Monday, August 29, 2011

Brief Thought of the Day

You know how the various other regions of the country seem to be having a good laugh at the Northeast's freakout over the impending hurricane? Funny that it seems to have mirrored LA's Carmageddon, which turned out to be much ado about nothing. Except you never really know what kind of damage a hurricane might wreak. It's entirely out of our control and better safe than sorry. Nobody predicted that carmageddon would similarly come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. Except that it did.

And there were accurate predictions. I made some. Of course, I'd be remiss to leave out the source work for my prediction came entirely from Tom Vanderbilt's TRAFFIC. In it, Vanderbilt cited the exact same story: highway closures, for construction projects, IN L.A.! And everybody predicted doom and gloom. What happens is what always happens. People adapted to their new surroundings and informational inputs. The output, their decision-making process responded rationally. Get around by various other means if necessary. Car pool. Take different routes. Take mass transit. In sum, the total number of car based trips didn't just re-route, but the number of VMTs dropped.

Less people were driving. The economy didn't shut down. It wasn't armageddon, nor carmageddon. In fact, the real carmageddon is what happened before and after. The real carmageddon. Where everyone, regardless of income and ability to maintain, own, and fuel a car, is shackled to private-vehicle based transportation. Or a bus route that takes double the amount of time and smells of varying degrees of foul putridity three shades past death.

The underlying cause of all of this is the tyranny of the transportation formula and projections. You know, the ones that invariably say we must "improve" this or that road. And by "improve" they mean widen the bejeezus out of it, bulldozing private property along the way in the name of something nominally referred to as "progress." The error in those calculations is that they don't account for one teensy, tiny little detail. By-product.

The law of unintended consequences. Every traffic projection says that based on x level demand you will need y level of supply. It then assumes that y-level of supply will be sufficient and all will be right with the world. It forgets about something called induced demand. The fact of the matter is that VMTs (or vehicle miles travelled - how far people drive) scales up on a 1:1 ratio with increased supply of capacity (more lanes, more and bigger roads). So the widening, doesn't suffice existing demand. It also creates entirely new demand.

Before the road you were driving x miles per day. After the road, you are driving 2x. For various reasons, principally because these highways undercut interconnectivity (the mother and father of value, urbanization, and qualitative development) and demand within urbanized areas and take outlying land with no existing infrastructure and make it viable to cannibalize from core cities. Double the road size, and you're now driving double the distance. Everyone moves further and further out. This is fact. This is the core foundation of Baum-Snow's study of highways hollowing out populations. Unfortunately, it is contradicted by formulaic dogma and therefore not recognized. March of folly progresses.

Carmageddon indeed. And really, what is armageddon other than catastrophic collapse. Collapse is always induced by the rigidity of institutionalized practices. Of inability to adapt to changing conditions. To build roads just because the formula (and misguided engine of growth) says so. Only we can save ourselves. It's quite the shame (and catastrophe) that an entire profession about mobility, about moving people about efficiently and conveniently, has constructed a world so inconvenient and inefficient. When that happens, a city's foundation is hollowed out from the core, ready to collapse.

Gotta perpetuate the myth. Another road will do. It's shovel ready. Will add jobs (temporarily). Will create growth (but for whom?). This is what happens when an entire profession lords over the populous with complete dominion. Road construction, expansion of capacity, "congestion relief." Whose sole purpose is self-preservation. Damn the torpedoes (and the cities and its taxpayers), I've gotta cut that check. Ignore all by-products.

Road building is progress! Nope. Interconnectivity is progress. And when the chicken can cross the road, get to the other side, without getting carved into chicken nuggets via the grill of an SUV, is real interconnectivity. Where two roads interconnect in unison, spawning development that is intertwined with road and buildings aliked, interrelated and interdependent is when city building happens. Progress. Your profession is discredited. Better get on board with the future city and the objective and subjective measurements that parallel in making quality of place. Memorable, lovable places. Neighborhoods. Complete ones. Before armageddon strikes your career.

A reminder that while visiting Barcelona, Valencia, and Vancouver this summer that I could circle the majority of those cities, the places worth seeing and visiting, in 25 minutes on foot and bike. I was far more mobile than I ever could've been in a car, meanwhile applying far less stress on the system, the city and its infrastructure. And it was wholly enjoyable. In a different city, and a different world, where mobility is still not only possible, but vastly improved, with greater choice, rationality, and empowered intelligence by the users, creates a far more intelligent, sustainable, resilient city. One worth fighting for. Loving.

Power to the people and a resurrection of its neighborhoods.