We Engineered Ourselves into this Mess. Now We Need to Engineer our Way out of It.

Big snarl of freeways overlapping one another.There’s a problem in our debates about how streets are funded, a problem that lies partly in the assumptions about who pays and who benefits, with a root cause in the effects of design on how people use a transportation network.

I pay through several mechanisms for local streets and roads and consume far less in maintenance costs than any driver. If you could make what I pay proportionate to what I use including wear and tear then in all probability the city would owe me a refund on my property taxes, sales taxes, and real estate excise tax, but that isn’t how our system works and I’m not proposing it should be.

People who don’t have kids in school still help pay for schools because it’s part of having a civilized society—ditto for higher education. Someday those “other people’s kids” will diagnose and treat their illnesses, repair the elevators they ride in, produce the TV (or YouTube) shows they watch, and keep the power and water running to their homes.

I help pay for freeways that I rarely use so they are there when I need them and so goods can come to town that I will purchase—like my bike.

People who never drive pay for streets because that’s how our food, medicine, and other essentials get here.

We all pay every day for things that benefit us indirectly. Similarly, people who don’t ride bikes benefit from those of us who do because we don’t take up a parking space, we don’t pollute the air, we don’t tear apart the streets the way all you people who had studded tires on your cars all winter long on the dry pavement did, and we keep healthcare costs down, among other benefits.

Helping pay for a transportation network that includes bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure you don’t (think you’ll) use is part of creating a system for everyone,  including those who cannot or should not drive.

There’s another problem with saying “Here’s who uses the streets today, so that’s who should continue to get that much of the street system”: It ignores the way past street funding decisions altered human behavior and eliminated choice.

We are path-dependent in our public policies: What we did in the past shapes what we look at now.

Saying autos should get 90% of the funding because autos are 90% of the mode share ignores the way we have been socially engineered into the transportation system of today. A commenter on a Scientific American piece about the American love affair with cars (a phrase that was an advertising ploy originally) said in all seriousness that “We need to maintain the right to go where we want, when and how we want” in apparently arguing against infrastructure for modes other than cars. So if I want to travel using some mode other than a car….?

Play a little thought game with me: If, 40 years ago, we had started putting bike lanes on every street, what percentage of mode split do you think you would observe today? (Hint: Take a look at The Netherlands to see.)

Given projected population growth, do you really want every person who’s going to move to your city or county to be in front of you at every stop light going forward, cutting you off at the next light in order to beat you to the last parking spot?

While you may not want to change your choice of transportation, you may well hope that a few of those people will ride the bus–one vehicle instead of many–or will get to work in some way that doesn’t take up as much room as an entire car in front of you.

And here’s the funny thing: If we build more street capacity to accommodate the projected population growth, more people will drive and the capacity will rapidly disappear. The only long-term solution to congestion is to enable those people who want to–or who have to–to make a mode shift to take transit, bike, or walk.

Changing our street designs going forward–incrementally, in ways that make sense for the context of the individual streets, which is what a complete streets approach calls for–will create choices we don’t currently have.

Drivers will benefit from decreased competition for scarce resources like parking. You don’t lose, you gain, if someone else rides a bike, gets on the bus, or walks a few blocks instead of moving the car time and time again.

I grew up in America, which I think of as the land of the free. We’re not truly free if engineers (directed by politics) 50 years ago created a system that took away some of our choices. Let’s take them back.

“America still stands for freedom – but it is no longer just the freedom of the open road. Freedom to multitask while we travel. Freedom to access social networks, buy goods and services, and conduct business without sitting in traffic. Freedom to live in clean, healthy environments. In such a world, planning to accommodate more and more driving when the customer is signalling a desire for new transportation services makes no sense.” -David Burwell in America’s Love Affair with the Motor Car is Running on Empty, Carnegie Endowment

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2 Comments to "We Engineered Ourselves into this Mess. Now We Need to Engineer our Way out of It."

  1. Cece Evola says:

    Great article! I am very glad that ABQ is so very bike friendly, but as cyclists, we are trying to get more involved in the designing of the bike routes….our latest bridge for bikes was so bumpy and so steep and had sharp turns that many got hurt riding on it. Now I never see any cyclists on it.

  2. Sorry to hear that, Cece! This is why it’s SO important for people who ride bikes to volunteer on local transportation committees, show up at public workshops on designs, and in general speak up for what makes good infrastructure. Otherwise the money is wasted and is used as an “I told you so” by people who oppose such investments.

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