Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The supposed independence of cars

In the comments to my last post, Streetsblog commenter Ian Bicking stopped by to play the role of apologist for Joel Kotkin. I'd like to focus on one particular thing that Ian said in Kotkin's defense:
There are real desires (for home ownership, for the independence of a car) that are widely expressed in our country.

"The independence of a car" is as much an illusion as "the convenience of a car." Let me start by saying that there are very few people who are able to travel completely independently. It's possible that some lone sailor, kayaker or desert trekker may be independent of any current infrastructure, but they're probably at least relying on some map or lore that was put together by others before.

I have to say that when I've driven, I don't feel particularly independent crawling along in crosstown traffic. I'm hemmed in, I can't go anywhere, I can't even park! The same thing with actually parking the damn thing once I get wherever I'm going. How independent am I if I can't even get out of the vehicle until I find a free space to leave it? And once I get out, what if I feel tired or somebody offers me a ride home? Sorry, I've got this two-ton thing and I can't leave it here overnight. How is that independent?

Drivers bitch and moan if the government takes too long to fix a pothole. What would they do if the government had never laid out, graded and paved the road in the first place? If there were no police to deter bandits or enforce some rules of safety, however minimal? No subsidies to vehicle manufacturers or energy producers? They are completely dependent on the system.

So when they say "independence," independence from what? People will usually say transit routes and schedules, or else from the confines of what's available within walking distance. And if they feel confined by their location or by the structure of the transit system, then I don't blame them for wanting to be independent of it.

If we look at it that way, "independence" is merely a means to an end. What they want is access, and their neighborhood and their transit system are not giving them enough of it. Having a car connects them to a parallel system that gives them that access they want.

On the other hand, it's possible, through development, to give people that same access by putting the things they need within walking distance. Through proper transit infrastructure funding and development, it's possible to give them access. For example, you could extend the hours, frequency and reach of the transit system. That's pretty much what we have here in New York, and it works very well. Most people get by just fine without a car.

In sum, there is no such thing as "the independence of a car." There's just the expanded access that can sometimes be achieved through cars, but it can often be achieved in other ways as well.


Chad said...

* Independence from transit routes
* Independence from transit schedules
* Independence from waiting in the heat, cold, wind, rain, snow, humidity, dark
* Independence from shopping for only those things that can be carried with two hands
* Independence from loud transit patrons
* Independence from patrons bringing pets onto vehicles for non-mobility assistance purposes
* Independence from dirty, grimy, confined stations and vehicles
* Independence from non-functioning station elevators and escalators
* Independence from transit operators taking unscheduled coffee/restroom breaks
* Independence from waiting for transit police to deal with other patrons' fare disputes
* Independence from buses flying by stops four minutes before the scheduled time
* Independence from vehicles that shock and rattle jarringly with every road and rail imperfection and sway with the operator's driving proclivity

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, Chad. Did you read the whole post? I could write a longer list about the aggravations I've achieved independence from by giving my car away.

Chad said...

Cap'n, the aggravations of car ownership are all too real. But my laundry list of grievances matters to many people. Many are willing to deal with car shopping, parking, insurance, gasoline, repairs, and the stresses of driving because they prefer to not deal with the frustrations of transit. Few items in the list relate to access or mobility. No amount of improved access or mobility will change their preferences.

I think it all comes down to personal preferences. Some greatly enjoy or benefit from driving, others don't. Some are all too happy to let transit agencies handle their access/mobility needs, others don't. Funding all types of infrastructure is key.

Cap'n Transit said...

Uh huh. And how do you plan to fund two complete sets of competing infrastructure?

I'll also point out that most of the things that bother you are not specifically related to transit, but to an underfunded government system that doesn't place a high priority on customer satisfaction.

Chad said...

Cap'n, do you have earlier posts about what you mean by "competing infrastructure"? I think both can complement each other, but I'd like to see your viewpoint.

