The Roads, They Are A-Changing

For almost a century, transportation policy has been heavily biased towards private cars. Yet times have changed, and transition is inevitable. The question is: Will that transition be forced and disruptive, or can it anticipate the sweeping transformations that lie ahead?

Neither self-proclaimed traffic experts nor politicians – from local councils to the European Commission – have the necessary systemic expertise to answer questions about the future of the car conclusively. Instead, predictions are rooted in myths about today’s traffic concepts. We hear about “growing mobility” and “time saved through additional speed”. Both ideas are flawed: The average distance and the average time spent traveling are roughly constant. If you increase speed, you also increase distance, since quicker vehicles necessitate different road structures. In the end, no time is saved.

Structures influence our behavior – including car usage and mobility. Even when the first cars appeared on our roads, the necessary structures were largely in place: A good road network connected much of Europe. And in apparent defiance of the laws of nature, energy seemed unlimited and cheap for the first time in human history. The car provided us with a potential mobility that exceeded the human walk by several orders of magnitude. And it perfected the seeming evolutionary deficit of man: our inability to move effortlessly at great speed.

This seeming integration of the car into our environment and psyche also helps to explain why cars have taken over public spaces without sparking much criticism, and why many financial and legal privileges became attached to the idea of car ownership. In 1939, the German government even decreed that each house and work place had to provide parking spaces “on site or in the immediate vicinity… for the existing and expected cars”. This idea outlived its time and still defines German mobility policy. It creates a strong bias towards car usage and goes hand in hand with the decline of public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. It marked the advent of the success story of the German car.

It took the 1973 energy crisis to refocus our attention on public transportation. Parking fees, pedestrian areas, cycle paths and speed limits changed the traffic structures and de-incentivized the use of cars in congested urban areas. Today, we can see the consequences of this widespread policy change – but it has thus far been confined to cities.

The external conditions (peak oil and climate change) as well as the internal conditions (quality of life and the focus on local infrastructure) will change significantly in the near future. Under these conditions, we cannot simply continue our car use as we did in the 20th century. Two paths are open to us: A painful and forced transition when external conditions make current car usage unsustainable, or an anticipatory transition based on inner re-structuring.

Such a transition must address the causes of unsustainability, not merely the symptoms. One cause is the organization of public spaces, one that emphasizes the proximity of cars to drivers. If public transportation is to be able to compete with private cars, the distance to the next bus stop or train station must be roughly equal to the distance to the parked car. Such a restructuring of parking would have beneficial secondary effects as well: Car-free zones increase the quality of life and allow for the re-vitalization of urban areas through businesses, culture and social relations. If parking spaces are twice as far as bus stops, two thirds of private drives become superfluous.

The European Commission has begun to create the necessary framework. A reorganization of public spaces is a transnational project, not a subject to European subsidiarity.

Read more in this debate: Karolina Golimowska, Joseph Hammond, Felix Creutzig.

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