– Mahatma Gandhi Judged from a planetary or Kyoto perspective, or from an individual or public health perspective, or an economic perspective, or … or … our present arrangements for transport in cities are seriously damaged. They are the product of another age, another system of city, another way of organizing daily life.
As things stand today in city after city around the world, they threaten health in the city and on the planet. They are dangerous. They are costly. They are disruptive. They are thoroughly dysfunctional. And they are howlingly unfair.
All this is a huge problem of — but we prefer to think of it instead as “problematique,” a word we see more often in French and which is used to describe the broader context or fabric of the problem. Or in this case the interlinked nexus of problems, shortcomings and inefficiencies that together constitute our patently unsustainable transportation arrangements in cities in general, and in your city in particular. Let’s have a look at this in steps:
1. Simple really. The system’s broke
“Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building. The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities, and a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problems of cities. Cities have much more intricate economic and social concerns than automobile traffic. How can you know what to try with traffic until you know how the city itself works, and what else it needs to do with its streets? You can’t.”
– Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
Well, when it comes to our present arrangements for transport in cities, that which we are calling the “old mobility,” the answer to this is a quite long one. Just to hit the high spots . . .
The present (car-based) system is dangerous, injurious and menaces our health as one of the most debilitating public health menaces of our era.
It provides poor value for money – for individual car owners as well as others. And for the taxpayer in terms of bang per public buck.
It is socially unjust and discriminatory to the poor, racial minorities, women, children, the unemployed, and people with physical disadvantages. To all those who cannot or should not be driving a car (a very large number, in fact). And to those who choose not to drive a car.
It consumes and wastes resources on an intolerable scale.
It pollutes to the extent that it is endangering the planet’s ecosystem
It puts the national economy, the international economy and your and my economy at risk by total systemic dependence on a cartel of oil suppliers. (And pours money into the coffers of non-democratic societies and cliques.)
Despite the fact that it costs an arm and a leg, both toindividual citizens and tothe community as a whole, the system is steadily degrading in environmental, performance and economic terms year after year.
It implicitly accepts assurances advanced by the principal industrial and energy suppliers, as well as many transportation specialists, specialist administrators, etc., that technological progress will take care of the problems in the long run. And that we not therefore need concern ourselves with the problems today.
Worse yet — and this is the final nail in the coffin — there are as things stand today no grounds for hopefulness. . . unless there is a major underlying paradigm change (which is not in sight).
Moreover, when we take the measures that are being discussed in most places under the cover of would-be solutions, we can see that in most all cases they are indeed either
not going to offer the needed relief in the critical target period (which we define somewhat arbitrarily as the 24/36 months directly ahead) and . . .
worse yet, in almost all cases are actually going to contribute to increasing the scale of the problem, in the longer run, that they are purportedly targeting (i.e., by creating more new infrastructure, bringing more vehicles on the road, etc. etc.).
Furthermore, and with only few exceptions, when measured in terms of spending and measures with teeth, it all but ignores anything that might actually provide an alternative to present arrangements: whether in terms of demand management, non-motorized transport, new services and innovative private providers, and transport substitution though better planning, clustering of activities, or new technologies.
Is that true for every city on the planet? Fortunately no, but it does do a pretty good job at characterizing the majority in the advanced economies and even more catastrophically in cities in the developing world. And is it true for your city? Well, we have to leave that to you to judge.
So, we can see that we have a system (of sorts) and we for sure have a problem. What next? A solution? Not quite. Let’s take a look first at the nature of the problem as it stands today here in cities across the globe.
Note: Just to be sure that this is more than a personal and idiosyncratic summary of problems and eventual solutions, we have placed this before several authoritative international fora of transportation and environment specialists from more than fifty countries around the world. And while there was, as you might well guess, abundant criticism and qualifications – many of which have been incorporated into this draft – the bottom line was that this analysis is generally on track.
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2. Why “Dysfunctional Transportation” is a major public health threat
There can be little doubt that the best way of gauging the seriousness of the mounting problems of our present dysfunctional transportation arrangements – and hence the need for fast and effective remedies and adjustments — is not so much from the usual purely transportation lens, or public works, nor even that of “environment” or land use – though all these are, of course, critical components of the challenges we need to resolve. Rather, we should above all be prepared to look at this from a public health perspective. It is only from this vantage that we can begin to appreciate the full range and degrees of severity of the problems that we are, in fact, resolutely refusing to face. And it helps us to remember that what all this is in the final analysis about people – and not about vehicles, or roads. or throughput, or, or. . . It’s about people and quality of life. ANd of course heatlh.
Public health Impacts: Public health broadly defined – as it must be – is heavily impacted by the dysfunctional parts of our transportation arrangements in every city in the world. Here are a rough dozen broad areas in which these impacts are being felt, and which therefore should make it clear why this is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately as a very high priority for the city and its region.
