for More Sustainable Transportation
Politics of Transportation; Fundamental Sources of Conflict
In the simplest terms, transportation is the paths between nodes
of human activity, including any enhancements that ease the movement
of people and goods along those paths. Land-use encompasses both
nodes and paths. In having to share the available land, nodes
and paths impinge on each other making transportation innately
political. The details of transportation may be technical in nature,
but overall, the most important choices will always be political.
Speed is at the core of transportation politics. Some people
are enabled to go fast, and the others have to get out of the
way. The faster some people can go, the greater the inequities,
and the more intensely political transportation becomes.
The equity consequences of speed, long ignored by the transportation
professionals and their establishment, were explained by the influential
writer Ivan Illich in his 1973 essay, Energy and Equity.
a critical speed, no one can save time without forcing another
to lose it. The man who claims a seat in a faster vehicle
insists that his time is worth more than that of the passenger
in a slower one.
Beyond a certain velocity, passengers become consumers of
other people's time, and accelerating
vehicles become the means for effecting a net transfer of
life-time. The degree of transfer is measured in quanta
of speed. ....
a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which
they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and
shrink them for only a few. ... The new expressway expands
Chicago, but it sucks those who are well-wheeled away from
a downtown that decays into a ghetto.
as long as any system of vehicles imposes itself on the
public by top speeds that are not under political control,
the public is left to choose between spending more time
to pay for more people to be carried from station to station,
and paying less taxes so that even fewer people can travel
in much less time much farther than others. The order of
magnitude of the top speed that is permitted within a transportation
system determines the slice of its time budget that an entire
society spends on traffic.
those who plan, finance, or engineer other people's housing,
transportation, or education belong to the passenger class.
Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers
place on acceleration. Social scientists can build a computer
model of traffic in Calcutta or Santiago, and engineers
can design monorail webs according to abstract notions of
traffic flow. Since these planners are true believers in
problem-solving by industrial design, the real solution
for traffic congestion is beyond their grasp. Their belief
in the effectiveness of power blinds them to the disproportionately
greater effectiveness of abstaining from its use. Traffic
engineers have yet to combine in one simulation model the
mobility of people with that of vehicles.
Thirty years after this was written, the simulation model used
in Sonoma County still does not combine in one model the mobility
of people on foot with that of vehicles.
The Growth of Sprawl
Sprawl development and the auto-oriented system grew symbiotically
until they accumulated a majority of the population. The people
of the sprawled majority probably believe they would be harmed
by reversion to a system with a greater choice of travel modes,
because their autos would in the process become somewhat more
costly to use.
Illich discusses the issue of top speed, as well as the availability
of that speed to the entire population.
It should not be overlooked that top speeds for a few exact
a different price than high speeds for all. Social classification
by levels of speed enforces a net transfer of power: the poor
work and pay to get left behind. But if the middle classes
of a speed society may be tempted to ignore discrimination,
they should not neglect the rising marginal disutilities of
transportation and their own loss of leisure. High speeds
for all mean that everybody has less time for himself as the
whole society spends a growing slice of its time budget on
moving people. Vehicles running over the critical speed not
only tend to impose inequality, they also inevitably establish
a self-serving industry that hides an inefficient system of
locomotion under apparent technological sophistication. I
will argue that a speed limit is not only necessary to safeguard
equity; it is equally a condition for increasing the total
distance traveled within a society, while simultaneously decreasing
the sum total of life-time that transportation claims.
The essay Energy
and Equity, in its entirety.
The Mechanism that Creates Sprawl
An underlying asymmetry in transportation is at the economic
heart of sprawl. Public mass transportation has an economic advantage
within densely populated areas, whereas private cars are most
economic in low density areas. The asymmetry arises in traveling
from high to low density, or low to high. Public transportation
has to be subsidized at the low density end, and private transportation
has to be subsidized at the high density end.
The rich always have options. A free market might sort out the
asymmetry problems and give everyone more options. But transportation
has never been treated as a free market issue. Politically, it
was decided to subsidize car driving by subsidizing the parking
and the streets always in the name of the poor of course.
This is a great burden on high density areas, generally the central
cities. Over time, people flee burdens if they can. People with
means departed for lower density areas, leaving those left in
the central cities poorer on average, while being encumbered with
the burden of parking space given to car drivers. Ultimately,
we get to the awkward state where even the nearly-poor opt to
live at great distances from their work in order to gain the advantages
of cheap land. With their lives precariously based on highly subsidized
car travel, they desperately oppose any reductions in those subsidies.
For some time society has recognized that there is a problem
with the continuing drift into sprawl. Yet there is no focus on
the asymmetry that is the root cause, because now the majority
is invested in the status quo. This situation brings about what
can be called the phenomenon of Purposeful Ineffectiveness. When
confronted by a need for change, but not liking the change, people
will agree to take ineffective measures. This lets them feel like
they are trying, while maintaining the status quo.
After many years of trial and error to make the transit systems
more "desirable", to "entice people out of their
cars", none of the efforts have had much effect. What would
cause people to leave their cars in favor of transit is well known
-- build at high densities, reduce car parking and charge for
Transit operators seldom do much to change these basic factors,
arguing that it isn't part of their job. 50 years ago the auto
companies and their brethren decided it was their job to change
the landscape in order to sell more cars. They were very effective
When surveyors ask for drivers' opinions of what it would take
to get them out of their cars, how many respondents would say
"build at high densities, reduce car parking and charge for
None of them. Instead they might say that the public transportation
system should be made much more convenient for them, in their
current living environment and travel patterns. The political
body can't respond to such a request, because those same people
will vote against the taxation that would be required.
If this is the dilemma, what is a solution? We can expect that
a political problem needs a political solution. But those of us
who want the change are probably in a minority, and are certainly
in a weak position relative to those that benefit from and wish
to maintain the status quo.
To find out if there could be agreement in Sonoma County on what
people want in their transportation system- even among environmentalists
- SCTLC hosted a forum in 2001. Summary of
the 2001 forum
A political solution in London
On February 18, 2003, a momentous event occurred in London, when
the city began charging motorists £5 to come into the central
area, in order to reduce congestion. The revenue that is generated
goes into enhanced transit to better serve those who prefer not
to pay the toll.
Such a central area scheme was previously imposed only in Singapore,
where it was supposed that an autocratic government was an essential
piece of such a political solution.
At the onset of the scheme's implementation in London there were
a few articles reaching the local press, but they were limited
in their scope, oriented mostly to the hoopla of the event. Many
more articles about it appeared in the U.K. press, as might be
expected, particularly in the larger cities experiencing similar
A recent article in the New York Times brought to light a new
angle, that another U.S.-British coalition had been at work even
before the one that has received so much attention for its adventure
in Iraq. More accurately, this was actually a New York - London
The full article is
included here not to suggest a cordon congestion charging scheme
for Sonoma County, but for what it tells us about political possibilities
for making motorists accountable for the costs they impose on
Other topics on the politics of transportation to be discussed
here at a later time:
- Past ballot measures and why they failed
- The need to become a self-help county.
- Possible political solutions