"Dreams From My Father," A Planner's Perspective

Todd Litman's picture

I recently read President Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father." It is well written and insightful. Obama uses personal stories to explore issues of identity, race, class, politics, power, and what it means to be ‘United Statesian.'  Let me share some observations about  transportation and land use planning issues mentioned in the book.

Dreams from my Father 

Many of Obama's greatest personal tragedies result from traffic accidents. In 1972 his father was seriously injured in a car crash in Kenya, and a decade later died in another crash there. In 1983 his half-brother David was killed in a motorcycle accident in Kenya. His brother, Roy, is described as a dangerous driver who had frequent accidents. Obama also mentions a high school friend, Duke, who died in a car wreck in Hawaii.

This is a stark reminder of the immense toll traffic accidents impose in both developing and developed countries. According to the World Health Organization, traffic fatality rates in low-income and middle-income countries (21.5 and 19.5 per 100 000 population, respectively) are double the rates in high-income countries (10.3 per 100 000), as illustrated below. Among higher-income countries the U.S. has one of the highest per capita traffic fatality rates, a result of high rates of per capita vehicle mileage. Although other health risks (cardiovascular disease, cancers) cause more deaths, traffic crashes tend to kill people at the prime of life and so impose particularly large loss of potential years of life.world traffic crash rates

The conventional assumption is that traffic crashes are an unfortunate price of progress best addressed by technical solutions such as better road and vehicle design, and campaigns to reduce traffic speeds and drunk driving, but some of us believe that mobility management strategies, which reduce per capita vehicle travel, can play an important role, while providing additional benefits such as congestion reduction, road and parking cost savings, consumer savings, energy conservation and emission reductions. Efforts to encourage use of safer modes must overcome the stigma and perceived danger associated with walking, cycling and public transportation, and the status associated with automobile travel, issues illustrated at various points in the book (at one point his grandmother asks his grandfather to chauffeur her to work to avoid frightening panhandlers, who happen to be African-American, and later he is gently ridiculed by colleagues for driving a small economy car).

Obama describes African traffic chaos, and crowded and dangerous buses, "Cars meandered across lanes and roundabouts, dodging potholes, bicycles, and pedestrians, while rickety jitneys--called matatus, I was  told-stopped without warning to cram on more passengers." Only recently have international development agencies recognized the problems created by automobile-oriented transportation planning and the importance of  policies that protect vulerable modes (walking and cycling) and favor efficient modes (cycling and public transit). In other words, developing country planners are beginning to see the value of following the European and Asian model (high vehicle and fuel prices, and multi-modal planning) instread of the North American model (cheap roads and fuel, with minimal investment in alternative modes).

While working as a community organizer, Obama struggles with the social and economic impacts of middle-class flight to suburbs. Certainly, from an individual household's perspective it is attractive to abandon troubled urban neighborhoods to flee high local crime rates and access better schools. Automobile dependency becomes a sort of moat to exclude poorer people who cannot afford a car. However, this tends to ruin traditional urban neighborhoods, concentrating poverty and despair. To the degree that transportation and land use policies favor automobile travel over walking, cycling and public transport, and suburban development over urban redevelopment, they contribute to this cycle.

Perhaps these experiences help explain why the Obama administration has worked so hard to coordinate transportation, urban and environmental policies. This is just the type of strategic coordination that professional planners can appreciate: it means that these organizations can cooperate, for example, by insuring that affordable housing is located in areas with good transportation options, and that poverty-reduction strategies are selected that also help achieve environmental objectives.

A key theme repeated in "Dreams From My Father" is that problems are often complex, involving many stakeholders with different perspectives. Planners deal with these issues daily. I sense in President Obama a fraternal passion for solving the multi-facetted problems facing individuals and communities.

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



Cross period and -cultural light

I always look forward to Todd’s articles. Every time I find a new perspective or a statistic or analysis that sheds new light on mobility issues. This one introduces a cross cultural and cross period analysis that I believe is essential in understanding all social and cultural transformations; we do not do enough of it; content with a romanticized image of the past and a vilified cast on the present.

Take, for example, the high fatalities rates in the developing world he cites, often reported as a veritable “massacre”. Interestingly, the same description was used for New York’s streets in the 1920s and the numbers bear it out; we have been there. Since then, car ownership has reached the ultimate plateau – one car per able driver (US)- and VKTs have more than quadrupled. Happily, accidents and fatalities have steadily declined and are at their lowest comparative level; developing cities are not there yet. If we understand what happened here well enough they might be able to arrive at our present; a future for them.

Most of the cities in developing countries are dense by our present numbers; that was our past. Most city dwellers depend on public transit, meager and slow as it may be; there is no other option. These cities are compact and walkable and the modal scale is heavily tipped toward walking, biking and public transit; this was our past, circa turn of 20th century.
What Todd is suggesting, is that we need ingredients of their present (our past) combined with elements of our present (their hopeful future) to further reduce accidents and enjoy a high quality of life.

Hopefully, developing nations’ cities by mixing these ingredients would avoid our long detour; can they?

Great Article

A terrific, insightful article- I think Litman's call for a wholistic approach to solving traffic safety, congestion and pollution issues is the way to go!

Randy Selleck

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