remote locations, it becomes significantly more difficult to walk, bicycle or use transit (due to the much larger distances that must now be traveled). Car travel also makes non-car travel less safe (due to the threat of being hit by a car).

This, of course, induces more people to travel by car. Very quickly, the roads are filled with car drivers, who quickly become angry with other drivers because the driver is leading a busy life, is late for something, and therefore needs to drive at high speeds to save time.

Unfortunately for quality of life and safety, the car allows the motorist to drive at high velocities, so the temptation to drive at excessive speeds is too irresistible for nearly all motorists, even for the safe, courteous, mild-mannered driver.

Over time, the incessant recruitment of more and more motorists (who were formerly bicycling, walking or using transit, but now find it too difficult or unsafe to do so) means that nearly all trips are by car.

The result is that roads and parking lots almost immediately become crowded with impatient and space-hogging car drivers. This creates enormous levels of road rage, because the growing millions of motorists are forced – because they are motorists — to have to slow down and get infuriated by the guy in front of him or her – a slowpoke who has the audacity to make a left turn too slowly, or to not drive at least 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. MOVE IT, YOU SLOW POKE!!!!!

Thus, nearly everyone ends up racing their car when they find openings on the road, to make up for the slow-downs, or rushing to beat others to grab that remaining parking space.

In these ways, car travel feeds on itself by continuously recruiting additional motorists who were not driving in the past. More people travel by car, more people lose their temper, more people lose their patience, and more people flee to sprawlsville because it is too unsafe and unpleasant to do otherwise.

Politically, this means that nearly everyone desperately wants billions of public dollars spent for road widenings and more free parking. That is, of course, when they don’t live in the neighborhood that is proposed for degradation by the widening or increased parking. Or when they won’t have to pay for higher gas taxes or tolls on their roads.

Such hot-tempered motorists, who are now stuck driving a car because all other forms of travel are impractical, are aghast when others call for traffic calming and other car management strategies to try to reverse the insanity. It becomes a growing, mad dash to foul the nest and ruin ourselves. We become our own worst enemy.

Elected officials and transportation directors often pride themselves by calling their actions to build wider roads or more free parking “far-sighted.” Or “rational.” Or “realistic.” Such motorist cheerleaders trot out a bunch of red herrings and straw men. “WE CANNOT GET RID OF CARS!” “WE CANNOT SOP GROWTH!” “WE CANNOT REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF CAR TRAVEL!”

And the cycle continues. What an awful legacy such small-minded non-leaders will be leaving us when they retire…


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Or email me at: dom[AT]

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover =

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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