A seismic shift appears to be underway with regards to how experts view transportation. The new vocabulary includes words like multimodal and person-level transportation. Transportation experts want to move “people” instead of cars because most cars on the road today are single occupant vehicles or SOVs—not an efficient enough form of transportation apparently. Aren’t motorists though people too? We are not just our cars. We, the people must drive because there are no realistic alternatives and because of the inherent freedom of being able to go where we want, when we want, and how we want.
Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) website recently issued an article called THE MORBID AND MORTAL TOLL OF SPRAWL which declared that for the past 50+ years U.S. transportation engineers have designed and built thoroughfares that allow drivers to feel comfortable driving carelessly. Wide streets and enormous intersections encouraged urban sprawl, suburbia, and complete automobile dependence. The CNU also had another short and fascinating historical article on how streets turned out this way. Experts continue to complain about congestion and sprawl but no one twisted anyone’s arm to move out to suburbia. Americans made choices and luckily we can still make those choices today.
Currently over 80% of all American adults drive a car wherever they might happen to live. Even though more people are driving more miles now than ever before, roads are safer than at any time in history based on the number of miles driven. Americans drive around 2.18 trillion miles in the current rolling 12-month period. That is 9,800 miles for every person in the country. This correlates to about 26.8 miles per day per person, about 15% more miles driven than a quarter of century ago. If Americans had multimodal transportation choices would they actually use them?
Historically, departments of transportation (local, state and federal) have made decisions based on population. More people driving meant building more roads to move people in cars more quickly. Public transportation was generally factored in as well.
Ironically, even though DOTs have always promoted the car as the primary mode of transportation, the transportation agencies have continuously implemented measures that disrupt and discourage the efficient movement of traffic. Our gas tax money continues to be used to promulgate multimodal transportation agendas which should mean less road and street congestion since less people are supposedly using the roads. This should not mean though the impediment of driving due to lack of road maintenance or the application of traffic calming measures that ultimately worsen the driving experience.
In August, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), a trade group representing 13,000 professionals in 90 different countries, announced that departments of transportation (local, state and federal) should not focus so heavily on cars. The ITE comments were in response to the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) proposed rulemaking on “National Performance Management Measures; Assessing the Performance of the National Highway System, Freight Movement on the Interstate System, and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program”. See this Streetsblog USA article about the topic. Find halfway down a PDF link that gives the ITE full letter and comments.
The ITE has particular concerns about the measure for congestion management. ITE’s International President Paula Flores Benway wrote in her letter to the Federal Highway Administration that the implementation of the delay-based measure for congestion management should be postponed until such time that a measure be based on a multimodal and person-level delay can be developed. If the FHWA would take these suggestions from the ITE to develop these additional measures what kind of impact will that really have on most of us? Very little. What a waste of time and dollars, money that could be used for improving roads now.
The Truth about Cars website recently ran a blog post on THIS IS HOW THEY’LL TAKE YOUR CAR FROM YOU. The author states that we’ll be shamed into giving up our cars. In 10 to 15 years, it might even be difficult to buy a new car that we can drive ourselves. The big automakers no longer call themselves automakers. They are now mobility companies and have invested heavily in carsharing and ridesharing startups.
The media and transportation experts keep harping on the coming carsharing/ridesharing future but doesn’t that put more cars on our streets? Los Angeles currently has a proposal to take 100,000 cars (two percent of all cars in LA) off the street in five years with the idea that they would need to increase the number of cars that are used for carsharing and ridesharing. This is of course a multimodal plan but the question remains: Will that many Angeleno motorists want to give up their cars for good?
Driverless cars have also spurred the idea that more cars will be on the streets than ever before. In some cities, driverless cars will be the de facto public transportation since buses, trams, trolleys, subways and trains are so 20th century. But how would connected and driverless cars work if we cannot even maintain the basic infrastructure that we have right now? This leap of faith that we can improve our infrastructure for the Car of the Future may be misguided.
For the here and now, driving a car will continue to be the primary transportation form that Americans use on a daily basis. Trying to change those dynamics with new vocabulary and social engineering will not change this paradigm anytime soon. The current transportation system is the one we have for better or worse.