Getting real about planning and mobility

Samuel Staley's picture

After reading through dozens of long range transportation plans, I have to wonder if the planning profession is serious about improving mobility. By mobility, I mean improving the ability, speed, and efficiency of getting from point A to point B.

This isn't the focus of most plans. On the contrary. These plans seemed focused on reducing mobility. Few, for example, recognize let alone make recommendations for reducing traffic congestion. In fact, David Hartgen at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte estimates that more than 40% of the American population will live in metropolitan areas with severe congestion (LOS F) by 2030 based on current trends and transportation plans. Twelve cities will have congestion equivalent to current day Los Angeles.

Instead, the programmatic focus of most Long Range Transportation Plans seems to be on: 1) improving options for small groups that use alternative transportation modes, such as bicycles, but have little overall impact on traffic patterns or regional mobility, 2) attempting to funnel more people onto public transit which usually results in longer commutes and trips, or 3) reducing travel overall (which of course reduces mobility).

At the core, it seems, improving mobility in the 21st century implies accepting, even embracing auto-mobility. This, of course, means planning for the car. Perhaps that's the real problem: the planning profession has yet to really accept and embrace the automobile as a fundamental step forward in improving mobility. Until it does that, and incorporates this view into long range transportation plans, we seem committed to less mobility and more congestion.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Prove it

Can you provide actual data on the percentages of funding going into cycling and public transit instead of generic characterizations? In my experience with long range transportation plans, which I've spent a good amount of time looking at, the vast majority of funding goes to cars, and some money goes to transit and a tiny amount to cycling. I don't see how that actually proves your point that the planning profession doesn't embrace automobiles. I think the profession does, and you just want no public transit or bike facilities to be built. We're better off recognizing that both cars and other modes of transportation have a role to play in alleviating congestion - and in the equally important goal of building communities that actually work for people who live there.

Samuel Staley's picture

Proving it

Long range transportation plans do fund roads and highways, but it is significantly out of proportion to the level of use and demonstrated preferences of travelers. I've seen no evidence that giving cycling or transit substantially larger shares of transportation funding makes *any* difference in regional congestion (which was my point).

I agree that a balanced transportation system is important, but I also believe improving mobility and channeling funds to meet the preferences of citizens and residents should be the number one objective of transportation planning.

The Road More Traveled, my book (co-authored with Ted Balaker) discusses this in more detail as does my article in Reason magazine in last months issue (at

Not Planning for the Automobile Will Leed To It's Demise

It may be true that the future isn't well planned for auto transport. But if you make it uncomfortable for people to use the car, they'll stop using it.

The car companies made it uncomfortable for mass transit, and pedestrian users to use their preferred transit, and in effect killed those forms of transit. Reverse the process and people will switch to other transit forms.

Samuel Staley's picture

Transit's dismal performance

It's true that people choose transportatoin modes based on their perceptions of efficiency, and the most important factor is time and convenience. So, if you make it harder and harder for people to use cars, you will degrade mobility to the point where transit becomes an option. That's what happens around TOD's, but even in these cases (e.g., BART, Metro in DC) transit doesn't capture a majority of commuters. They prefer to walk or drive their cars. The exception is New York.

But, regardless, I don't think a goal of public policy should be making people worse off.

The Usual Irrationality from the Reason Foundation

"improving mobility in the 21st century implies accepting, even embracing auto-mobility"

Hasn't this person heard that global warming is a fact of life in the 21st century? Hasn't he hear that the attempts to "embrace automobility" during the mid-twentieth century just caused worse congestion (because there is simply not room within cities for enough roads to accommodate all those cars)?

He is still spouting the conventional wisdom of the 1950s, and he is nowhere near to entering the 21st century.

Charles Siegel

Samuel Staley's picture

Bringing transportation into the 21st century

Hmmm, just for the record, I have heard of global warming. I think its a bit paradoxical that I am accused of using a 1950s mindset by embracing autombility while virtually all the critics of automobiles are using a 19th century mindset--our urbanized areas simply aren't organized in a way that makes 19th century transportation systems viable. Putting masses of people in trains and buses only works under certain circumstances (low mobility). It seems we should be embracing technologies that free people and give them more choices than adopting policies that constrain them.

RE: capacity in cities. There is capacity in cities, but it requires thinking outside the box--namely, building up or down, not out, and using pricing (tolls) to ensure the costs are paid by users. This is happening in other parts of the world more rapidly than in the U.S.

Transportation Lesson for the Twenty-First Century

To bring transportation into the twenty-first century, we have to begin by learning a key lesson of the twentieth century: that we should be providing access rather than mobility.

Promoting mobility was the goal of twentieth-century road builders, and as a result, the average American today drives twice as much as the average American in the 1960s.

This increased mobility means that people are driving longer distances to do the same things that they did closer to home decades ago. People are not better off because they have to spend all this extra time and money driving back and forth on the freeways - and when we also factor in environmental issues such as global warming, it becomes clear that promoting mobility was a disastrous mistake.

If we lived in old-fashioned streetcar suburbs instead of freeway-oriented sprawl suburbs, cities would be more compact, there would be more convenient access with less mobility, and there would be less threat of global warming.

Re capacity in cities: some cities are making themselves more livable by reducing freeway capacity, but this is happening more quickly in other countries than in the United States. See

Would Paris be a more livable city if it built elevated and underground freeways to increase capacity, instead of following its current plan for reducing traffic and freeway capacity? At some point, many of the cars would exit from those freeways and complete their trips on local streets - which do not have capacity to carry them.

Charles Siegel

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