Perhaps the Next Big Idea Is… Auto-Mobility

In a recent tour of the transportation policy horizon, Seattle Times’ editorialist James Vesely offered an intriguing observation. “Environment-first groups have the big idea on their side… But the other side has no competitive big idea. They talk capacity while the greens talk about how we live.”

Transit theologians have hammered at the notion that auto use is morally wrong. This has proven a brilliantly effective strategy that has caused all parties to overlook a bedrock fact: personal mobility is a core American value.

“Transportation is not an end in itself,” observes Gary Lawrence, a Seattle-based sustainability strategist with a global practice. “It is a means to the key social values of mobility and access.” From this angle, the debate on transit vs. auto should focus on how well each modes serves social ends.

The truth about personal auto use is a pesky paradox. No mode can match the flexibility and convenience of the private car. Yet, collectively, the sheer mass of vehicles moving in response to individual needs and desires defeats part of the purpose by creating congestion that prolongs travel time.

Yet congestion denies only speed, not privacy or route flexibility. Nor is it entirely realistic to compute hours spent in congestion as a dead loss. For more than a few people, it’s a precious time free of family and work demands.

Urban policy analyst Tony Downs of the Brookings Institution says, “We’ll never end congestion, so get a car that has leather seats, a stereo and coffee service, and commute with someone you’re strongly attracted to.” Downs’ line gets a strong response from audiences.

The private auto was viewed as a wonder when it entered America’s life and psyche. The very word “automobile” catches the flavor of a thing that moves itself and lets you go almost anywhere. In his 1924 novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway captured the experience of travelling through landscapes and towns in an open car, savoring the change in perspectives and the sheer thrill of speed.

That experience is still available in the vastness of the West and Great Plains that begins beyond the Cascades. This writer vividly recalls the sensuous experience of using both lanes to take the curves at 80 m.p.h. on a nearly deserted stretch of Interstate 15 between Twin Falls and Butte in August 1999.

Two years later, the back roads of Eastern Washington opened up wondrous views of the Palouse on the way to a meeting at WSU. And two months ago, enroute to Tucson from Seattle, a 700-mile detour across Nevada on US 50 (“the loneliest road in America”) and back on US 6 yielded treasures of terrain and human history.

Transit theologians rightly point out that such examples don’t fit urban areas. At the same time, celebrants of the joys of auto travel need not apologize nor feel intimidated by transit moralizers. In the words of former Seattle council member Jim Street, “Land use is not a moral issue.” This holds double for transportation. It is a practical, instrumental matter.

Is there a workable vision, a possible dream that reconciles the disputants and provides a mobility-and-access system for everyone? Yes, and it can be defined. And it is expensive.

Such a system has been spelled out most fully by Bruce Chapman and Bruce Agnew of Discovery Institute. It would involve adding capacity across modes and building multi-use facilities that serve them all – auto, bus and rail. Included in the price tag for these public works are design features that reduce impacts on neighborhoods along corridors and make transportation a connector rather than disrupter of communities.

Our real problem may be other than what is assumed. It’s not so much that investments can’t serve all modes. Rather, we seem to be in an era of radically reduced capacity to imagine possible futures and make commitments.Thus, parties wrangle over the scraps and put forth partial solutions. In this regard, Sound Transit’s wastage of scarce resources on a route of marginal value amounts to a regional tragedy.

A first step may be to pry open the oyster-minds of those who see things in
terms of narrow trade-offs. As an over-the-top way to do this, consider
Southern California.

As ever, the Southland is the beating heart of America’s love affair with the auto. Highways are referred to as “The Five,” “The 405” and so on. L.A. may be the only place in the world where routes are treated as personages. A recent visual in the Los Angeles Times presented a proposed ramp connecting the 405 and the 55 as an art form. The structure and its circulation patterns were drawn with the care that Northwest papers would use to represent an ecosystem.

Madness? Consider some counter-intuitive facts:

Population density in the Los Angeles-Orange metro area is highest of any
U.S. region thanks to the absence of large-lot suburbs, an urban form supported by auto-mobility.

The Wilshire Corridor linking west L.A. to downtown is the highest volume bus corridor in the U.S. and has heavy-rail service.

Toll roads are a key part of the transportation system in Orange County, a
supposed hotbed of conservatism.

Thanks to broad boulevards, auto insurance rates in L.A. are far lower than in Seattle where driving is difficult and often dangerous.

California is taking the lead in restricting SUVs by imposing higher mileage standards at the state level, and a federal push by Sen. Diane Feinstein. Nicknamed “urban assault vehicles,” SUVs damage the environment and work against auto mobility.

Dispersed urban form in Greater L.A. traces not to highways but to the Red Cars, an early rail system. Since then, in many ways, growth has been “infill” that has accommodated six times the population increase of Puget Sound.

We are not L.A., and it doesn’t want to be us. Yet, Seattle-based Flexcar guru Neal Peterson recently hosted a booth to present his product at Mobility 21, a transpo forum put on by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

First, however, we must learn from ourselves. Two years ago I was told by Seattle transpo experts, “If you mention 405, you’ll destroy your credibility” and by Bellevue transpo experts, “If you don’t mention 405, you’ll destroy your credibility.” Folks, we’ve got a problem.

Let’s look at the flip side of this mental gridlock. Geography, climate and culture call upon us to fashion a distinct mix that combines the best of American freedom and European style. In this mix, a strong transit system is a must.

So is auto-mobility. Yes, it’s yesterday’s big idea – and it could be tomorrow’s. It serves a core American value and could restore some balance to the regional debate, reminding us that transit advocates don’t have a monopoly on “how we live.”