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Changing fundamentals of transportation

The present automobile-dominated, highway-oriented transportation system has brought amazing mobility to many people. However, all this mobility comes with growing costs. Indeed there are signs that the fundamentals of transportation are changing in significant ways — making the system less and less sustainable.

Here is a summary of the changing fundamentals. It is a summary of problems. But there is a positive flip side: It's easy to see how a more sustainable transportation system can help us have more choices, save money, be healthier, revitalize our cities and towns, improve the environment, and be more secure.

End of cheap oil 

Much of the design of American society, especially the transportation system, is predicated on abundant, cheap energy. However, increasing demand from developing nations and the possible peaking of global oil supplies are convincing many people that expensive gasoline will be a permanent fact of life. Already, high gas prices are creating an affordability crisis for many households. People are cutting back on driving, buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, and demanding more transportation choices. Although gas prices moderated in late 2008, the long-term trend is for greater demand for scarce supplies around the world. 

Transportation budget crisis

The financial situations of transportation agencies, such as the Ohio Department of Transportation, are eroding fast. Budgets are eroding in three big ways. Construction costs are skyrocketing (in part because of the escalating costs of energy-intensive materials like asphalt, cement, and steel). Gas tax revenues are declining as motorists react to high gas prices and cut back on driving or buy more fuel-efficient cars. And there is growing political pressure to invest public resources in other areas, such as education.

This is an historic shift. There are concerns about the ability to maintain the existing transportation system, much less build new projects to expand the system. Incremental increases in gas taxes won’t plug the widening funding gap, even if such increases were politically possible.

Climate change 

To stabilize the Earth’s climate, we need to act quickly to reduce carbon emissions by 80% or more. A large share of the reductions will have to come from the transportation sector, which accounts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions.

What will have to change? The options include improving the fuel-efficiency of the vehicle fleet, reducing the carbon intensity of fuels (for instance, with biofuels), changing to electric cars (especially if the power comes from renewable sources), or driving less (combining trips or making it possible for more people to live in walkable neighborhoods with good transit service).

Most likely, a mix of strategies will be required. To achieve the 80% goal, we need to start building a very different transportation system. For more on the links between transportation and climate change.

Air pollution

Metropolitan areas in Ohio, including Greater Cleveland, are having great difficulty meeting national air quality standards, in large part because of vehicle emissions. Increasingly, the transportation sector will be under pressure to reduce pollution so economic development will not be constrained. Among pollution sources, there is a trade-off between driving cars and being able to open a new factory to create jobs. Go here for more on air quality planning and transportation.

Public health problems

Despite advances in auto safety, driving a car is one of the most dangerous things you will ever do. You have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident (compared with a 1 in 5,051 chance of dying in a plane crash or a 1 in 79,746 chance of being killed by lightening).

In 2005, there were 43,443 deaths and 2.7 million injuries in the U.S. from motor vehicle accidents. And you don’t even have to drive to be in danger, for 4,881 of the people killed in motor vehicle crashes were pedestrians. This is carnage on a massive scale—almost like the U.S. casualties of the Vietnam War happening on the streets of American every year. (Go here for more on pedestrian safety.)

Research is also uncovering the links a car-oriented lifestyle and the epidemic of obesity. In communities without walkable neighborhoods, people get less exercise as part of their daily activities.

The combination of traffic deaths and obesity-related health problems far exceeds the risk of crime and makes sprawling suburbs more dangerous places to live than most cities. Yet we keep building more automobile-oriented communities where people have to drive everywhere and where it’s unsafe to walk or ride a bike.  

Sprawl and the costs to communities

Northeast Ohio is shaped by three powerful trends: slow or no growth of population and jobs, the outward migration of the economy to new suburbs, and the shift from manufacturing jobs to lower-wage service jobs. “In sum,” says the recent NOACA long-range transportation plan, “there is virtually no growth, and what does occur tends to be lower paying jobs, which are being dispersed throughout the region.”

As a result of these trends, the plan foresees “…a transportation future that will continue to chase sprawl.”

One can argue the chicken-or-egg question about what comes first in specific cases—the road that opens up new land for development or the development that creates traffic demands for a new road. But two things are clear: our current, dispersed, auto-centric transportation system already does a good job of enabling the outmigration of households and jobs from older communities in the region, and the current system for planning transportation projects is geared toward reducing traffic congestion in newly developing areas, which encourages additional sprawl development (more about the biases of the planning process in later sections).

The region has not come to grips with the costs of these trends—or how transportation investments contribute. In a slow growth region, sprawl is a just a shell game we play with existing resources. Older communities are drained of resources and decline, while new communities struggle to pay for new roads, schools, water systems, and other infrastructure. Overall, the costs of servicing the region keep going up, as more infrastructure is spread out over more land area.

