Avoiding Undesirable Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Todd Litman's picture

Planners strive to anticipate future needs, which sometimes creates self-fulfilling prophecies: by preparing for a situation we help cause it. This is particularly true of automobile dependency. Planning decisions intended to accommodate automobile travel can create a cycle of increased vehicle travel, more automobile-oriented planning, and reduced alternatives. This concept is conveyed brilliantly in the cartoon below, drawn by transportation engineer Ian Lockwood and published in the March 2012 ITE Journal.

The alternative to automobile dependency is not necessary a total lack of private vehicles (i.e., carfree communities), rather, it is a multi-modal transport system, which allows people to choose the best option for each trip: walking and cycling to reach local destinations, public transport for travel on major corridors, and automobile travel when it is truly best overall. 

Decision-makers generally don't try to create automobile dependency, but many current planning practices unintentionally stimulate it. Wider roads, higher vehicle traffic speeds, increased parking requirements, and destinations located along major highways don't just facilitate automobile access, by degrading walking and cycling conditions (an impact called the barrier effect) and increasing distances between destinations they reduce access by other modes.

Automobile dependency imposes large costs on users and society. It forces people to drive even for local errands, such as transporting children to school. It makes public transit inefficient and inconvenient. It increases the costs of vehicles, parking facilities and roads borne by households, businesses and governments, as well as traffic congestion, accidents and pollution problems. It is inequitable and inefficient: it makes non-drivers significantly worse off and forces motorists to chauffeur non-driving family members and friends.

A good way to begin reducing automobile dependency is by implementing school transport management programs, which help make walking and cycling safer and more convenient. This is good in many ways: children who can walk or bike to school are healthier, happier and learn better than those who do not, and helps break the cycle of parents feeling obliged to drive because of the perceived risks of non-motorized travel.

Another good practice is for anybody involved in transport system planning to spend at least a couple weeks each year without driving, so they can experience the transport system they are creating from non-drivers' perspective. They will probably find that walking, cycling and public transit travel are sometimes enjoyable, but often frustrating due to incomplete networks, inadequate services, and poor connections – some of which can be corrected inexpensively.

The challenge for planners is to avoid traps, such as self-fulfilling prophesies and unintended consequences, which fails to create the future that we really want. 


For More Information 

Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris and Brian D. Taylor (2009), "Paved With Good Intentions: Fiscal Politics, Freeways, and the 20th Century American City," Access 35 (www.uctc.net), Fall 2009, pp. 30-37; at www.uctc.net/access/35/access35.shtml.

Complete Streets (www.completestreets.org) is a campaign to promote roadway designs that effectively accommodate multiple modes and support local planning objectives.

Santhosh Kodukula (2011), Raising Automobile Dependency: How to Break the Trend?, GIZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project (www.sutp.org); at www.sutp.org/dn.php?file=TD-RAD-EN.pdf.

Todd Litman (2011), The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War: Evaluating Claims of Unjustified Restrictions on Automobile Use, and a Critique of 'Washingtons War On Cars And The Suburbs', Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/carwars.pdf.

Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy (1999), Sustainability and Cities; Overcoming Automobile Dependency, Island Press (www.islandpress.org).

Peter Samuel and Todd Litman (2001), "Optimal Level of Automobile Dependency; A TQ Point/Counterpoint Exchange with Peter Samuel and Todd Litman," Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 5-32; at www.vtpi.org/OLOD_TQ_2001.pdf.

SDC (2011), Fairness in a Car Dependent Society, U.K. Sustainable Development Commission (www.sd-commission.org.uk); at www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/fairness-in-a-car-dependent-society.html.

Scott Sharpe and Paul Tranter (2010), "The Hope For Oil Crisis: Children, Oil Vulnerability And (In)Dependent Mobility," Australian Planner, Vol. 47, No. 4, December, pp. 284-292; summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07293682.2010.526622.

Dennis Soron (2009), "Driven To Drive: Cars And The Problem Of 'Compulsory Consumption'," Car Troubles: Critical Studies of Automobility and Auto-Mobility (Jim Conley and Arlene Tigar McLaren eds), Ashgate (www.ashgate.com), pp. 181-196; www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754677727.

Ming Zhang (2006), "Travel Choice with No Alternative: Can Land Use Reduce Automobile Dependence?" Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 311-326; http://jpe.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/25/3/311.


Thanks to Ian Lockwood for sharing his cartoon. 

