Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Pro-Alternate Transportation is not Anti-Car

It is generally my philosophy to link and have a discussion on topics that are local in value, for example, the Trinity Tollroad or discuss examples from across the country in relation to the Trinity Tollroad. Today I will make an exception because it is relevant to planning, planners and me personally.

I put it here to give an understanding of my philosophy, and hope that readers will keep this in mind when policies are put forth that may limit the automobile's reach.

Herb Caudill believes that planners are not anti-car and the supposed "war on cars" that planners have been accused of is not true. It is that cars and what they need, from a pure physical infrastructure point, are not an efficient use of resources.

The central fact about cars, from a planner's perspective, is that they take up space. Lots of space. And this matters because space in cities (a.k.a real estate) is scarce and therefore expensive.
Cars take up space when they're moving and they take up space when they're parked, and even though they can't be simultaneously moving and parked, you have to plan for both states and plan for peak demand; so you have to set aside some multiple of the real estate actually occupied by the car at any given time.

That's just a practical observation about the spatial geometry of cities that doesn't bow to my ideology or yours. And it would still remain true even if cars ran on nothing but recycled newspapers and emitted nothing but rainbows and unicorn tears.

In the past, our policy response has been to just set aside more and more space for cars: More freeways, more roads, more lanes on existing roads, more parking garages and surface lots. This approach hasn't worked, and there are two very practical reasons why:

First, you can never build enough. There's a phenomenon called "induced demand" that is very well understood by now. A new lane or a new freeway never reduces congestion in the long run: People respond to new capacity by driving more or by living or working in previously remote places, and you're very quickly back where you started and have to build still more. The same phenomenon applies to increases in the supply of parking. It's a game you can't win.

Second, when you do make more space for cars you quickly start to crowd out any other potential mode of transportation, especially walking. All those parking lots and freeways and roads spread everything else out so that the distances become too great for walking. And the more you optimize any given space for cars the more hostile that space is for pedestrians. Very quickly you get to the point where it becomes impossible—or prohibitively depressing—to get things done on foot.

I agree whole-heartedly about this. While he does say that externalities are excluded for this discussion, I would say that also has a huge effect in my reasoning. DFW as a region is a non-attainment area for ozone. The primary reason for the ozone is the exhaust from cars. To try and solve the ozone issue without addressing cars will never work. Any solution has to incorporate that aspect.

What the "war on cars" boils down to is those that are funded by the road lobby **coughcoughCatoInstitutecough** are working to find a way to keep doing what has always been done in the last 60-70 years. Folks in cars scoff at perceived anti-car policies, for example, tolling of freeways, not because the policy to pay for what you use is bad, but because they have always had free roads.

What planners get flack for is trying to shift the pendulum, which is so far towards cars at this moment, more toward the middle. I have often said, much to disbelieving ears, that I am not anti-car. I am pro-transportation-choice. There have been times where I could have taken something that wasn't a car, but didn't. Sadly, there have also been times where I didn't want to take the car but had no option. That's what we are out to fix.