November 2010
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Quote of the Day

[Motorists] only perceive congestion as a problem they face rather than a problem they cause, and they cannot imagine changing their own travel patterns to benefit others.

–Todd Litman, Planetizen

When I read this, I immediately thought of all the angry reaction from motorists when Peoria restriped Main Street earlier this year. Litman’s article is called “The Selfish Automobile,” and he goes on to say after the above quote, “If motorists were generous and rational they would say things such as: ‘Let’s create a transportation system that serves everybody.’ ‘Automobile travel does require a lot of road space, so it makes sense to favor more space efficient modes under congested conditions.’ ‘I support bike and bus lane development. Even if I do not use these facilities now, I benefit if other travelers shift to these modes, and I may want to use them sometime in the future.'”

7 comments to Quote of the Day

  • Garth Madison

    Areas that lack congestion are even worse from an efficiency/cost perspective. The amount of money and land required to run streets to every house and building, and to provide parking at each location, is staggering. Most of that pavement sees very little traffic. Our population in central Illinois has remained constant over the last few decades, but our land use has increased significantly. And it costs each individual driver a huge amount of money (taxes to build and maintain the roads, to plow them in winter, to build infrastructure to handle the stormwater runoff, to deal with the resulting erosion and pollution problems, etc.) and land (less public and park space, smaller residential lots, the need to devote space to garages and driveways, etc.), not to mention the lost quality of life in a landscape designed to cars. That’s all before you consider the personal cost of owning and operating the car itself, or the social costs of it all.

    It is not so much selfishness as thoughtlessness – each individual would be better off making very different choices about the automobile. Our individual choices are rarely rational, or logically gauged to maximize our own benefit. At the heart of the problem is the autocentric culture we have developed, which identifies our individual freedom so closely with our automobile. This is beginning to shift in some of the younger generations (though arguably identification with cell phones is not much of an improvement). However, it currently accounts for much of the damage we have done to ourselves and our society. Unfortunately, most people do not perceive these costs. They are woven into the fabric of our existence. We habitually pay our taxes, and buy our houses, and witness our land use, without realizing how much of a luxury cars are, or how much that luxury costs us. Of course, the constant bombardment of our senses with advertisements by car manufacturers and insurers does not help in removing the fog from our lenses. But at some point we must take responsibility for our own priorities.

    If we devoted some of that land and money to other social goals, what could we accomplish? Could we build cities designed for the comfort of humans rather than cars? Could we restore some small part of the ecosystems we have destroyed? Could we better fund programs for humans, like the education of our children? In all the recent hue and cry over state funding of education, how many citizens and teachers advocating for more funding stopped to consider the percentage of our individual and societal resources devoted to the insatiable voracity of the automobile to which we have enslaved ourselves? How many stopped to consider how much of their own and society’s resources they spend on short solo trips in an inefficient car, where moving the car accounted for 90% of the energy used, and moving the person 10%? I used to live in North Carolina, and there is a reason that state obtained the nickname, “First in Roads, Last in Schools.” The next time you decry the lack of funding to an area you care about, think about the pervasive nature of the automobile, and consider our priorities.


  • The Mouse

    You make many good points, but the one about individual choices misses the mark. Individuals cannot change the structure of the community. About 80 years ago a powerful few decided to make the automobile king. Highways became the beneficiaries of huge subsidies. Streetcar tracks were torn up. Neighborhoods were built without sidewalks. Even the personal income tax was skewed to favor cars over any other form of transportation. Example, employers could give you free parking, but if they paid your bus or train fare it was taxed as income. For many years you could deduct the cost of interest on auto loans. This didn’t happen by accident. Just as the railroad was the great engine of economic growth in the 19th. century, the auto was to be the great engine of economic gwowth in the 20th. Now we are in the 21st. and the auto is a huge drag on our economy, and we have no engine of growth. Perhaps we could learn a few things from the 19th. century?

  • Sharon Crews

    I guess I started this round of complaining–but for no reason because the Main Street change really doesn’t inconvenience me at all–and I use Main Street all the time. I just wasn’t sure that the change had made a difference–but some of you have informed me otherwise–and that’s good. I rarely, if ever, complain about congested traffic because I am in the habit of leaving too early wherever I’m going. I do get a bit irritated by motorists who weave in and out of traffic because they are in such a hurry.

