Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

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Randal O’Toole’s assertion that private automobile travel is less subsidized per mile traveled is flawed not only because of the reliability of the data, but because of the metric itself.

(Read O’Toole’s commentary: Cars Are the Future of Urban Transportation.)

The purpose of urban transportation is to support commerce, education, creativity, social interactions, and similar activities. The value of an urban transportation system should be measured on this merit, not simply mobility. A trip that is walking distance that serves a useful purpose has at least the same value as a trip of greater distance that meets the same purpose. Cities built to accommodate automobiles are lower density and require greater travel distance than transit, cycling, or walking cities. As a result, any possible benefit of lower per passenger mile costs is partially or wholly offset by the need to travel greater distances.

Roads and private autos receive enormous amounts of public investment. The 2007 City of San Antonio bond project approved $306 million for streets, bridges, and sidewalks. $224.8 million of the streets, bridges, and sidewalks proposition was to increase road capacity. 41% of the total 2007 bond project was dedicated to new road capacity. A similar pattern was seen in the 2012 bond project, where $337 million of the bond project was dedicated to roads, bridges and sidewalks. Details on specific bond projects are not as clearly summarized for the 2012 bond project as they are for the 2007 bond project, but conservative estimates suggest at least 31% of the $596 million 2012 bond was for projects adding road capacity.

Automobile infrastructure receives major public investment, but the full costs of auto-dependent transportation and development patterns are not solely from direct investment. Byproducts of investment in road capacity include more per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT), air pollution, and traffic fatalities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 1.24 million people per year die from traffic crashes. 91% of those fatalities occur in low and middle-income nations. Results from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Road Safety Annual Report 2014 show that the U.S. has one of the worst safety records of high-income nations, with a traffic death rate of 11.6 per 100,000 people annually. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have worse traffic safety records than the U.S., but the 15 high-income European nations, as well as Israel, Australia, Japan and Canada, all have better records than the U.S., some with fatality rates as low as 25% that of the U.S. If the traffic fatality rates of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were applied to the U.S., more than 24,000 lives would be saved from fatal accidents on American roads each year.

The Philippines is one of many low and moderate-income nations with better traffic safety records than the U.S. I’ve driven in the Philippines, and it felt like a dangerous place to drive, but 7,200 lives per year would be saved if the U.S. had the same traffic fatality rate as the Philippines. Clearly, the transportation system O’Toole praised so highly has serious flaws.

Click here to download the Smart Growth America report.

Click here to download the Smart Growth America report.

Urban speed limits appear to be a predictor of traffic fatality rates. The high-income nations with better traffic safety records than the U.S. also universally have mandated urban speed limits of 50 kph (32 mph) or less. As O’Toole pointed out, the average speed in U.S. cities is 30-40 mph, with many arterial roads having posted speed limits of 45 or 50 mph. Not surprisingly, the most dangerous roads in urban areas are arterial roads and highways, as reported in the study Dangerous by Design 2014. A separate traffic safety study of San Antonio found arterial roads to be the highest risk, and attributed speed as the differentiating factor.

Regardless of the human tragedies and economic losses associated with traffic injuries and fatalities, the arguments against auto dependence in urban settings based on safety seem to be more academic than influential. I will concede to O’Toole that driving is the dominant transportation mode in U.S. cities. However, it is not as completely universal as O’Toole would lead you to believe.

Private motor vehicles account for the overwhelming majority of trips in San Antonio, but not in every U.S. city. For example, private automobiles accounted for less than half of all trips in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City. Walking, cycling, and public transit are more popular than private automobiles in many major international cities, including Paris, Tokyo, Barcelona, Madrid, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Zürich. The list of international cities where other modes are more popular than the private automobile is longer – much longer – than O’Toole would like to acknowledge.

And here’s where I get really non-academic. In my opinion, the reason these other modes are more popular than private automobiles in so many high-income cities around the world is because the quality of life is better in less auto-dependent cities. I acknowledge that judgment is subjective, but it is based on my personal experience from living in Europe and Japan.

Auto-dominant transportation systems do not offer freedom. Rather, they impose auto dependence and exposure to automobiles on every citizen, regardless of your personal preference or ability to afford private automobiles. They impose risk from drivers and their automobiles on every road user, and as I’ve come to find out, even on people in their homes or other buildings when drivers leave the roadway and strike adjacent buildings. They impose health risks through air pollution. Road noise from cars is not confined to the roads, but penetrates your home, place of work, and degrades the simple pleasure of walking.

I cannot speak for everyone in San Antonio, but I can speak for myself. I do not want O’Toole’s future. I want my child to be able to walk safely in his neighborhood without the risk of being struck by a driver. I want my child to ride his bike to school, to ride his bike downtown. I want him to have the same freedom of movement I had as a child. Over the years, O’Toole’s world has made great strides destroying our children’s freedom of movement, with dependence on private automobiles for each and every trip. Single-occupant vehicles dominate San Antonio streets today. In O’Toole’s future, those single-occupant vehicle would share the road more and more with not just autonomous cars, but unoccupied autonomous cars.

There are people in this country, and in San Antonio, who are not satisfied with auto dependence. As readers have pointed out in comments posted to O’Toole’s article, those numbers are growing. O’Toole finds auto dependence somehow liberating. I and others find it constricting. O’Toole is indifferent to the lost lives and injuries from auto dependence. I recognize those deaths and injuries as avoidable and the result of poor public policy, not natural risk. O’Toole finds satisfaction in isolation. I find vibrant and walkable communities as satisfying.

