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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

Toward a New Pattern of Mobility

How much do patterns of development affect patterns of mobility? In my opinion, there is a strong, if sometimes unconscious, connection between development and mobility. In this column, I explore this connection, by both examining present patterns and speculating on future ones.

Present Patterns

To get from point A to point B in an urban area, one can walk, take the bus, hop on the subway, ride a bike, or drive a car. An urban resident has many transportation options to choose from because of the patterns of development within urban areas. For instance, urban development is usually dense. In addition, residential and commercial spaces often coexist. Also, the large population in a typical urban area makes it relatively cost-effective to maintain mass transportation systems. Simply stated, you can move from one point to another within a city in many different ways.

Suburban residents within large metropolises often have the same options as their urban counterparts, mostly due to the established mass transportation systems in these areas (e.g., Washington DC, New York City and Chicago). However, in newer suburbs, or older ones in small metropolitan areas, mass transportation options are usually quite limited and often burdensome. What then? Well, mostly the automobile.

As one of the pillars of modern life, the automobile allows people to live within a "reasonable" commuting distance of the office, say 45-60 minutes. It appears that such commuters are increasingly living in bedroom communities, which contain extensive residential development, scant commercial development and no industrial development. In addition, residential and commercial developments are often deliberately exclusive of each other and separated by six lane roads. Given this pattern of development, you can be quite mobile in these types of suburbs, but only if you have a car.

For those in rural areas, heavy reliance on the automobile has become a fact of life. Personally, I am unfamiliar with the rural experience, but my hunch is that the automobile is less frequently and more efficiently used in these areas. Often, but not always, trips may be taken only when necessary, especially in more remote areas.

The Flip Sides of the Automobile

Without question, the automobile provides us with unprecedented mobility and freedom. I can travel from the quasi-rural peacefulness of my suburban home to center stage at the symphony within an hour. I can leave Denver on Friday morning, spend a couple of days in the deserts and canyons of Utah, and be back in my apartment soundly sleeping by 10 o'clock on Sunday night. The automobile allows the average person to engage in more experiences within his or her lifetime than at any time in the past. However, it does so at a significant environmental and human cost.

For example, on the human cost side, each day many of us walk from our kitchen through the door to the garage into our car. With our automatic garage door openers, we open the door as we wait for the car to warm up, then drive away to our destination. Once we are there, we park in the parking garage, walk a few feet to the elevator and arrive at the office. It amazes, or maybe frightens, me that we can go from home to work and back without ever setting a foot outside. We have taken all the fun out of getting there; that is, unless you enjoy pining your day away in rush hour traffic.

Future Patterns

Can you picture a different basis of mobility in the future, say in 25 years? Maybe we will cease production and use of the automobile. Maybe we will produce an automobile that uses a different type of fuel. Perhaps we will continue to build residential developments, shopping centers, and office units that encourage long commute times. Even more alarming, maybe we will increase our production and use of expensive, highly inefficient automobiles, such as the increasingly popular sport utility vehicle.

Most likely, future patterns of mobility will reflect some combination of these possibilities, among others. From my perspective, the main question is: How can we encourage people to pursue patterns of mobility that effectively use our resources? The answer to this question involves a combination of actions by the government, private corporations, and individuals. In my opinion, the first step is to blow away the myth of the "free market," or to realize and more effectively operate within this myth. This myth, based in economics, is currently used by people when the government is going to redistribute resources that have an unfavorable outcome toward them; in other words, the government is going to rock their prosperous boat.

However, it is just as frequently ignored when this same group of individuals wants government assistance. For instance, the government has subsidized the automobile and home-building industries for decades (e.g., the national highway system, the home mortgage interest tax deduction and artificially low oil and gasoline prices). My favorite example of the free market myth is the government bailout of the Chrysler corporation in the late 1970s. Incidentally, after being rescued, the Chrysler corporation led the "Buy American" charge throughout the 1980s, and then "sold out" to a German corporation earlier this year.

My point is that we need to apply our principles more consistently. We have proven that government and industry can work productively together. Now, we need to channel that cooperation toward a new pattern of mobility, one that can provide similar freedoms and economic benefits at a significantly lower cost to the environment and to ourselves.

Realistically, though, any new pattern of mobility will probably require us to sacrifice some of these freedoms and economic benefits. We may have to pay higher fuel taxes and prices. We may have to ration our use of the automobile in large metropolitan areas. We may have to take an alternative form of transportation to work, such as a bus or a bike. We may have to live closer to the workplace. We may have to pay more and higher toll fees to use the highways. In other words, the bill is due on the American dream. Are we up to the task of paying it?


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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