    However, I have a feeling that many of you who would like to return to earlier days without so much automobile traffic, etc., didn’t really live much of your lives without an automobile. Through middle school, high school, and college, I lived in Averyville and my family didn’t have a car. I felt very isolated because even as late as the 1950s, there was really nothing within walking distance except a mom and pop grocery store and the bus stop, and to get to the bus we had to walk four blocks downhill and four long blocks uphill–not too pleasant on cold, winter days and nights. I can remember how excited I was when a Steak-n-Shake was built across the street from the bus stop.

    I didn’t start driving until after I had taught for seven years, but I moved to the Bradley area and I do remember the good old days of heavy foot traffic on Main Street–the Varsity theater, the Varsity dress shop, etc. So many on foot was probably because of Bradley. I don’t believe that there were too many other areas in the city with that kind of activity–except maybe the areas on Sheridan and Knoxville in the vicinity of Loucks and McClure–and shops on Prospect.

    Downtown Peoria wasn’t within walking distance for most people when I was growing up. Shoppers either drove cars or took buses. From that point of view, I don’t see much difference between shopping downtown Peoria and going to the mall. That said, I am sorry that the city planners didn’t have the foresight to maintain downtown Peoria. However, the residents who moved farther and farther away from downtown gave the city little reason to do otherwise.

    When Grand Prairie was built, I vowed I would never go there to shop–but I didn’t keep that promise to myself. For some reason, I am not as nostalgic as many people my age might be–I enjoy the conveniences and remember the inconveniences of those days gone by. I do wish we could return to the days when we weren’t afraid to walk at night and now sometimes even in the day time.

  • Garth Madison

    @ Mouse
    I understand your point about the difference between national policy and individual choice. However, I would submit that the automobile culture is so deeply ingrained in our society right now as an individual choice, that only a change in individual habit will reverse the trend. The government does not require individual citizens to embroil themselves in massive amounts of debt to purchase or lease a $20k or $40k or $60k car, which will only depreciate in value, and incur the heavy costs of owning that car, driving it around, insuring it, and parking it. The average working family spends 30% of its income on transportation – this is a staggering amount that could be spent to improve the family’s quality of life in other ways, but is rarely considered as a whole because it is spread amongst a number of costs (gas, insurance, etc.), and because many adults need better basic household finance training. The government does not require us to use a car to travel by ourselves, with no cargo, on a 1-3 mile commute that could be biked as quickly. The government does not force developers to build suburban houses far from the city center, or customers to buy houses and go shopping farther and farther from where they work and live. The government does not force a church to build a huge parking lot that sits empty 90% of the time. We all make choices, every minute of every day, that impact this issue. Certainly government policy and a change in land use and allocation of funds is a necessary component, but I think the bigger component is individual habit, and that the policy parts will not occur until the habit changes. There are myriad good reasons to change our habits, but I think the perception of the problem and the understanding of alternate methods of transport are lacking.

    I have hope that we are making incremental progress – the pilot city community garden in 2010 was on church property that the church members wanted to turn into a vegetable garden and native prairie planting rather than more useless parking. However, we are at the point where incremental progress is not enough. For instance, we have the technology right now to do something about the degradation of our oceans, but the window for most of those opportunities will be foreclosed in 10 more years. (And Peoria is firmly in the middle of the ocean problem, because of the stormwater/sewer runoff, pollution and erosion problems our current land use creates, which is why we are currently under federal sanction.)

