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I was tyring to figure out how to interest you in a whole bunch of scatter plots with diffuse to specific R-squares this weekend when I came across this article.  


This bears a reply.  The two values the article holds up as inviolate goals are mobility and affordability, two virtues as unassailable as apple pie.  The problem is, these play right into the virtues of traffic-only transportation, so I’d like to talk about them here.

Mobility, the means to move as far and as fast as possible, for a minimal cost, has been rapidly expanding in the last century.  In 1832, the first American rail locomotive surpassed 60 MPH (“American #1”, actually), while the average speed in cities was still 3 MPH horse/human walking speed.  By 1932, 60 MPH was routine for all traffic on highways, and 30 MPH was the routine speed along city streets.  Mobility allows drivers to reach many, many, many more things than they could via walking, biking, ferry, or even transit, so why wouldn’t we want to maximize mobility?

Mobility is not the actual point of mobility, however.  We rarely take trips without a destination, just driving for the sake of speed and range to get as far away from where we are.  Not to say that I haven’t taken those trips once in a great while, but that they are exceedingly rare.  Usually, our commutes and our errands have a destination, a reason, and route.  Every trip represents a desire or a goal fulfilled.  The distance to the goal doesn’t really matter.  If it is easy to travel a long distance, then we’ll do it more readily than if the journey long or tedious.  If we lived where more goals were within biking distance than drving distance, it would be a waste if we had to get in traffic to make those trips because everything had been built for traffic, making biking and walking inconvenient or dangerous.  

And traffic does have a cost: $3 million per new lane mile, 8-9 thousand dollars to own and operate a car for households, or a lane for governments.  An area larger than West Virginia is taken by the governemnt for right of way.  A similar area is taken for parking, mostly on private property, mostly required by the government*.  All that pavement means that many of our urban, suburban and exurban streams are in a sorry state, resembling dry washes or arroyos in Arizona more than the forest streams they were just decades ago.  And the more we use traffic, the less we can use anything else.  The hierarchical network of traffic, with trips meant to start and end in local roads with inevitable forays onto collectors and arterials, are just tedious on foot or bike, and unnavigable on transit.

So the point of transportation is not really mobility, it is trips.  This liberates us from thinking the only way to get around in America has to be traffic, even if the only way we can get around is in fact traffic.  Transit, walking and biking could offer the same trip destinations, if we rethink the scale of some places.  If those places do better than the traffic places, then more places are free to consider their future directions.  In the last decade or three, walkability and good design has been fighting a minority battle of permits, variances and design review, while traffic’s landscape gets built by-right (default).  What could we gain if walkability and bikability could be built by right where they make sense?

Which brings us to affordability.  The affordability mentioned in the linked article is a canard.  Specifically, the affordability in mind is hosuehold affordability, specifically “drive ‘til you qualify”.  That is, if you cannot afford a house close to work, you can always afford one far away.  I was looking on Zillow this weekend at Syracuse, thinking “Damn, I could afford one of these and work in NYC!”.  Had not thought my cunning plan all the way through.

The folly of this is that transportation has a cost, and traffic is the most expensive of all.  Traffic is the most libertarian of modes in one way: user fees.  Not just the property taxes and gas taxes to pay for around half of the roads, but the cost of purchasing, owning, and operating cars and trucks to be in traffic.  This cost is between a trillion and 1.5 trillion dollars a year, paid for by every household and business that has to buy one or more vehicles.  While much of this cost is sunk costs and depreciation to resale, a lot of it is operating costs on fuel, parts and repair.  AAA publishes a standard “cost of driving” rate you might be familiar with.  Right now, its 60.5 cents per mile.  I  multiplied this times the VMT to get that figure of $1.5 trillon a year.  You can reduce your cost of dirving by driving less, however, in that you will put less wear and tear on your car, and need less fuel.

The problem with “drive ‘til you qualify” is that you put more  wear and tear on your car, spend more time in traffic, and put more wear and tear on your body stressing about traffic, the further away you live form the places you travel.  The blended cost of housing and traffic is about break even for an exurban family and an inner ring suburban family.  Getting back to the safety article I wrote a couple of weeks ago and plan on continuing, the chance of violent death is actually higher in many suburbs than in many cities.  Though the rate of traffic collisons has been falling sicne 2008, the rate of crime has been falling even faster.


Eroded Stream, Cleveland, 1917, along Euclid Ave. showing typical effect of paving for roofs, roads and parking lots.

So, we have to think a little more broadly about mobility and affordability if we are to make sensible decisions.  I don’t mean sensible like “Central Planning”, I mean sensible like “household finances”.  Don’t be fooled by keywords.

* And yet parking lots are perfectly sensible, if the only people you expect to see are coming to see you via traffic.