Recently I was emailing a friend about a Slow Food gathering, and facetiously used the term “slow transportation” for getting there by train rather than flying. But the more I thought about it, the more the term resonated with what I believe in and what I work on. I have not heard, so far as I’m aware, the term used anywhere else, but I think readers of this blog will immediately resonate with it as well. What follows is a first attempt to pin down a working definition of Slow Transportation.
I am going to break this topic up into several posts, but at the end I’ll make it available as a single document in case that is of use to you.
1. What is wrong with our present transportation system?
I am going to keep the list short and succinct because I think most readers of this blog will either already be aware of the issues, and/or will agree that these are the problems. Entire books have been written about each of these issues!
Note: Don’t be depressed by the list of problems below. I promise I won’t leave you there for long.
- transportation accounts for a significant part of greenhouse gas emissions (37% in california, 26% in the US, and 14% worldwide) as is therefore a major driver of climate change
- we have emphasized mobility over access, the ability to get somewhere – anywhere, rather than the ability to get to places we want to go; there is an incredible amount of aimless driving, just for something to do, running a small errand to take up time and fill an empty life; only about 15% of car trips these day have anything to do with commuting to work
- the convenience and low cost of driving has encouraged the separation of functions, where we live, work, recreate and socialize, diminishing the value of each place; though this has started to reverse, we are so far down this road (literally) that it will be hard to bring these back together
- privately owned motor vehicles isolate people rather than bring them together
- traffic violence is inherent in a system based on private motor vehicles; even when people are not killed and injured by the drivers of motor vehicles, they are still intimidated out of the public space, knowing they are at risk there and are being actively discriminated against
- our cities, counties and states are either already insolvent or on their way to insolvency, in part due to the fact that we do not have and cannot ever have enough money to maintain the transportation infrastructure we have already built; though roadways are the worst of this, it is also true to some degree of transit systems, and most certainly our air transport system
- our current wars are in significant part about oil, oil wars; if you don’t think this is so, ponder the fact that the former head of Halliburton, an oil exploration and facilities company, got us into the Iraq war and Halliburton was the prime contractor for that war; it is not just the US with guilt and blood, most of the wars today are at least in part about oil
- we transport our food long distances, disconnecting us from the source, the soil, and the people who grow it; industrial agriculture is both dependent on and a driver (literally) of our unsustainable transportation system; again, this is starting to reverse, but we have lost much of the smaller farmer and small processor capacity of our country, and it will take time to rebuild
- the housing affordability crisis is in part due to a focus on housing costs without considering the transportation costs; the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T calculations indicates that much of the current housing stock is unaffordable because it is located so far from jobs and amenities; it is not really the urban areas (so much in the news) where housing is unaffordable, since transportation costs there are so much lower, but the suburbs and exurbs
- our transportation system takes up too much of our wealth, particularly in the preference for mega-projects like new bridges and freeways, and inattention to small projects that would have greater benefits; there are plenty of things we could be spending transportation money on instead; I dont’ want to minimize the value of transportation investments, but to ask that they have the a similar social return to other things we could spend on
- our transportation system takes up too much of our space, not just with roadways and interchanges, but with parking garages and parking lots and on-street parking; as a result of all this space devoted to one mode of travel, the private vehicle, everything must be further apart, thereby requiring even more driving, in an ever-downward spiral
- our transportation system both encourages and depends upon greenfield development, which leads directly to loss of wildlife habitat and agricultural lands; we already have enough housing stock, but a preference for heavily subsidized greenfield development leads to abandonment and neglect of the sufficient housing stock we already have; greenfield development must stop, now and forever
- there are so many externalities to private car use, costs that are borne by other individuals and society as a whole, that it really amazes me that we even allow private car use
- we have reached peak car; peak does not necessarily mean the greatest number of cars or the greatest vehicle miles traveled, but it means the point of diminishing returns; the costs are now overwhelming the benefits and nothing we do can change that, except to walk away (literally) from dependence on motor vehicles
“The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.” —James Marston Fitch, New York Times, 1 May 1960