Moving at the Speed of Life

6 inescapable factors that make driving the slowest form of getting around

By Robert Haston

 Imagine if every day of the week, you had to sit for over an hour, stuck in your car; and once you got moving, detours forced you to go twice as far. Imagine if many of you had to make one or two special trips a day, just to take care of your car. What if you had to pay several thousand dollars a year in all kinds of taxes and charges to use your car?

Well that’s more or less the world you live in. We spend over 8 hours a week working to pay for our cars, time just as lost as that stuck in traffic. In order to accommodate the "convenience" of always driving everywhere, by ourselves, at the same time, we have doubled the size of our cities. Neither Soccer nor Motherhood created the "Soccer Mom". Abandoning mass transit and pedestrian safe street networks turned mothers into taxi drivers. Chevy once had a commercial of a proud soccer mom reveling how she picked up a love seat, took the kids to soccer, etc. with her $25,000 SUV. In the 50s, her grandmother could have done all of them without leaving the house, thanks to good transit, pedestrian safe streets, and delivery services; while freeing up hours per day and saving thousands of dollars.

When we say "better urban transportation" we typically mean moving more people farther and particularly faster.  Therein lies the problem. First and foremost, transportation is a cost, not a benefit. Being where you need to be when you need to be there is the goal. Taking time and resources to do it (transportation) is an obstacle.

Would you design a plant where you have to move people and parts all over the place individually and unpredictably? That would waste man-hours and energy, require more transportation machinery, and more room, which would only worsen the situation. Or would your plant be organized so nearly all resources went into production, not wasted movement? With all else being equal; the society that moves least, moves best.

We can easily demonstrate the real efficiency of our main urban transportation "system" otherwise known as individuals driving by themselves, particularly from about 6 AM to 6 PM. There are 3 groups of two factors that influence this system; all but one of them favor alternatives to driving, and its main claim to fame: speed.

The first group is direct and indirect costs. The average American works about a day a week to support her car. Then add time spent caring for it. Next come indirect costs. Urban drivers in particular get about a 50% subsidy in various forms of economic favoritism. Income, sales and property taxes along with consumer cost paying for roads, police and fire services, runoff and environmental cleanup, oil defense, "free" parking, etc.

The average car delivers about 24 miles per hour of take home pay to support it. If we (like all other developed nations) eliminated auto subsidies, this would drop to about 16 miles per hour. I go faster on my bike.

Which brings us to our next two factors, human physical and mental productivity. Driving requires your mental attention, and prevents you from being physically productive. Although drivers do devote their minds and bodies to other activities, our 40,000 a year and much higher paralyzing, crippling, and maiming body count show this just moves the costs elsewhere. Working as your own chauffeur, gripping the wheel and planning your next lane change are unproductive. Although I won’t attempt to put numbers to it, often the emotional aftermath and time (and/or drinks) spent unwinding from road stress is as long as the trip itself.

Compare this to what as seen as excruciatingly slow and inconvenient forms of transportation. A bicycle is an exercise machine that in the long run is cheaper than jogging shoes. It transports you for no additional time or money, just as if you mounted an exercise machine in the back of a co-worker’s truck. The bike is "instant and free transportation". It takes up dozens of times less space. It poses no real threat to pedestrians. It runs on 100% organic, renewable, non-polluting fuel. So of course, the bike, the most efficient form of movement (man, machine, or animal) enjoys over a thousand times less subsidies than our cars. 

After exercising to the transit stop, you can read, listen to music, watch TV, compute, relax, sleep, eat, etc. to your destination. Making transit more amenable to such idle activities is getting easier in the information age, while trying to make it go faster only multiplies the same old challenges.

Last are the physical factors: distance, and the precious "drive time" we obsess about, regularly killing one another trying to save it. Together these make speed. Trying to shrink time geometrically requires road designers to exponentially expand room for curves, etc., spreading people further apart, and making it unsafe and inconvenient to get around on foot or bike. It makes the city less livable, which adds more people using the same roads to escape.  So our cities have doubled in size, noise, and general ugliness. This is the greatest of all 6 factors, doubling all the rest. Our cities have become places to speed through instead of stay and enjoy. Before we had to make our cities livable, now we only make them escapable. But as James Howard Kunstler details in his great book "Geography of Nowhere" this has destroyed the surrounding countryside we once escaped to. Where once we went from vibrant cities to intact countryside we go from collapsed inner city to plastic and asphalt suburbs to fractured countryside. It is perverse that the one form of development we frown or turn our noses at is virtually the only form we have truly embraced.

Lastly, we come to time, what we continually obsess and argue about.  An average 40 MPH commute speed means 1.5 minutes behind the wheel.  Then add 2.5 minutes worked, plus at least 1 more worked to pay for all those "freebies" and handouts.  These 5 minutes equate 12 miles per hour.  Now divide this by a sprawl factor of 1.5 to 2; giving you 6 to 8 miles per hour.

Feel free to do your own numbers, someone who makes more money and drives a cheaper car will drastically alter the minutes worked per mile, but do nothing to the cost of subsidies or the powerful effects of sprawl.  It is just too bad the average American is too busy obsessing about gas going up a dime (thereby raising average driving costs a whopping 1%) instead of the bigger problems.  This will change, either by choice, or in a few decades when we are forced to accept that there is no alternative fuel for solo driving big car sprawl.  But that's another story.  The times ahead sure will be interesting.

Robert Haston

Satellite Beach, FL