by Dom Nozzi
Recently, a colleague of mine expressed a great deal of enthusiasm over a new transportation planning tool known as “Sustainable Transportation Analysis & Rating System” (STARS). He felt it would greatly improve long-range transportation planning. That instead of local governments preparing “wish lists” that mostly consisted of counterproductive road widening projects, we’d instead have more beneficial, sustainable and sensible transportation projects due to the new STARS evaluation tool. I told him that I wished I could be as optimistic about STARS.
Why am I pessimistic?
Frankly, I don’t see why it would be difficult for the conventional road and car lobbies to claim that road widening promotes “sustainability.” Like the lobby has so successfully done for several decades (even most environmentalists still believe this), the road-widening cheerleaders will claim that widening will reduce carbon emissions and promote “access” and “mobility” by reducing car congestion.
Ergo, widening promotes sustainability!
Even though some of us know that widening worsens congestion, reduces accessibility, reduces mobility, increases carbon emissions, increases gas consumption and increases sprawl, I believe the conventional wisdom will continue to believe (and convince elected decision-makers) that widening will improve each of those measures.
Ian Lockwood (and others) taught us how easily the conventional wisdom can use biased terms to fool us. “Improvements” sounds great for all forms of travel, but is a code word for improving conditions for cars. “Traffic efficiency” also sounds great for everyone, but is a code term for faster car speeds. And so on.
I’ve seen many “progressive” measures in my career that seemed revolutionary at first, but were then co-opted by the conventional thinkers to suit their purposes. One example: Departments of Transportation (DOT) all over the nation using what they call “context-sensitive design.”
In my experience, “context-sensitive design” sounds great. It sounds like we’ll see DOT designing and building roads that respect their context by being slower speed and more narrow when their new, wider roads enter towns.
Instead, what we get is trivial window dressing. More shrubs and grass along the median, for example, to make 8-lane superhighways “context-sensitive” when they ram their way through a (formerly) sleepy, low-speed town.
In sum, I don’t think we’ll see much in the way of positive changes until we start seeing big price and inconvenience issues for motorists via much higher gas costs, priced and scarce parking, and no money to widen roads. Fortunately, those things are starting to emerge…
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org