Why Mobility Matters to Our Personal Lives

In a new policy brief, Reason Foundation's Ted Balaker examines what the ability to get around town quickly means to our professional and personal lives.

"The average person can walk about four miles per hour, but cars can easily travel on arterial streets at 30 miles per hour. It's a substantial increase in speed, but the impact may be even greater than it seems. A person who walks for an hour has access to 50 square miles, but someone who drives at 30 miles per hour for 60 minutes has access to 2,827 square miles. In other words, the driver's opportunity circle is more than 56 times as large as the walker's. And when conditions permit, motorists may drive much faster on highways, thus expanding opportunity circles even more...

Yet, as they have always done, Americans will trade in their cars once a superior form of transportation comes along. Telecommuters already outnumber transit commuters in 27 of the top 50 metro areas, and telecommuting has already partially replaced cars for millions of American workers. And why not? Even with no traffic congestion and nothing but green lights, driving to work will never be as fast as the zero-minute commute that telecommuters enjoy. New technology has given us a new kind of mobility. Armed with cell phones, laptops and PDA's we can 'be' almost anywhere without crawling into a car, train or plane. But that should not diminish the importance of 'old-fashioned' mobility - moving people, parts, and products across physical space."

Full Story: Why Mobility Matters to Our Personal Lives (PDF, 200KB)



Michael Dudley's picture

Not very insightful

Being able to get to the places we want to get to is important, and "not doing things" because of congestion is frustrating. How compelling. What can Balaker offer to improve the situation? Surprise: "speedy auto travel" facilitated by "free markets."

A lot of the assumptions he works with are pretty superficial. He claims we need to be able to drive around to meet significant others -- but how many couples owe their relationships to having met on the bus/train? Or meeting by walking their dogs? And I would certainly like to see his "stress of transit" illustration matched with an appropriate "road rage" example -- of which I dare say there are many, many more!

The mere fact that he's espousing moving around to enhance the quality of life is pretty spurious, when many of us -- thanks to older, mixed-use districts -- have a very nice lifestyle within walking distance, thank you very much.

This paper is a bit of a waste of time, just skim it

I don't want to beat up on Balaker because usually his and Staley's ideas about road pricing, and the role of autos are better expressed...simplistic, but at least more fully explored. The problem with libertarian free market ideology is that it looks great on paper, but usually lacks context. His little aside about never trying the restaurant in a certain part of town, because of traffic getting there ignores that on his way to "getting there" he drives through a lot of other people's "there". In his logic there is just where you are, where you want to be, and the car and roads that connect the two. however all along those roads are neighborhoods, and commercial districts that may not have the same interest in having you speed through them. Having left that out, the rest of the model falls apart.

His idea about the zone of opportunity is actually very useful. Until of course you realize that with auto dependent land planning you get a sea of centers and overlapping zones until everybody on the road represents a blockage in someone else's zones of opportunity. If you think about it, it makes your head spin. However if you don't you can get paid handsomely for writing a little pointless treatise.


"The problem with libertarian free market ideology is that it looks great on paper, but usually lacks context."

It's ironic that the above statement is exactly what "libertarians" would say about "planning ideologogy"...and they would be just as right as you are.

Not really Ricardo, if anything planning has too much context

By context I mean a view of a total systems based approach. I think a libertarian would accuse me of being deterministic. And in that they might be right.

Planning ideology, in your terminology, often lacks an examination of the individual. Planners take into account regional aspects, economics, equity issues, and politics. Planning attempts, though sometimes fails, to determine all of the component parts of a system. What it doesn't do is fully embrace "individual liberty". Planning ideology, as you put it, is not concerned as much with an individuals freedom to be mobile as much as with a society's attempt to free itself from the externalities of mobility. Do you see what I mean by context?


It is impossible for one "planner" to account for the millions of individual decisions that, in the aggregate, determine the actions and directions of society (in politics, equity issues, economics...), much less have the total knowledge required to really make a thoughful decision about each issue. So, even when taking a "total systems based approach", planners (they're only human after all) tend to just ignore what they really don't have a depth of knowledge about (usually falls into the economics category and human psycology category) and focus on what they do know a great deal about (planning theory, design, infrastructure ...etc.). Therefore, planning lacks context in the sense that it only focuses on those contextual circumstances that it sees as fit to focus on, while both glossing over those circumstances it doesn't really want to focus on, or being just plain unaware of the millions of other decisions being made on the individual level out there. In other words, the plans made may look good on paper, but they often don't work in the real world because they can't take into account every possible outcome as they lack the context of the "real world" (being the result of the aggregate of millions of thoughtful, or unthoughtful, individual decisions), or the whole "system" as you refer to it.

So yes, I do see what you mean by context. Our context's are actually the same thing (reality is the word I'd use to describe it), and both the "free-market" and "planning" have their limitations when it comes into taking the whole of it into account. And each side of the debate would accuse the other of ignoring it (for good reason), which I find ironic.


