Speed and Sprawl
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.
Beyond 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. ....
Beyond 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.
All 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 transportation 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 it.
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 at it.
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 it"?
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 congestion.
An 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 Coalition.
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 others.