Commentary: Walkable Fantasy

Mobility has value independent of any central planners’ dreams…

Audio Comments by Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute

The Secretary of Transportation, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the Director of Environmental Protection Agency have signed an agreement to require metropolitan areas to limit mobility of the people in those metropolitan areas. They are going to require them to write plans that aim to reduce the amount of driving we do.

What people don’t think about much, because we take it for granted, is that the automobile has provided us with a tremendous amount of personal mobility that we didn’t have before the automobile. A lot of people like to imagine some kind of golden age where we all rode around on trains or bicycles or street cars, but the reality is only the wealthy could do that, and the wealthy didn’t do all that much of it. The average American only traveled, in1900, about 200 miles a year by inter-city train, and another two or three hundred miles by street car. And, today we are traveling 18,000 miles per person per year almost all of it by automobile or airplane.

The idea that we can go back to some kind of age when we can just have inter-city high speed trains or street cars is foolish, it’s not going to work. Mobility has given us a tremendous amount of benefit.

For one thing, it gives employers access to far more workers. If you can draw workers from a thirty-mile radius, instead of a one-mile radius (because you can only get to the ones who can reach you on foot) — because it gives employers access to more workers, workers are more productive and employers can pay workers more. So, mobility has been associated with a seven-fold increase in real, inflation-adjusted incomes, since Henry Ford developed the mass production of the Model T Ford. So, this huge increase in income is largely due to that mobility.

Mobility gives us access to lower-cost consumer goods. It gives access to a wide range of social and recreation opportunities.

So, when the Obama Administration says they want to coerce people out of their cars — when places like the City of Portland adopt plans that aim to reduce per capita driving by two-thirds in the next forty years — we’re talking about, not just reducing peoples mobility, but reducing their incomes, reducing their access to consumer goods, reducing their social and recreation opportunities. These kinds of impacts will fall hardest on low income people because they are going to be the ones that won’t have access to alternatives.

“[The planners] are romanticizing the plan as it worked for the rich. There is a planning advocate named James Howard Kuntsler, who gave a speech a few years ago, in which he said, imagine living in Chicago in 1881 and you could take a train from your downtown office to a wonderful suburban neighborhood. It was a glorious way to live. Yes, it was for the 10 percent who could afford to live that way, or maybe 20 percent, but the vast majority of Americans were confined to travel on foot. They couldn’t afford trains. They couldn’t afford street cars. Even as late as 1910 most travel in America was on foot. So the idea that we can go back to that age and not lose the incomes we have gained  since then — not lose the spread of mobility throughout our population since then — is just a fantasy.

The reality is that we are going to severely cripple the economy. We are going to harm lots and lots of low-income and middle-income people, if we try to implement these plans aimed at reducing people’s mobility.

There is this feeling that we can substitute transit, cycling and walking, for driving, if we can just put everything closer together. If we have grocery stores within 20 minutes of everybody. If we have office parks and restaurants, and so on, located within 20 minutes. But, that is not the way people want to live. They want to have a choice of grocery stores. They want grocery stores to compete for their business, and not be limited to the one that is within walking distance.

They want to be able to live in multi-income households, and not everybody in the household is going to be able to work in the place that is located within 20 minutes of their home.

And, people like to have a house with a yard and if everybody has a house with a yard, we are not going to be able to be compact enough that everyone can be within 20 minutes of work, or 20 minutes of a grocery store. So the idea that we can pack people in and not lose the things we have gained in the last century is simply a fantasy.

Randal  O’Toole is author of Gridlock