Mobility? We were just kidding about that.

American transportation policy post-WW II has placed tremendous emphasis on increasing auto mobility. We have seen this in our examination of benefit/cost analyses, the standard approach which calculates tremendous "financial" benefits for modest savings in automobile travel time. Billions flow annually in deference to this antiquated approach. As we've also discussed, the American development pattern sacrifices a lot in the name of growth and economic development. Besides safety, ironically, one of the things that is most quickly sacrificed is our cherished mobility.

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Earlier this month we wrote a piece about the evolution of our transportation system and how the changes we have made were done primarily to increase auto mobility (Mobility's Diminishing Returns, April 4, 2011). The primary insight of the April 4 piece is that we, as a nation, have invested untold wealth in improving the first and last mile of each trip, with relatively little return. This misallocation of resources is based on a confused understanding of our experience. Essentially, we bought into the idea that, when it comes to auto mobility, "if a little is good, more must be better".

America circa 1928: A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.

America circa 1995: A Big Mac in every hand and a paved road at the end of every driveway.

And of course, now that we've gotten used to all of this mobility, we are having a really difficult time imagining a different arrangement, even in the face of increasing fuel prices. Last week in Baudette I asked the audience how many people lived within four blocks of the place we were meeting. A few raised their hand. I asked how many of them had walked to the meeting. All hands went down.

One of my favorite examples of this myopia comes at the expense of some of my closest friends in one of my favorite small towns in Minnesota, the City of Emily. I dine often with a small group prior to planning commission meetings (in my real career, my company is the city planner for Emily). When we get done eating and are headed to the meeting, everyone gets in their separate cars and drives. This is despite the fact that the restaurant where we eat is right next to the city hall where we meet - literally two hundred feet apart. In fact, it takes the others longer to drive than for me to walk. But even after I pointed out this behavioral quirk, they all still do it. It is like their DNA has been reprogrammed collectively.

Another brief digression to make the point... When I was an undergraduate, I lived fourteen blocks from the civil engineering building and walked it each day, even in the Minnesota cold. Wasn't always fun, but it was not a big deal. My first job after graduation was in my hometown. My first day of work I found out I would need steel-toed shoes and so, during lunch, I decided to walk to Mills Fleet Farm and buy some. The office building I was working in was in a suburban area, as was Mills, so when I set off walking I actually had to go along the edge of the street and then down to the end of a long block before cutting back over several hundred feet of parking lot. During the walk, not less than three of my new coworkers generously stopped to offer me a ride, assuming I'm sure that I was some broke college grad without a car. From then on I drove at lunch lest I appear overly needy to my colleagues.

In the April 4 piece, we point out that the height of mobility was really the point in time when we connected towns with highways but had not yet turned our resources on changing that first and last mile. Our towns were now connected, but the atrophy had not begun. (Except where we had taken apart whole neighborhoods in order to build the highways themselves, although that was not atrophy but simply destruction.) At that point, the transportation network basically looked like this:

In an effort to help people clearly see the economic tradeoffs in the current development pattern, I want to demonstrate how, in pursuit of "economic development", we have actually reduced mobility.

Consider a system of three, Midwestern cities. Each is separated by six miles, the standard township grid found west of the Appalachians. When highway departments are designing, constructing and improving the highways that run between each town, they will typically set a performance benchmark for the entire corridor. In one example I recently saw, the benchmark was set at an average travel speed of 50 mph.

In a traditional design - one that centers on the traditional development pattern established around the railroad stop - we would have a highway that mimics the speed and efficiency of the railroad but with the added bonus of flexibility of schedule since you don't have to wait for a train. The highways would be without intersections or other speed-killing type of features and so they could be very fast and still be safe. Conversely, cities would retain their complexity and thus high-speed travel within would be dangerous. So speeds within cities would need to be very low, with a necessary and short traffic calming transition in between high and low speed zones. In our string of Midwestern towns, this is how such an arrangement would look.

Of course, this is not how we've built anything in this country post WW II. Largely in the name of economic development, our development pattern has extended along the highways. This means a lot of intersections and complexity added to the highway system, which means that we need to lower speeds and make other improvements to handle turning traffic. Still, we tolerate a much higher accident rate than we would had we opted to not use our highways for economic development purposes.

When you approach the city, the extended development pattern means that speeds must slow even more. Ironically, states like my home state of Minnesota have mandated minimum design speeds of 30 mph and so, in the center of town, the speed is unable to be adjusted far enough downward for the complexity. This means that the complexity is removed in the name of safety, which is why highway sections don't change as they pass through town but keep their basic highway geometries. Buildings are turned to parking lots, sidewalks go unused and we basically see the atrophy take place as mentioned above.

Added together, our string of Midwestern cities evolves to look something like the following.

Local governments leverage the highway investment as a platform for new inducing new growth and improving economic development opportunities. I already mentioned how this adversely impacts safety - and how we tolerate that tradeoff - but what is perhaps just as amazing is how we are also willing to accept the decrease in mobility from this arrangement. In our theoretical twelve mile stretch, the American Economic Development Pattern model takes 1 minute and 35 seconds longer to drive through than the City-centric Traditional Design.

Here are the calculations:

If we really wanted to improve total mobility - even if we only measure mobility using the narrow statistic of automobile travel time - instead of adding capacity, we would spend our highway dollars closing intersections to improve speeds between towns while lowering speeds in town to restore the traditional complexity that once existed.

The fact that this approach would also saves lives while putting our country in a better financial position would simply be a bonus.


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