Thursday, May 16, 2013

Smog, gridlock, long's the bicycle's fault. Really!

Welcome to a "connect the dots" adventure...

Dot #1:

I was in Chicago in early April.  Went to the Museum of Science and Industry.  Nerd heaven!  The new U505 submarine display is fantastic.
Worth the price of admission just for that.

Oh, wait.  Where was I?  Bicycles.  They also had a display on the history of bicycles.  What we think of as a normal bicycle was called the "safety bicycle" in the late 19th century and it took the bike out of the realm of novelty and made it into practical transportation.  It had two, same size wheels, pedals in a good ergonomic position connected to the rear wheel by a chain drive, and pneumatic tires for a smooth ride. It was easy and safe to ride.  Most everyone wanted one.  Many people bought one.

Dot #2

There was a problem, though.  Not many suitable streets and roads to ride them on.  This started the political push for better roads.  The people got what they wanted.  Nice smooth roads.  Everyone was happy.

For a while.

Dot #3

Better machine tools  + plus bicycle technology + the availability of decent roads + mass production + available petroleum distillate fuels
Cheap automobiles for everyone!  No more pedaling!  No getting wet in the rain! No more waiting for the next trolley!


People wanted even more and better roads, and bridges.  Road building took off in the 1920s and kept going in the 1930s, took a short break for WWII, but then got going again in a big way in the late 1940s.  The two lane US highway network was built out.  States, particularly in the east, were building Parkways and Turnpikes.

Then, the Eisenhower Interstates.  You can read a bit about it here:

Dot #5

Everybody buys a car.

Dot #6

People have cars and roads leading from the city to the country.  Isn't the country nice?  Lets drive there every Sunday.  What's this?  They are selling houses in the country?  Only a 30 minute drive back to the office?  Let's buy one!  The Boss likes his new country house so much, he move the office out to the country, too!

Dot #7

Everybody buys a house in the suburbs.  Everybody drives everywhere.  Nobody walks anywhere.  Bicycles?  You'd get run over!  Jobs are scattered over the same landscape as houses.  Traffic flows from everywhere to everywhere.

Dot #8

Roads get crowded.  Air is full of smog.  30 minute commute is now an hour.  Gas prices go up and down, but mostly up - nobody can predict how much and when.  Everybody is using a lot of gas and finding more oil it is getting harder and more expensive. Living in the "country" is becoming less fun.  Boy, I wish I had that "walk three blocks to the 30 minute subway ride to the walk 5 blocks to work" commute back.

Dot #9

Hey, Mr. Politician!  How about building me some transit so I can get to work without all that traffic!  (Actually, build that transit so all those OTHER people will used it and get off MY roads and out of MY way!) But, don't tax me for it!  Tax somebody else!  And, don't tax my gas.  The price is killing me right now!

So, bicycle, it's all you fault!  No bicycle, no roads.  No roads no cars.  No cars, no suburban sprawl.  No suburban sprawl, no traffic.  No traffic, no smog.  Q. E. D.

Which brings us to....

Dot #10

There is no dot #10.  Not yet anyway.  Life arranged around highway induced sprawl is a poor fit for transit.    Transit takes large amounts of people along dense, linear corridors efficiently   Roads are more like a spider web.  Hardly anybody is going between the same nodes on the web, even if they share some of the same routes to get there.  Transit is expensive to build and requires on-going operating support, too.  Who is willing to pay?

There is no shortage of ideas about what to do.  There are those who say "Congestion?  Build more roads!"  They are wrong, though.  Road construction just induces more traffic and more sprawl.  Isn't that the problem?

There are those that say "Build transit!" But, what they really want is a rail line that goes from near their house to near their job.  One seat.  Direct.  Cheap.  Fast.  Frequent. It's simply impossible to build transit for everyone when life is arranged around roads.  There just isn't the density of O-D pairs to make it go.

There are those who say "Force everyone back into high density living through creative taxation, then we can build good transit".  But, what they are really talking about is social engineering and central planning.  The very thing that brought us high-rise slums and urban decay, among other ills.  And, weren't those freeways that brought us the sprawl "centrally planned"?  Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

There is no magic way out of this.

But, take a look at what's happening.  People are moving back into the cities, getting drivers licences later and eschewing automobiles.  Zipcar has popped up places, allowing people who only need a car occasionally to use one.  Short term bicycle rentals are being put in place in some cities, allowing people to use bikes for the "last mile" of a transit trip.  Sometimes these changes occur after new transit lines are built, like in Portland OR.  But elsewhere, these trends are leading transit development, like in Atlanta, where the new urban dwellers are pushing hard for the Belt Line project.

So, maybe we don't have to take any draconian actons.  Maybe the solution is to do things incrementally.  A commuter rail line here, a light rail line there, some express bus service, and even some targeted highway projects.


Meanwhile, I think I'll go for a ride on my bike.


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