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



Preventing Unrealistic Prophesies

An excellent, rational analysis, Todd.
One frequent fallacy most of us fall victims to is the "false expectation" fallacy which should be added to the long list. We expect other people to behave as we ourselves do not or would not. This is primarily caused by the lack of first hand experience of how other people live and what they aspire to. That's why your suggestion to introduce a "new good practice ....... for anybody involved in transport system planning to spend at least a couple weeks each year without driving, so they can experience the transport system they are creating from non-drivers’ perspective" is a great idea that urgently needs rigorous implementation. Such practice will sharpen the views not only of transportation professionals but also all planners. It should start early during the academic years with mandatory periods and have a periodic refreshing repetition during a professional's career. A famous Chinese proverb lends support to your proposal: " I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I DO AND I UNDERSTAND" .

Fanis Grammenos
Urban Pattern Associates

Todd Litman's picture

Experience Is Important

Thank you for your comments, Fanis.

I don't agree that it is a fallacy to, "expect other people to behave as we ourselves do not or would not." Our responsibility as planners is to help communities respond to residents' demands, including activities we would not personally choose. For example, I might prefer to travel by one mode, but as a planner I should help communities accommodate others. Similarly, I might not choose a particular housing or shopping option, but as a planner I should help insure that they exist where people want them. It would be irresponsible if we expected everybody to behave as we do.

However, I certainly agree that there is nothing like personal experience to help people understand the details, for example, specific ways to improve walking, cycling and public transit service, and make them into a convenient, integrated, multi-modal system. That is why it is important that planners have diverse experiences, so they can understand diverse demands and planning requirements.

Most planners I know, particularly younger ones, lead relatively multi-modal lifestyles and so well understand the details of creating more diverse and efficient transport systems. However, many older people involved in community planning as members of official boards and councils, as businesses managers, and as voters, are still looking backward to the heady days when automobile travel demands were growing and transportation planning primarily involved expanding roads and parking facilities. It is important that we communicate both the value of increasing transport system diversity and the details of how that is done, and that we explain the risks of self-fulfilling prophecies. Many of those older people who currently lead automobile dependent lifestyles may appreciate it someday, as discussed in my column, "Memo From Future Self: Hope for the Best But Prepare For the Worst" (http://www.planetizen.com/node/39418 ).

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Perceived risk of bicycling/walking to school

Todd, you write:

"...and helps break the cycle of parents feeling obliged to drive because of the risks of non-motorized travel.".

You might add "perceived" before "risks". Though there often may also be real traffic safety risks especially in the "dropoff-mania" zone adjacent to a school, parents' (or school administrators') _perception_ of risk is often what leads them to not allow kids to bike and/or walk to school. Especially for bicycling, the parent's lack of confidence in their own on-bike handling and traffic decision making skills may lead them to assert that street cycling is too dangerous.

Adult education such as the League of American Bicyclists' "Kids I" presentation for parents, and the dated but still-excellent Kid's Eye View video, is an important component of an Active and Safe Routes To School program. I've also had success leading 90-minute off-street handling skills clinics that refresh adults on mounting/dismounting, starting, stopping, confident turning, scanning, hand signaling and use of gears.

John Ciccarelli
San Francisco

Todd Litman's picture

Perceived Versus Actual Risk

Thanks for your comments, John!

Yes, good point. Often, people's fears of walking, cycling and public transport are exaggerated. I changed the wording as you suggest.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Forgive and Forget?

Excellent article. It is always good to remind ourselves to design with humility.

There is one issue that I believe is directly related to the article, but is not specifically addressed. That issue is the deep suspicion and distrust that many community members have toward Planners. Planners (in part) got us in this situation that forces us to use cars to get from non-place to non-place. Why should we trust Planners to get us out of this mess? When we talk about the promise of smart growth, traffic calming, complete streets, etc...why should anyone believe us? Of course, the backlash against terms such as "smart growth", TOD, and even bicycle lanes shows how much distrust is still out there.

Todd Litman's picture

Are Planners Guilty?

Thanks for your comments, WaltSDCA.

I'm not sure it is fair to place too much blame on planners. There is extensive planning literature going back decades (Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs are probably the best known) which argued against automobile-dependency. Yes, planners are part of the mechanistic development system that supports automobile dependency, but far more important, I believe, are developers who wanted to exploit cheap land, transportation agencies that favor road construction, and city councilors who want to avoid conflicts and so insist on generous parking requirements. Planners are often Cassandras, warning decision-makers about the harms that can result from these policies.

Ultimately, our job is change management (http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm114.htm ). Our challenge is to communicate to decision-makers (including citizens, public officials, developers, etc.) the costs of continuing current policies and the benefits of reforms. In other words, our role is not to tell residents how to develop their community, it is to provide comprehensive analysis of options and impacts, and let them decide. For example, we can provide about the economic, social and environmental risks of automobile dependency, the benefits of a more diverse and efficient transport system, and help them envision those alternatives.

Aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing urbanization, changing consumer preferences, and increasing health and environmental concerns are reducing demand for automobile travel and increasing demand for alternatives. I believe that, given accurate information, most people will choose the less-automobile-dependent options.