For new sources of funding, road tolls like London's Congestion Charge have to be the largest part of the equation.

Call me skeptical, but I don't put a lot of faith on government making "customer satisfaction" (since when are citizens called customers?) a high priority.

Also, I don't think many of the transit grievances in my list can be solved through more funding alone. Social friction inherent in the "mass" part of "mass transit" will always dissuade some.

Cap'n Transit said...

This is what I mean by competing infrastructure. The only reason that transit is operated by the government in most places is because for-profit operators can't compete with government-funded roads.

There is plenty of social friction between car drivers. It's just expressed through honking, playing chicken and crashes.

Helen Bushnell said...

The "mass' part of "mass transit" can be a joy to a lot of people. Many people enjoy meeting new people, being able to see and talk to people that they already know on a regular basis.

Most of the problems that you list, Chad, could be solved by paying transit operators decently.

Chad said...

Helen, I'm intrigued that you've had such positive social interactions. Admittedly, I've seen passengers strike up conversations with strangers about their children or pets, albeit rarely. Running into friends on the subway is nice, but awkward encounters with drunks, belligerents, and annoying acquaintances counterbalances it.

I see absolutely no reason why paying operators more would improve any of the items in my list. Would a higher salary turn an indifferent employee into a passenger-oriented dynamo? Or would higher salaries attract more diligent candidates for the job?

BruceMcF said...

Ah, yes, I had all those independences, plus independence from access to parking places, when I was in Newcastle, Australia and had a train system, a bus system, and a folding bike.

I count 8 independences from things that do not exist in a well managed, adequately funded rail service.

I count 4 independences from things that are not typical of well run, adequately funded quality bus systems.

The only intrinsic "independence" relative to all transit modes is "independence from transit routes", which is not something that you want to be independent from when the transit route allows you to bypass road congestion and avoid parking congestion.

So the basic baseline "independence" is the freedom to free ride on subsidies for roads and zoning mandates requiring property owners to provide "free" parking.

The rest is being "free" is not about any intrinsic difference between transit and private motor vehicles mode at all, but rather about the crappy transit service that are imposed on transit passengers as a side effect of the massive subsidies to the mixed private/public automobile transport system.

Helen Bushnell said...

Good point, Bruce.

Unknown said...

The independence provided by the automobile is contingent on two factors: Roadway capacity and available parking. Where neither is provided, the automobile is a liability. When both are, it is a fantastic conveyance. The scale and pattern of the build environment determine the success of either transportation mode.

I become increasingly convinced that the success of either mode is predicated on dedicated Right of Way.

Unknown said...

Getting back to Ian's quote about 'real' desires for home ownership and cars: to me, those desires are just as 'real' as desires for plastic surgery and designer clothes. That is, they are culturally developed and defined desires that have nothing to do with life necessities. Of course people need to get around and they need a place to live but to say that necessitates owning a home and car is asinine.

Alon Levy said...

Social friction inherent in the "mass" part of "mass transit" will always dissuade some.

Not that many - see e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore.

Helen Bushnell said...

Singapore is a great example because it is a society that has a lot of social friction, but people still love their trains and buses. Transit may help ease tensions in the society.

Alon, have you ever been to Singapore?

Alon Levy said...

I lived there for 5.5 years. However, based on the "Transit may help tensions in society," I have to question whether you have. Singapore's racial problems and its transit are kept disjoint, just as New York's were before the Moses era. The subway didn't make Jews and Italians start loving each other, and the MRT isn't making Chinese hire Malays.

Helen Bushnell said...

Alon, you are right. I have never been to Singapore. I have been to Hong Kong more than once, but never to Singapore. I have known a lot of people who live there, and they have always said that public transportation there is really good.

Is public transportation in Singapore segregated? If not, do people sometimes avoid taking it because they will run into people from other ethnic groups.

Alon Levy said...

