I’m writing this after almost finishing my morning commute. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, naturally. Starbucks are high-design WiFi places that don’t have a problem with me loitering and typing. There is no music poppy enough to make me want to leave, but there is enough noise from the counter and the other patrons to make furious typing anonymous. There are Starbucks everywhere there is money and time. Therefore, there are whole counties without a Starbucks, but there are plenty here.
When I took this job, I worried about the distance. I’ve long tried to minimize my commute distance, to conserve energy and reduce land use impacts. The rule was still getting burned, the parking still available in faraway suburbs, I just didn’t want any part of it. We bought our last house within walking distance of my job. With the convenience of four different traffic routes over a system of roads developed over the last two centuries, I’ve made it work. in 20 minutes, I get from my front door to this chair at Starbucks, typing away
The point of traffic is getting everywhere from everywhere. It is diffuse. Access s many to many because the network connects everyplace worth visiting in the US. That’s why we have 4.5 million miles of roads and 8.5 million miles of lanes on those roads. The average capital cost of a road lane mile is something like $3 million, in 2010 dollars. It has cost us something like 20 trillion dollars to build up our current road network over the last century. That’s OK, though, a most of it was built before our lifetimes. We’re only trying to maintain it all now.
The great thing about traffic is that it mostly is not the government’s problem. It’s all of our problem. Last month I spent nearly a thousand dollars on brakes, and this morning I noticed a new “Low Tire Pressure Light”. It is always something with this car, and it is always money. This is stuff that the government doesn’ t have to worry about. They just build and (try to) maintain the roads, while requiring every commercial property owner to provide parking lots on about half of their land. We the people have to worry about owning, operating and maintaining the vehicles. A professor of mine once shocked the class by saying that we spent the Marshall Plan (~100 bn $) on roads every year. That’s even as shocking as the amount we spend on operating the vehicles (~1,000 bn $ ) on vehicles every year. I’m sure the amount we spend on land to move and store those vehicles is even more shocking. For future research, there are 800 million parking spaces in the US, we have paved an area the size of West Virginia for roads, and the total value of real estate in the US is about $25 trillion.
This is the cost of doing business in America. The quickest way for a family to get out of poverty in many cities is to get a car. Nothing else is a better tool for increased income and decreased retail expenses, even though it costs thousands every year in upkeep.
The whole appeal of motorized traffic at the turn of the 20th century was that it allowed us to move farther than we had ever imagined. The whole curse of traffic today is that it forces us to move farther than we would ever want to. We have twice as many roads as we did then, connecting everything to everything. Parking lots were not even a concept in 1900, now they are mandatory for all new developments. The vast majority of trips then were on foot and by transit, now they are by traffic. This is not to indulge in facile nostalgia, but to point out that we were not always this way. We don’t have to always be this way either. The biggest change in traffic itself is “traffic as a service” which trades ownership and the need to find parking with serial rental of traffic. It is still much more expensive than owning a car for many, but makes more sense where car ownership is optional or parking (gasp) costs money. Traffic as a service is going to take off when labor is taken out of the equation, and the car becomes as personal and treacherous as the elevator. Traffic is older than the car; as old as the wheel or the domesticated horse. Traffic can apply to any moving object: foot, bike, or even information. This is why I am often taken to task for using the term “traffic” to indicate the 20th century phenomenon of motor vehicle use on paved roadways between paved parking spots.
The golden age of transit* between 1870 and 1900 was in this earlier, horse-drawn era of traffic. Private transit operators chose their routes based on the evident desire lines of the time: where the most people were walking. Transit was concentrated congestion. Similarly, transit connected places that people wanted to go. Later, between 1890 and 1920, transit companies tried their hand at creating places people wanted to go, with over 600 amusement parks and countless subdivisions at the ends of lines. It worked, so long as transit was the only way to get out there. Of course, we all grew up in what came after. Transit linked very few places with very expensive rights of way, using vehicles that were the transit line’s responsibility. The commonly repeated theory that General Motors conspired to do away with trolleys was not so much the culprit as 30 years of deferred maintenance by beleaguered transit companies and agencies. New buses were a godsend. Traffic had simply made everything accessible for the mobile. Transit’s much more limited service and focus on high density/high value destinations had lost its focus, density, and value. Even though the traffic network is far more extensive and costly than the transit network, we think of transit as subsidized, and traffic as paid for by user fees. We have a point. Even if the cost of building and maintaining roads is largely subsidized now, the operating cost of traffic is literally a user fee.
Traffic doesn’t work unless its lane miles reach everywhere. Transit should not have to. That the areas around transit stations are not walkable and bikable destinations by default is a waster of infrastructure, but one that we can still remedy if we want.
Miles of traffic & transit network in the 28 rail-transit enabled metros in the US. Shown are the miles of road in the metro (blue), miles of road within 3 miles of transit stations (red), and miles of transit trackway (green)
Costs for traffic & transit network in the 28 rail-transit enabled metros in the US. Same colors as above, assuming the average cost of a road is $5 ml/mile and the average cost of transit is $50 ml/mile.
To this day almost all transit agencies operate at a loss. Traffic does too, as cars are depreciating assets. The difference is that we all lose with traffic, and we have only ourselves to blame. With transit, the agency is always to blame, and they have to take it year on year.
*before antibiotics, in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and before we’d invented the sanitary landfill