This is all happening at a time when smart developers know that the hottest real estate deals are in vibrant, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. It's a  tragedy that our transportation investments are not focused on promoting the development of such environments.

The affordability crisis

With the cost of operating a car exceeding 50 cents a mile (or $6,000 a year for a typical driver), mobility by car is expensive. And it’s especially expensive for households in the Cleveland metro area. Families here spend an average $7,702 per year, or 20.5% of their household budget, on transportation — more than they spend on food or education. Only families in Houston spend at a higher rate, according to a recent study, “Driven to Spend: Pumping Dollars Out of Our Households and Communities,” by the Surface Transportation Policy Project and the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Households in metro areas that are less auto-dependent spend less. For example, people in the Baltimore area get to work by means other than automobiles (such as transit) twice as often as people in Cleveland. As a result, Baltimore households spend just 14% of their budgets on transportation. This represents big savings: If households in Baltimore spent the national average on transportation (19.1% instead of 14%), they would have spent an extra $2 billion in 2003.

Low-income families are unduly impacted by high transportation costs, since transportation costs claim a higher percentage of their budgets. In the city of Cleveland more than a quarter of all households do not own a car. Many of those who do own one are trapped in a desperate cycle of car dependency, where they need a car to hold a job but then pay out much of their earnings to maintain the car.

The need to own a car to access jobs is expected to increase, according to the latest long-range transportation plan prepared by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA):

While the region expects little population growth over the next 30 years, jobs will continue to disperse to suburban areas throughout the region. This decentralization of jobs will pose challenges for the transportation system…When these trends are projected into the future, the separation of Environmental Justice populations [low-income and minority] from jobs is expected to increase considerably…Transit users may well experience increasing difficulty commuting to employment sites [in outer suburbs] and thus be shut out of the job market.

Loss of freedom

The car is a symbol of mobility and freedom, but it doesn’t free everybody. It doesn’t free children who are dependent on grown-ups to take them everywhere because there’s no place for them to walk or bike to. It doesn’t free senior citizens who have lost their drivers licenses and are marooned in a sprawling suburb. And it doesn’t free low-income people who can’t afford a car.

For those who can drive, mobility is reduced as everyone else drives more and increases traffic congestion. The problem is a transportation system that is so heavily dominated by one mode of transportation and provides so few choices. In the coming years, the aging of Northeast Ohio’s population will make this problem even more acute.  

Loss of time

In today’s busy world, time is one of the scarce resources. And we are spending more of our scarce time driving around in our cars. Women are bearing the brunt of this increasing drive time, according to a report, “High Mileage Moms,” by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. Nationally, there’s been a significant increase in the amount of time women spend on the road and the number of stops they make along the way. Mothers now spend over an hour a day driving—more time than the average parent spends dressing, bathing and feeding a child.

As communities spread further apart, these numbers are likely to grow. The problem is that our communities are designed so people who don't drive, primarily children and the elderly, must be chauffeured everywhere they need to go, whether it's to school, the park or the doctor's office. The report points to neighborhoods with few safe sidewalks or bike paths and poor bus or train service as a primary contributor to increasing time spent behind the wheel. Sprawling communities are compounding the problem by adding more distance between the places people need to go—work, school, shops, pharmacies, dry cleaners, gyms, and daycare centers.  

Loss of place

In the past 50 years much of the American landscape has been designed to accommodate the increasing mobility of the automobile, and the results have not been pretty. The urban design critic James Howard Kunstler puts it this way in his book, The Geography of Nowhere:

Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading—the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet-mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”

There are many reasons why so much of recent development is hard to care about, including zoning and building codes, national trends in “big-box” retailing, and high construction costs. But a big reason is that it is hard to design nice places for human beings when you must accommodate a lot of cars. It’s a simple matter of geometry. Cars require more space than people on foot, on a bike, or in a bus. So roads grow wider and wider, and more and more land is devoted to parking. This forces buildings farther apart. Instead of a walkable Main Street, you get isolated stores surrounded by parking lots. Or you get a downtown that has lost all vitality because a third of the land is a dead zone of parking.  

National security

It's ironic that the Interstate Highway System was designed to strengthen national defense. President Eisenhower wanted to be able to transport troops quickly from one part of the country to the other. More importantly, the highway system allowed population and strategic manufacturing plants to be located out of urban centers — dispersed to survive a nuclear attack.

But now our dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East is one of the biggest national security problems. Most of the oil is required for transportation – to fuel the cars and trucks that we have no choice but to drive. There are ways to reduce dependence marginally – with cars that get better gas mileage or cars that run on biofuels. But the sheer size of the demand and its inflexibility make a transition difficult – far more difficult than it would be if we had more transportation options.

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