No, it's not segregated. Legally, Singapore does not engage in any discrimination. It even bans hate speech, and makes various integration policies, such as integration-enforcing racial quotas in public housing.

However, society is still racist, in subtler ways. For example, the government makes every ethnic group learn its native language as a second language in school. This means that the Chinese have an easy way of discriminating against Malays and Indians: they make Chinese fluency a requirement for jobs, even those that don't need it, and then exclude minorities. The government doesn't make a serious effort to enforce anti-discrimination laws; few governments do, outside the US and Canada.

People don't really try to avoid people of different ethnic groups or social classes on transit in Singapore. Just seeing someone on the train doesn't force you to interact with them in a meaningful way.

By the way, sorry I responded so aggressively in my previous comment... I misread your "have you ever been to Singapore?" question as a combative challenge, rather than an informative question.

Dr Jeane's Blog said...

Once you experience really good public transportation, relying on cars seems very inconvenient. We have visited Rome many times and always buy a pass that includes the metro, buses, trams, small electric busses, and some area trains. While it can be confusing at first, once you know the system, getting around this huge city becomes easy. The public transit can be very crowded and you do have to be careful on some lines of pickpockets, but it is still the best way to become a part of the city rather than just a visitor. I am looking foward to the time when this country "catches up" by providing great public transportation. San Francisco has done a good job in this regard and demonstrates that it can work well in this country. Most Americans do not seem to be aware of the degree to which their reliance on private automobiles is publically supported. Transitioning to public transportation will require public support for both systems to some degree, but it is time that the investment in public transit is equal to or exceeding that of private vehicles.

Ian Bicking said...

Cap'n, I've found you and Joel Kotkin to be very similar. When some people express a desire for better transit service, Joel labels that as elitist. When some people express a desire for the kind of transportation provided by cars, you (Cap'n) frame those desires as based on illusion. It doesn't feel like either of you are trying to understand the full range of the discussion. It's like you two are just sticking to your shtick (and going by "Cap'n Transit" certainly doesn't help).

Reading through your replies to Chad it becomes even more absurd, you are just talking across him, not to him. Are cars annoying? Sure, everything has some annoying aspect, it's a matter of weighing costs and benefits, something people do personally and on a societal level. What Chad has done, and I've done elsewhere as well, is point out there are a lot of rational reasons why cars come out ahead for a lot of people when making a personal choice. I think it's useful to consider these reasons, and think about how transit could be made to better work for some of these people. Listing out the annoyances of cars, with the implied claim that cars are actually a much worse choice, implies that people are just being stupid, too stupid to see that they really should be using transit.

I think it would be a more useful discussion to consider the motivations people have that drive them to cars, and look for ways to adapt transit to handle more of those needs. Some degree of pushback is understandable, in part because people are often willing to make changes (if the changes seem productive), and in part because some questions are not framed well. But that should not be the default response: the default response should be one where you try to understand the motivations and consider replacements.

Every place will not become New York. I don't really think there's much reasonable about that rhetorical approach. If transit is going to grow dramatically (which you might not believe, but would be to my wishes as well as yours) it has to be applicable to a far wider range of places than what we have now.

Cap'n Transit said...

Ian, I am considering replacements. As I said in the post, the whole idea of "independence" is about access. There are many ways of providing access, and subsidizing car use is only one of them.

West said...

It has long been my personal opinion that our biggest chance to increase mass transit is shift the commute to work transportation.

I live in a pre-war streetcar suburb in Northern NJ (Teaneck) and the bus system is very comprehensive - however, I will never us the bus to fetch groceries of buy stuff from the mall, I simply don't want to carry it. I lived in Brooklyn as a kid and carried heavy bags home with my sister and mom in the 1990's and really don't want to do that ever again.

However, my commute to Parsippany, NJ can easily be accomplished by bus - but the route simply isn't there. I think there will always be some car days when we are headed out into the field or a presentation, but most days I just want to watch netflix on my LTE phone, honestly.