[P]lanners...tend to just ignore what they really don't have a depth of knowledge about...and focus on what they do know a great deal about...[t]herefore, planning lacks context in the sense that it only focuses on those contextual circumstances that it sees as fit to focus on...


This false premise depends upon strawmen or painting all with a narrow brush or conflation fallacies or not knowing how plans are made. Take your pick, or maybe consider that it depends upon a little of each.

Nonetheless, the logical structure is fine, but the premise is false.





No, the premise is from my own, former (and sometimes current) experiences in the planning world.... so unless those experiences were false, then the premise must have some grain of truth (if only from my point of view). It is, of course, a generalization, and not true in every circumstance nor for every individual planner. Unfortunately, in real life, people have biases and knowledge gaps, and those tend to play themselves out in their work...that's the way human beings operate. So whether by intentional disregard (which unfortunately happens sometimes, but rarely), or just the plain inability to get their hands around the millions of decisions made by people for a million differnt reasons(which is impossible), planners are only able to focus on the known (to them), leaving out some of the "context" that would make for better decisions... only an omnipotent being would be perfect.

Michael Lewyn's picture

using mobility to defeat mobility

The basic claim is that if we could only drive faster we'd be more mobile. But the sprawl-generating transportation policies that facilitate this so-called mobility are counterproductive: by spreading out jobs, etc. it means everything becomes farther apart, so that drivers spend just as much time in the cars, and nondrivers are simply left out of the equation.

Compare, if you will, Jacksonville (where I live now) and Washington. Jacksonville is far less congested than Washington, so in theory everything would take less time to get to. But so many destinations are further away: for example, instead of every neighborhood having movie theaters, I have to travel 5 or 10 miles to a major regional mall. And I simply can't reach those destinations without driving, unlike in Washington: I would have to spend two hours changing buses to get to the movies, while in Washington the theater would be a 15 minute walk away.

Mobility Matters, but...

Mobility is certainly important, regardless of the chicken and egg nature of this debate, and it will remain important to most Westerners whether we are eight years old or 80. However, if you're going to argue that being able to drive everywhere somehow makes your social, family, and professional life more snazzy, then you have to realize that sitting in a car by yourself is not the best way to bump into people as those in walkable communities did/do. For that, you need civic places, "Third Places," if you will, and you need face to face mixing. This is why diplomacy is not conducted over TV screens or by email, or by waving to one another on the freeway. Business, government, and other leaders do business in person, illustrating the ancient need for human contact (and to look your enemy or friend in the eye).

Arguing for unlimited mobility via cars is anti-social, pro-sprawl, and part of the problem, rather than the solution. Get out of your cars, Reason Foundation!

"only" 8 miles?

Ok, I'll admit it - I didn't read this piece. But as I was skimming I saw the section he wrote about the Uzbek restaurant that is "only" eight miles from his home. ONLY eight miles! Never before in human history has eight miles been considered a negligible distance!

We can talk ourselves blue about whether roads or trains will be better for getting people around, but eventually we're going to have to confront the fact that an unhealthy sense of entitlement has developed in the American psyche. We do not deserve to travel 40 miles every day. That is unsustainable. Get over it.

Why Mobility Matters to Our Personal Lives

A difficulty with the libertarian stance on transportation is the assumption that there IS a "free market". It is a central theme they often apply when critiquing mass transit projects or anti-sprawl efforts, but curiously fail to apply when discussing the joys of build more, better and faster roadways, which are far more heavily subsidized than any other mode.

It's like watching the automaker's TV ads: the vision of the sleek, new Belchfire convertible .... a virtual blur of speed on this wide-open desert highway... wind in the hair and all that.... the "freedom of the open road". How often do you see them marketing cars in a true urban environment of jammed highways and local roads?

As long as we, as a society, keep chasing this illusion that the answer to our mobility challenges is simply more concrete and asphalt, we will continue to delay doing what needs to be done: create more choices by directing federal, state and local transportation dollars into essential transportation investments like intercity passenger rail, local mass transit, bikeways and pedestrian-friendly developments. In doing so, these projects can also attract private equity into developments along these corridors.

Stu Nicholson
Public Information Offcier
Ohio Rail Development Commission

Simple Minds At The Reason Foundation

It is hard to believe that the Reason Foundation would publish anything this simple minded.

Consider Figure 1, The Opportunity Circle:

"The space within the circle represents the amount of ground you can get to in a reasonable amount of time, say, one hour. The dots represent all the possible jobs you can apply for. The bigger your opportunity circle, the more jobs you can get to, and the better chance you have of landing the job that is right for you. If your mobility improves, the circle grows and you have more opportunities. If mobility degrades, the circle shrinks and you have fewer opportunities."

That sounds like something from an elementary school textbook. But it doesn't mention that the number of opportunities in the circle also depends on the density of development.

They are ignoring a key fact in the history of the modern American city: densities have gone down dramatically, so people are forced to travel longer distances to reach the same number of activities (or Uzbek restaurants).

This is so obvious that I am embarassed to mention it - but the Reason Foundation should be much more embarassed to published this simple-minded drivel.

Charles Siegel

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