O’Toole may be right that our future, or at least our near future, will be dominated by cars. Many reasons may drive that outcome, none of which I find admirable, but the assertion that auto dependence and a built environment around auto transportation is the best choice we have is simply not true.

*Featured/top image: A group of cyclists cruise down South Alamo Street towards Southtown on the Fourth of July, 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

The Case for Funding Pedestrian and Cycling Safety

Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

25 Mph Speed Limit Would End Pedestrian Fatalities

San Antonio Ranks 18th Most Dangerous for Pedestrians

Pedestrian Safety and City Planning in San Antonio

2 thoughts on “Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

  1. Dear Professor Barton:

    You wrote:

    “The purpose of urban transportation is to support commerce, education, creativity, social interactions, and similar activities. The value of an urban transportation system should be measured on this merit, not simply mobility. A trip that is walking distance that serves a useful purpose has at least the same value as a trip of greater distance that meets the same purpose. ”

    I agree that an urban transportation system should be measured on its merits. For example, bikeways and bus rapid transit are cheap to operate, and extremely convenient, and people enjoy getting on their bikes or riding the bus. In contrast, light rail in the Seattle area will provide less trips, operates less frequently, compared to something that is called Bus Rapid Transit. Most people would find bus rapid transit more convenient, since it travels over a larger area and routes are flexible, whereas light rail runs on fixed tracks over a smaller area. This map, from civil engineer James MacIsaac of Bellevue, Washington, shows how bus rapid transit covers thousands of miles in the Seattle area, compared to light rail:

    One reason why there are so many of us passionate advocates of reform – here on the west coast – is that we were born and raised in areas that failed to invest in freeway infrastructure (i.e. Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). It is easier for you to build freeways in Texas since there are less land use regulations, and do you have any urban growth boundaries that limit development, like we do?

    In WA, OR, and CA, we have hundreds of advocates who have differing points of view – Randal O’Toole, Brad Meacham, Kemper Freeman, Dr. Bill Eager, James MacIsaac, John Niles, Dr. Peter Gordon, etc. Those of us interested in transportation issues fall into at least three “competing paradigms,” and each of these revolves around population density and land use:

    1. Those who advocate increased density and “smart growth,” with huge investments into light rail and other forms of public transportation, within regions surrounded by “urban growth boundaries” that prevent “further low density sprawl.”

    2. Those who advocate more freeway lanes, without any regard to expansion of public transit, bikeways, greenbelts, and sidewalks, and wish for urban areas to continue to expand.

    3. “Hybrids,” such as myself, who not only advocate adding more freeway lanes, prefer low density, but we also advocate a variety of reforms such as bus rapid transit, and reforms that will make cycling and walking much safer, such as:

    A. Increasing street width standards to accommodate wider traffic lanes, wider bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and wide landscape buffers separating streets from sidewalks. A good example of this is the metropolitan Phoenix area, i.e. see this design for “Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard” in Scottsdale, which is 130 feet wide.

    B. Eliminating the use of “Dark Sky Ordinances,” that make it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to venture out after dark, in the rain, or in the snow.

    C. Setting a minimum percentage of open space for bikeways as a city expands. For example, 50% of the Durango, Colorado city limits is open space; 30% of Thousand Oaks, California, and 17% of Dallas.

    D. Establishing designated bike paths, with lights, as you will find in Chico, California, and Portland, Oregon.

    E. Establishing bike lockers at public transit stations.

    Those are just a few reforms, that a few states such as Arizona have pioneered. On the west coast, we are really are tired of congestion, so you’ll find that there are many enthusiastic proponents of new ideas who strongly disagree with each other. The result is multiple lawsuits and voter initiatives over such issues as minimum lot sizes, urban growth boundaries, farmland preservation, and raising sales taxes to pay for additional parks and trails (which Ashland, OR, Scottsdale, AZ and Truckee, CA have done).

    I am very sorry to see these lawsuits and initiatives, since I think that people could sit down with transportation planners, and find the best solutions. In 2011, I campaigned against light rail, because I wanted to see more investment in more freeway lanes, bus rapid transit, and bikeways, because these systems are best for the Seattle area. We don’t even have requirements for mandatory bike lanes, but we do have light rail.

    In Seattle, most people want more freeway lanes, more bike lanes, express bus routes (bus rapid transit), and more sidewalks. Only 51% voted for light rail in 2008, a year before in 2007, it failed. Last year, the state Democrats tried to expand three freeways (167, 509, I-5) under the new Democrat governor Jay Inslee, but the Republicans voted them down. So not only do we have gridlock on the roads, we have gridlock in the state capitol due to the Republicans.

    Right now, the light rail tunnel machine is literally stuck in the mud under downtown Seattle, so who knows what the region will do? Maybe they will realize that express bus routes, sidewalks, wider streets, and more bike lanes, are cheaper options? -Tom Lane

  2. Great article – Having only one option of travel is very restrictive. We moved from Dallas last year and the one thing that I really miss is the paved bike paths. I miss getting exercise and seeing different people and parts of the city via bike, without having to spend much time on city streets. When people ask me about the difference between the two cities, its one of the first things I point out. It seems like San Antonio is moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. Most neighborhoods do not even have sidewalks. Just as sidewalks seem to connect neighbors with one another, bike paths seem to have that same effect on a larger scale. The best part about San Antonio is that it has this great small town feel with all the big city amenities. As San Antonio grows, it would be great to keep that small town vibe. I believe bike paths and sidewalks will help San Antonio keep feeling small regardless of its actual size.

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