Cars. cars everywhere cars....
Traffic is big, it touches most of our lives if we live our daily lives. So what to do about it. One possibility would be to design our roads to support bicycles right? Well that's what you'd think and you'd even go further to say it'd be easy to demonstrate it. Well that's what Rob Anderson asked the city of San Francisco to do when it was working to rework city streets to support bicyclists. Pro-bike activists claim that more bikes reduce emissions. Anderson counters:
Cars always will vastly outnumber bikes, he reasons, so allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more traffic jams, more idling and more pollution.
So he insisted that an environmental impact be done. It does seem reasonable, except that he assumes that cities are car centric because we are a car culture. I would counter that we are a car culture because we build our cities around the assumption. So let's assume that he's right and people are stuck more i traffic jams, stuck idling and do cause more pollution. It will be in the short term, since people adapt to the fastest transportation system available. The experience of Zurich, Switzerland confirms this. Instead of building an expensive subway system, Zurich decided on a surface tram system with one very important difference. At intersections, trams get right of way and cars have to wait. This made driving more difficult and less attractive and hence people looked for alternatives. People drive because it's convenient, especially in the suburbs as my friend is finding out when she moved from the city. It is also cheap, but recent spikes in gas prices reveal that behavior changes.
So when assessing the impact, one has to ask does what we do change the relative advantage, and when that changes our absolute advantage will change as well.
Speaking of car culture, the San Francisco Chronicle has a piece on Tom Vanderbilt, the author of the book "Traffic" which has some great factoids (I am so looking forward to getting this book from the library, what a planning geek I am). For instance, consider the following:
He learned that Americans spend more on cars than food and health care; that fast-food chains study which foods are easiest to consume while driving; that the average car spends 95 percent of the time parked; that people take longer to vacate a parking spot if another driver is waiting for it; that Sweden is the safest country for driving; and that total traffic delay in the U.S. went from 700 million hours in 1982 to 3.7 billion hours in 2003.
If that's not enough for you to mull over, consider checking out his lecture at Google. (I will when I stop watching the Olympics)