Let us start here with those that are most commonly associated with the ‘public health’ rubric, and then go on to list briefly yet others which in fact belong here as well.
Traffic Deaths and Injuries: We need to achieve major reductions in traffic deaths and injuries, most of which occur in or because of cars. We can do this if we chose to (and if you need a real world example check out the results of the French example of the past two years which have been sensational and entirely a function of political will and commitment from many levels of society).
Air pollution: Clean air must be a priority for the health of our citizens and their children – more than 50% of air pollution comes directly from cars. (Let’s cite the example of what is normally mentioned as a “good example,” Toronto. Closer to 75% of air pollution there comes from traffic, and where at present the number of respiratory deaths due to road air pollution has been charted at 1800 for 2003 alone. Look at the stats for your city. They have to be comparable if not worse.)
Other forms of toxicity and pollution Pollution from the transport sector takes other forms as well which also threaten public health significantly. Among them leakage of fuels and oils in normal operations or road traffic accidents, threats to underground water quality, various residues from vehicles, and others.
Traffic noise is a significant and increasingly targeted public health problem too. And while we are at it, there are also such intrusions as odors and light pollution, each of which eat away at the health of those who are directly affected.
Destruction of urban form and quality of life: Roads and traffic are the lifeblood of a city — but too much of both threatens the city’s livability in many ways.
Life Styles: We increasingly need to promote healthier, more active life styles. And in the process cut back on obesity for children and adults
Time Pollution: This is the first thing we all see and feel. As a result of our dysfunctional transportation arrangements, we are all spending far too much time stuck in traffic. This is taking away from the time we should be spending with our families, with our own personal development, on our neighbors, doing important work. The stress that is related to this significant timedeprivation does little to improve our health or that of our families.
Personal economics: We are spending significantly more on our transportation habit as individuals than we need to. All of us, car owners and others, can get around better, faster and more safely — and for less money than most of us currently are putting out. And this too is a public health problem.
Total system costs, including subsidies, hidden and visible: Indeed, if we add up the annual cost to society of these — let us call them “transport dysfunctonalities” — we have a very, very large number indeed in most of our cities, which at the very least should get our fullest attention. Overall, we need to find ways to get more bang per buck for the huge amount of money we spend on transport (so that we can free it for more important uses such as education, health, culture and more).
Medical resources: Our dysfunctional transport arrangements are putting unnecessary pressure on our hospitals and public health programs — crowding them with patients and problems who really should not be there, and taking scarce resources that are much needed for other uses).
Passive citizenry: The present transportation paradigm defines the citizens of a city as passive agents, whose choices are largely made by “experts” and others who shape the system. But 21st century democracy requires an active civil society. For this to happen in the realm of mobility, a new paradigm of governance and action is required.
Climate modification. .. and finally back to Kyoto: Everybody needs to do their bit to cut back on global warming. Rather than decreasing emissions by grams each year to get us back to 1990 levels — itself a proposal so timid as to warrant deep soul searching — our cities, all of them, are steadily doing worse every year when you look at the bottom line (e.g., CO2 emissions resulting from increased traffic volumes). Moreover, there is no end in sight. If we cannot somehow come up with something that is consequential and that will get these basic trends back in line, it will just continue to get worse year after year and the planet, your city and your country and more will all passively go to hell in a handbasket.
Does this bring us to the end of this list? Far from it, but working with this as a opening step –which you will be able to take it much further for your own purposes
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3. What do you do when everyone else is sitting on their hands?
To figure out where we have to go, let’s first make a quick detour to list some of the things that are being consistently touted here and there as solution elements, but which are not… at least if you consider, as we think you must, that these are very high priority problems that quite simply cannot wait.
You don’t start to plan and build another yet another highway
You don’t even give priority to a new metro.
Never mind anything like PRT, monorails or other such wondrous solutions to someone else’s problems (maybe).
You let someone else devote time and money to building long-term scenarios (remembering what Lord Keynes said about the long term).
You don’t wait for fuel cells or new automotive technologies to dig you out of these pits in the decade or more ahead.
Nor do you wait for all those industrial groups that are making rather good money out of present arrangements to step forward with anything that is going to change the basic transportation problematique (which is after all their problematique, thank you very much!).
You might pray for World Government to solve your problems (but don’t hold your breath).
What this means is truly simple: and that is if you want the problem to be solved, you the concerned citizen have to roll up your sleeves, get together with your neighbors, have a close look at what is really going on unencumbered by all you are being told you cannot do to solve the problem, open up the debate, get public attention, mobilize real on-street expertise, and go to work yourself. Remember this. No one else is going to do it for you.