    @ Sharon
    Recognizing the inefficiency of the automobile does not require abandoning the automobile entirely. A large percentage of most people’s trips are under 3 miles, and traveled alone. The amount of energy and resources a car requires to move a single person are extremely high – a car takes up a lot of room, it requires a wide lane of paved surface over a long distance, and more paved space to park at each destination. A car weighs many times more than the single person ensconced in its metal cocoon – most of the energy expended is going towards moving the extremely heavy car, not the person. And the type of energy being used is nonrenewable fossil fuels, which will not last much longer, as we have already passed peak global oil production. If every family kept one or two cars for long distance travel (that connection that you describe), and trips to the grocery store, etc., but minimized their automobile use in favor of more efficient modes of transportation for those solo 1-3 mile trips, we would still be ameliorating a huge percentage of the problem. You do not need to be revolutionary or single minded to learn about alternate methods of transport, and to choose the most efficient method of transport for you on any given trip. If you think about it, you may find a method that works perfectly well, and is beneficial to not only our society and environment, but also your wallet and your health.

    You speak of a feeling of isolation before you had general access to a car. I believe that the current autocentric culture actually contributes to our isolation. If you want to go shopping, you get in your car and you drive from your suburban house to the Shoppes at Grand Prairie. If you want to stop for ice cream at the Shoppes, you go back to your car, drive to the other side of the shopping complex, and park in another parking lot. We have destroyed our neighborhoods, our open spaces, our green spaces, and our connection with people and with the land by sealing ourselves into metal skins and setting ourselves adrift on a sea of concrete. There are better ways to create our built environment, ways that make more productive use of the land, provide the green and open spaces we need as human beings, and encourage interaction with our neighbors while still maintaining our connections with the wider world. We can build our spaces for people, rather than for cars – it just requires a change in habit. I would certainly be happier if the spaces I live in were built for my comfort, rather than my car’s, and I don’t think my car cares much one way or the other.


  • Beth Akeson

    Love your post- you paint a clear picture of the cost of auto ownership, both from and individual and community perspective.

    However, I would like to say that actually the government does force us to live in an auto centric world through their regulation of zoning and building practices. Local, state and federal policy dictates how the land will be used and yes, even how many parking spaces shall be built. Conventional development and roadway design must follow current law and therefore we get an auto centric world.

    When CJ and I sat on the Heart of Peoria Commission the majority of our time was spent advocating for the type of policy and regulation changes that would allow Peoria to become a more walkable and balanced city. Unfortunately, the majority of the city council was not supportive and we were disbanded. There was just too much political pressure from a variety of special interest groups.

    This lack of support and understanding was and is sad because if the city council (with the exception of Gary Sandberg) had been supportive and if transportation engineers and developers had taken some time to learn more about why walkable communities are good for everyone, businesses included, we might be seeing less of a need for cars today and perhaps more money in the city coffers. We would have a higher quality of life for people instead of a high quality life for cars.

  • Garth Madison

    Beth, I don’t disagree on your autocentric infrastructure point. For instance, the minimum number of parking spaces required for a business could be lowered to ameliorate some of the redundancy in parking. However, a lot of the autocentric infrastructure is also caused by private developers’ choices, e.g., Grand Prairie or Metro Center, which could have been built much differently with more of a focus on people. The developers’ choices are in turn mainly driven by individual customers voting with their feet (or tires) and wallets. Residential developments could be built with more shared green space, and a few are, but often the designers’ ideas are compromised by the market demands. In the end, it is sort of what approach you choose – top down or bottom up. The massive inertia of cultural habit seems to me to be the biggest obstacle at the moment. The same kinds of experiences as you describe with the Heart of Peoria Commission seem to have also redirected some efforts, which may have started at the top policy level, more towards educating and motivating the general public. Because we leave so much in this country to the will of the consumer market, the bottom up approach can act on as large a stage as governmental policy.


  • Beth Akeson


    Unfortunately, I think people have spoken with their feet. The population has been stagnant since the 1970s- even though city planners thought we would have a city population of over 200,000. One would think Peoria’s population would be at least 10% higher in 30 years especially considering we have become an impressive center for medical care.

    Many people believe that we are growing because of the number of new subdivisions- yet the population is less than it was in 1980. Couple that with the fact that we now have approximately 47 square miles of city to maintain.

    To put that number in perspective Seattle has twice the land area, but five times the population. Paris, France with 2.2 million people covers about the same amount of space as Peoria. I am not suggesting we need to be as dense as Paris, but certainly we do not need to grow in land area size. We do not have the money we need to maintain our city- so why do city council members approve annexation? Because they have been led to believe this type of growth is good.