No easy way through

I thought it might be a matter of culture shock.  To return to riding around the US and feel I was in an unwelcoming environment.  More time on the bike gave me affirmation:  America’s transportation infrastructure is the pits.

I mentioned before when hosting outsiders to China, I was often met with a degree of shock and awe.  If you hadn’t familiarized with the flow of traffic, riding the roads of China seemed hazardous.  Besides a larger volume, there’s a greater variety to traffic including pedestrians, bicycles, light transport, motorbikes, private automobiles, buses and multi-axle trucks.  It looks like a crapshoot, with people navigating freely and doing things that feel wildly illegal. It feels that way because China’s relationship with roads developed differently.

China didn’t begin experimenting with private car ownership until the late 80’s and it wasn’t until 1994 that the Chinese government implemented policies to encourage private car ownership.  This was done with the explicit goal to prop up economic growth. It had little to do with the actual utility of private car ownership.  Despite spurious growth of the automotive industry, the Chinese government invested (and continues to invest) into all forms of transit including bus networks, avenues for pedestrians and lighter traffic, city underground and intercity rail.  It also explains how the average Chinese attitude toward mobility are fundamentally different. The nation is familiar with getting around without private cars.

In the US, history is a little less egalitarian.  You’d suspect that transit infrastructure would develop hand-in-hand with other public services like a utility.  Everyone needs to move.  Mobility is a basic economic function, a right that ought to be guaranteed regardless of income.  Alas, there was mismanagement of public transport (in particular, the nearly ubiquitous street car).  There were malicious industry practices such as automotive’s efforts to buy up and dismantle public transport.  There’s also the delightful story of the jaywalker and “public education” efforts, backed by the motor industry to demonize pedestrians.  This final effort successfully shaped subsequent generations views on street use and the laws of the road.

Mash this all together and what you get, from my perspective, is a nation crippled by the outrageous idea that private cars should be a primary mode of transport.  It’s even in the language.  Anything other than a car is alternative.  Some would laud this as a reflection of a healthy developed economy. We are so wealthy that even the impoverished can still drive a car.  The reality is much lamer.  The public, especially those in financial distress, shoulder a larger burden to secure the basic need to getting around.  The result?  Transit deserts.  Whole swaths of suburban landscapes are unnavigable but by car.

Motor vision warps transit development.  Approaches to improve public mobility infrastructure are concessionary.  They’re slotted in around pre-existing roadways.  Good luck navigating an area developed around an interstate junction.  Furthermore, these approaches are inconsistent.  You’d imagine where a roadway goes so should a sidewalk, a bike path or a bus route.  However, sometimes you get one, or the other, or maybe none of them.

There isn’t any easy solution to this problem, but we need one because relying on private car ownership is unsustainable.  The gross consumption of resources such that everyone can own a car, operate a car and be granted a road network that supports this use is unrealistic.  The greatest challenge to overcome rethinking public mobility isn’t rethinking how we get around.  It’s growing comfortable with the idea that the car is not a default.

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