Yes, there will be controversies over smart growth, TOD and bike lanes - some people will be made worse off, and some just want to vent their spleen - but with comprehensive analysis and good communication skills we can succeed more often than we fail. We actually have a positive story to tell about creating a better future.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Thanks for the article Todd.

Thanks for the article Todd. I guess we pretty much have similar problems in Philippine cities but mostly for private schools and universities that generate a lot of private car traffic. The impacts of the traffic they generate inconvenience a lot of people as most of these schools are adjacent to major roads. One problem we have is that they are even using certain residential streets to bypass congested ones. Our challenge is how to convince people to walk or cycle given the unsafe conditions in our roads and the schools themselves not lifting a finger to discourage car use among their students. This is complicated by their encouraging motorized 3-wheelers for public transport when the distances covered is very suitable for walking. Your articles and resources on school transport management are really helpful for us.

Best regards.

Todd Litman's picture

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies In The Developing World

Thanks for your comments, Jfregidor!

Yes, the same problems occur all over the world, including in developing countries such as the Philippines. It is particularly important to change the planning paradigm in such cities, both because pro-automobile policies are unfair to the majority of households which do not rely on automobile travel, and because they have an opportunity to avoid excessive automobile dependency, if they make the right decisions now.

Fortunately, there are some very good new resources available for better transport planning in developing country cities. You can use these to educate decision-makers (planners, enginers, city councilors, school officials, citizens, parents, etc.), why and how to create more multi-modal communities.

African Centre of Excellence in Public and Non-Motorised Transport (ACET) (www.vref.se/thefutprogramme/centresofexcellence/capetownsouthafrica.4.6a...) aims to produce better transport system analytical methods and models, for infrastructural development in a region where pedestrians and para-transit are important.

Susanne Böhler-Baedeker and Hanna Hüging (2012), Urban Transport and Energy Efficiency, Sustainable Urban Transport Project (www.sutp.org) Asia and GIZ; at www.sutp.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2858.

CSE (2009), Footfalls: Obstacle Course To Livable Cities, Right To Clean Air Campaign, Centre For Science And Environment (www.cseindia.org); at www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/content/footfalls-obstacle-course-liva....

DFID (2010), Children, Transport and Mobility in Sub-Saharan Africa: Developing a Child-Centred Evidence Base to Improve Policy and Change Thinking Across Africa, Department of International Development (www.dur.ac.uk/child.mobility).

Boubacar Diallo (2010), “Roads That Serve The Neediest Users, Yet All Too Often Kill Them In The Process,” Routes-Roads, N° 347, World Road Association (www.piarc.org); at www.vtpi.org/Diallo.pdf.

GIZ (2011), Changing Course in Urban Transport- An Illustrated Guide, Sustainable Urban Transport Project (www.sutp.org) Asia and GIZ; at www.sutp.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2825.

ITDP (2011), Better Street, Better Cities: A Guide To Street Design In Urban India, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (www.itdp.org); at www.itdp.org/betterstreets.

Santhosh Kodukula (2011), Raising Automobile Dependency: How to Break the Trend?, GIZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project (www.sutp.org); at www.sutp.org/dn.php?file=TD-RAD-EN.pdf.

James Leather, Herbert Fabian, Sudhir Gota and Alvin Mejia (2011), Walkability and Pedestrian Facilities in Asian Cities: State and Issues, Sustainable Development Working Paper, Asian Development Bank (www.adb.org); at http://cleanairinitiative.org/portal/sites/default/files/documents/ADB-W....

John Pucher (2005), Nisha Korattyswaroopam, Neha Mittal and Neenu Ittyerah, “Urban Transport Crisis in India,” Transport Policy, Vol. 12, Issue 3; (http://policy.rutgers.edu/papers/26.pdf).

Tom Rickert (1998 and 2002), Mobility for All; Accessible Transportation Around the World, and Making Access Happen: Promoting and Planning Transport For All, Access Exchange International (www.globalride-sf.org), and the Swedish Institute On Independent Living (www.independentliving.org). These excellent guides provide information on how to implement Universal Design in developing as well as developed countries.

UTTIPEC (2009), Pedestrian Design Guidelines: Don’t Drive…Walk! Delhi Development Authority, New Delhi (www.uttipec.nic.in); at www.uttipec.nic.in/PedestrianGuidelines-30Nov09-UTTPEC-DDA.pdf.

Wilbur Smith (2008), Traffic & Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India, Ministry of Urban Development (www.urbanindia.nic.in); at www.urbanindia.nic.in/programme/ut/final_Report.pdf.

Lloyd Wright (2009), Environmentally Sustainable Transport For Asian Cities: A Sourcebook, United Nations Centre for Regional Development (www.uncrd.org.jp); at http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/uncrd/unpan031844.pdf.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

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