Quick Take: Transportation, Equality, and Freedom

By Jason Segedy

June 20, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Flight Memorial Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)

Something’s going on, a change is taking place
Children smiling in the street have gone without a trace
This street used to be full, it used to make me smile

And nothing I could say
Could ever make them see the light
Now apathy is happy that
It won without a fight

Think for a minute, stop for a minute

The Housemartins, Think for a Minute

I just returned from the 8-80: The Doable Cities Forum in Chicago, hosted by the Knight Foundation, which focused on the need to go back to creating traditional, human-scaled places in our cities that can be navigated easily on foot and by bicycle.

It was a great event, and it was encouraging to see people from all across the country talking about (and more importantly - doing something about) this issue.

It got me thinking about transportation; specifically the automobile, and its relationship to equality and freedom.  What do those terms really mean in a transportation context? 

Our transportation system today is so dominated by the automobile, that we have largely lost the ability to have a detached perspective on the ways in which it has shaped our society.  

Cars are a wonderful convenience for many of us, but they are primarily considered such a great convenience, because we have collectively built a society where we have to travel long distances, and therefore need cars. 

The very rationale for their convenience is a bit of a circular argument, and it’s worth considering that it hasn’t always been that way.

The prevalence of the automobile has blinded most of us to the profound inconvenience that an auto-dominated society has created for those that cannot drive. Our over-reliance upon cars is both a cause and an effect of systemic inequality in our transportation system.  

When automobile usage became widespread, one of the biggest selling points was that cars allowed each individual to have more freedom (at least those that could afford to own one).  

But have cars really delivered on that promise?  Yes, they still provide many of us with a fairly quick and convenient way to get to where we need to go.  But again, they are convenient primarily because we have spread our homes, jobs, and other activities out all over the landscape (because we had cars, and cheap gasoline, and therefore we could) and now most of us are in a position where we have to drive to virtually everything whether we want to or not. 

Before the automobile was invented, most people had a fairly convenient and quick way to get where they needed to go - it was called walking. Cities and towns were built to be navigated easily on foot, and barring long trips to distant locales, most people could get to almost everywhere they needed to go in 20 minutes, just like most of us can today - but without having to own or operate a car.  

In the early 20th century, for example, cities and towns were built in a manner which gave most people the freedom to get virtually wherever they needed to go by using their own two feet.  Bicycles, streetcars, and trains were available for longer trips, where walking was not practical.  The amount of money spent (by the individual and by society) on transportation was a fraction of what it is today.

So, how much freedom do cars really provide us with?  And at what cost?

There is an old cliche that says “freedom isn’t free”.  The same logic can be applied to much of the freedom that cars provide.  Yes, cars provide real, tangible benefits to those of us (myself included) that use them, but these benefits also come with real, tangible (and intangible) costs to individuals and to society as a whole. 

As a culture, we have greatly overemphasized the benefits and drastically downplayed the costs.  

So, what are the costs?  

Well, to begin in strictly monetary terms, there is the privately incurred average annual cost of owning and operating a car, which now stands at nearly $10,000 per year, per vehicle.

Then there is the publicly incurred cost of transportation.  Federal, state, and local governments spend an estimated $310 billion on transportation each year; the vast majority of which goes to build and maintain the roads and bridges which make our auto-dominated transportation system possible.

And these are just the quantifiable and explicit monetary costs that we incur to support this social arrangement.  

The implicit social and environmental costs are less easy to quantify, but are perhaps even more significant: the weakening of our sense-of-place, the loss of community, the lack of social cohesion; inequality and lost economic opportunity for those that don’t drive; the 34,000 Americans that are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes, the additional 2.2 million Americans that are injured; the damage to our air quality, our water quality, and our ecology - to name just a few.

Yes, cars give us freedom, but we end up paying a high price for it.  It is a price that we should question more often - especially those of us that are responsible for planning, financing, and building our transportation system.

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on.

For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems.

When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man.

But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price.

Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car.

Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway.

(Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It is difficult to argue with the logic that technology (in this case, the automobile) has had many unintended consequences, and that a machine that promised us freedom, has simultaneously limited the freedom of both those who use it, and those who do not.

Yes, the car has helped us cover long distances more effectively.  But it has also made us travel long distances for things that we didn’t always have to - a loaf of bread, a haircut, a postage stamp, or a box of nails.  

The point of this post is not to demonize people that drive. It is to challenge each one of us to think about our federal, state, and local transportation policy framework; our default cultural orientation; and the law of unintended consequences.

Cars are important, and they will remain a vital mode of transportation for the foreseeable future.  But we would do well to question our over-dependence on them, especially at a time when driverless cars are getting far more media attention than the more sensible idea of a return to human-scaled urban design that will help us relate more harmoniously with our built and natural environments, with one another, and that would give us more transportation choices.  

It’s all about balance.  I drove to work today, but I walked to lunch, and I am going to ride my bike to an event tonight.  We should resist the false choices offered to us by the ideologues who tell us that our only two options are either abolishing cars altogether, or a continued spending spree on highway construction and urban sprawl.    

We should think long and hard about the reality of the fact that we’ve reordered our entire society; our built environment; even our very way of life, to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.  

Our generation’s challenge is to create a balanced transportation system that works for all of our citizens - rich and poor; young and old; urban, suburban, and rural.  It is not about getting rid of the automobile, it is about returning to a situation in which it is our servant, and not our master.

The following photos offer some examples of how we’ve lost that sense of balance.

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Northside District, Akron

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State Route 18, Bath Township (Montrose)

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Brookwall Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)