Apparently, our regular daily travel times haven’t changed all that much over the years. According to a recent article in Nature, Six research routes to steer transport policy, “On average, people around the world spend an hour a day travelling, a pattern that has held for centuries and across cultures.”
By that calculation, many of us here in the GTA are pitching in to bring up that average time, especially commuters in the outer areas of the region, places like Oshawa and up in Barrie, who clock in at 45 minutes, one-way. Kind of confounding, when you think about it. Living in an age of speedy trains and automobiles, yet here we are, some of us, lagging behind the horse-and-trolley era.
How can that possibly be?
Well, as it turns out, according to the article’s authors, Eric Bruun and Moshe Givoni, commuting and simply getting around are not simply all about the advanced technology. In fact, they warn that a simple reliance on new technologies like the all hailed driverless cars to untangle our congested mess of traffic woes could just as easily make matters worse.
Although the excitement associated with a new product, service or tool is often justified, the negative, unintended impacts must be anticipated.
Take the driverless cars. Depending on whom one asks, such cars will be in wide use in some countries by 2025 or 2050. They are framed as a technology that offers cheap mobility while saving time and energy. But it was exactly this thinking that brought us the ‘with-driver’ private car and its unsustainable consequences.
The driverless car promises to be even more successful. Getting people out of their driverless cars will be even harder.
By making driving easier and, more fun or, at least, tolerable, and better improving traffic flow, driverless cars will attract more drivers. At which point of time, new technology runs smack dab into old rules of the road like induced demand. Better driving = more driving. No one’s yet figured out how to design or build around that one absolute constant in the congestion equation. Bruun and Givoni suggest that driverless vehicles may be a much more valuable technological advance in terms of public transit.
Even something like Uber, the self-vaunted, self-dubbed car-sharing disruptive technology may possibly entice more cars onto our roads. “Like any innovation they are a great opportunity but also carry risks.” Freed of expensive driving headaches like parking, more people may opt for the cheaper alternative, Uber, which is still a car. More people using Uber instead of their own cars merely mean swapping cars. In terms of congestion, a car’s a car. “Even with shared cars, it is physically impossible for large cities to meet everyone’s travel needs with what is essentially a variation of single-occupant vehicles.”
We can’t simply cross our fingers, close our eyes and pray that some magical technological innovation will sweep our roads and highways free of congestion, improve our lives or clean our dishes for us. OK. That, we have. But changing how we get around the places we live and increase our quality of life in the process is a more complex problem.
This includes the touchy subject of built form. “Total expenditure (public and private) on passenger transport decrease as urban density increases,” the authors write. “Yet zoning and infrastructure investment decisions are not based on broader scientific analyses of the impacts.”
Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Toronto’s Scarborough subway debate where built form has zero connection to ‘passenger transport’ decisions and ‘broader scientific analyses’ consists of nothing more than wishful incantations. Subways, subways, subways.
Given that experience here, it’s difficult not to see Bruun and Givoni’s call for more scientific and date-driven decision making as hopelessly naïve and ivory tower locked. “Researchers must come up with new evaluation methods that are robust and scientifically defensible,” they write. Uh huh. “The outputs must be comprehensible to elected officials and to the public.” Absolutely. “Such methods must include both quantitative and qualitative benefits and costs, and capture a much larger array of them.” Hear, hear!
And when all that work falls on deaf ears, ears plugged by political machinations and parochial resentment? What we really should be working on is some sort of gene therapy that creates leadership willing to be honest and forthright about the need to confront our prevailing transportation status quo. Leadership willing to argue it’ll take more than a few tweaks here and there, that there’s no one miracle innovation to turn this thing around. Discover a switch to turn on the political courage gene.
While we’re at it, maybe we can also try and rediscover that seemingly atavistic trait in all of us to see beyond our own self-interested short term point of view.
Echoing Jan Gehl, Eric Bruun and Moshe Giovani insist that “Our transport systems’, as well as our cities must be planned for people – not for a particular mode of transport or by a handful of companies with vast lobbying power.” The tools to do so are at our disposal. It’s our will that is lacking.
— scientifically submitted by Cityslikr