Equity through Automobility? Not Gonna Happen

Disclaimer: Ivan Illich’s insightful work, Energy and Equity, deeply inspired this slightly “modernized” interpretation.


Try as we might, we will never reach a point at which greater automobility or enhanced vehicle access will ever lead to greater equity–from the Latin aeguitas, meaning “endowed with equal gifts.”

Just like speaking and breathing, virtually all of us are endowed with the ability to walk.
Architect, Jean Robert expressed this concept eloquently: “The capacity to go walking where one wants is indeed the most equitably distributed ability. It is innate, a natural right by birth. Some seem to have forgotten this truth; for others, it has been suppressed; their feet, as well as their imaginations, have been disabled; they come to feel they perpetually need to be carried along at high energy costs.”

So why, as Illich and Robert contest, do so many of us fail to see the act of walking as a natural human right?

Perhaps it relates to automobility’s status as what Illich termed a “radical monopoly.” By this, he meant that automobility dominates thought and resources devoted to transportation. Because automobility was initially perceived as a more effective way of conveying ourselves and goods, this perception necessitated the development of systems that supported automobility, such as parking lots, highways, drive-throughs, road widenings. Together, these facilitators of automobility increasingly suppress our ability to get around on our own volition.

When local, accessible hardware and grocery stores stocked with hand-carried items recede into memory; when the spaces that stitch destinations together decompose into voids of monochrome asphalt; when people can no longer satisfy wants near where they live; and when children must receive prepackaged extra-curricular “stimulation” from places near and far; the automobile is understandably perceived as the savior, as the only way to traverse these ghastly landscapes and ever-widening distances.

And even when the loss of discretionary time now dedicated to the mandate of transportation; the ceaseless and harmful racket of traffic noise; the violent destruction of neighborhoods and habitat; the despoiling of our air and water; and the sacrifice of life and limb for all are muttered by the disempowered few, the modern majority swiftly dismisses these atrocities as “externalities”, as necessary byproducts of unquestioned progress.

Even the logic of equity has become distorted by automobility’s radical monopoly.
In a culture that dreams of automobility for all, the provision of “free parking” is perceived as lowering the barrier to entry for poorer motorists. Yet as economist, Donald Should and others have shown is that managers’ compulsory purchasing of costly parking is simply passed onto customers and employees in the form of steeper prices and lower wages. Just as the apparently equity-focused goal of reducing congestion for all highway users, soon means poor travelers subsidize rich motorists, the latter group of which now have less restricted access to quick, sleek “Lexus Lanes”.

The poor are generally taxpayers too, and though they are significantly less likely to have access to automobiles, the biggest, most unattractive, noisy, dangerous, and polluting roadways are often constructed right through the heart of their neighborhoods.

Not to be deflated, dreamers of equitable automobility have even proposed increasing low-income residents’ access to cars as a means of reducing inequity.  But this supposed “solution” neglects the fact that cars are exceedingly expensive to upkeep and their infrastructure are not, and never will be, public goods accessible to all. A public good is non-excludable (impossible to prevent people from using it) and non-rivalrous (one individual’s use does not reduce availability to others).

Anyone younger than legal driving age is excluded from driving a vehicle, as are people with limited vision, hearing, or wallet sizes. Automobility is also rivalrous: once a motorist has taken the last parking spot, he has reduced the availability of the lot to others; once a motorist enters the highway on-ramp, she reduces the availability of high-speed travel to all other users of the highway.

As is experienced by too many, the addition of every parking space, traffic lane, drive-through lane, and travel median push destinations farther apart, and automatically make the innate, self-determined act of walking more laborious and frightening.

What then, might we do to truly enhance travel-oriented equity?
We could, as Illich recommended, reimagine our transportation system to make walking the benchmark by which all transportation is judged, and to protect walking legally as the fundamental right it is. Wherever people live, create, subsist, play, learn, rest, and convene, we could impose a 10 mph speed limit on car travel. This would include neighborhoods, civic destinations, parks and playgrounds, places of worship, and other common spaces.

Enhancing travel-oriented equity would also involve banishing the notion of “free parking”, instead recognizing parking as the consumer good it is, a good that is and should be purchased by those who consume it. This simple act alone would inspire more sensible goods and services pricing, and better pay for employees. The same good consumption-based approach would apply to highway design, construction, and maintenance.

How, some will ask, will we pay for walking and cycling infrastructure? Shall we somehow tax pedestrians for stepping on sidewalks and cyclists for rolling over asphalt?  The answer to these valid questions lies in the simple truth that in locales where people mill about and car speeds are restricted to 10 mph (that is, cars act as visitors in people’s spaces), we have little need for separated walking and cycling facilities. Roads, as they had been for thousands of years before high speed travel, become common spaces once again: for all and provisioned by all.

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  • What an excellent beginning to your new project. You should enjoy this series of essays on spatial (in)justice: “Although the automobile was supposed to be the ultimate form of modernity—individualism, the efficiency of point-to-point convenience—it’s led to urban sprawl (along with psychological, environmental and health implications). It’s led to big-box stores, drive-through coffee shops and ATMs, dispersed communities with often ironic names. It’s led to a city designed around its bullish behaviours. The logic of city planning for the single occupancy vehicle has led to oppressive spaces, spatial injustice.” http://www.ffwdweekly.com/article/news-views/viewpoint/taking-a-turtle-for-a-walk-11991/

    • seth.lajeunesse@gmail.com

      Thank you sharing this insightful piece and for orienting my attention to this “spatial injustice” concept, Damon.
      With this project, I’m hoping to achieve a playful re-visioning of culture, and the spatial injustice idea will add some spice to future entries.
      Muchas gracías

    • SethLaJ

      Thank you sharing this insightful piece and for orienting my attention to this “spatial injustice” concept, Damon.
      With this project, I’m hoping to achieve a playful re-visioning of culture, and the spatial injustice idea will add some spice to future entries.
      Muchas gracías

      • Molly De Marco

        Good stuff! Check out this article though:
        How do we address the desire for our low-income neighbors to have cars? Just like this article says, we have neighbors in this community who have had to choose residences that are affordable, but not on good public transit lines. An example of this is the Landings at Winmore on Homestead Road.

        • SethLaJ

          I value your perspective on this, Molly; it’s one shared by academics and non-academics alike.
          What I’m wondering is why “we” must address anything?
          You’re right in saying that the Landings at Winmore lack reasonable, public transit, but is encumbering lower-income people with costly personal vehicles really the answer? Even if transportation administrators managed to get some persons experiencing poverty into vehicles, how would they ensure vehicles for everyone, and how would they sustain such a feat?
          The article you’ve linked states, “Yes, there are many ecological and social costs to car-dependent transport. But poor people face enormous multimodal challenges that should be considered in conjunction with such concerns.” The significant, disproportionately distributed social and ecological costs of automobility are somehow on a similar polemical plane as “enormous multimodal challenges?” The 35,000+ traffic fatalities each year (with overrepresentation in poor neighborhoods), the requirement to acquire automotive fuel at all costs (e.g., war, occupation), the necessity of constructing bigger, broader roadways, the physiologically jarring noise, the loss of habitat, degradation of air and water, etc. are uttered in the same statement as “enormous multimodal challenges?” Plus, the author focuses on the time-impoverishing consequences of relying on public transit. Yet, beyond a critical speed, nobody can save time without forcing another to lose it. This is why HOT/HOV lanes are challenged on ground of time- and comfort-based equity: you must pay to enjoy speedy travel.
          It seems a campaign to provide (in paternalistic fashion, of course) automobiles for those in poverty is inverting ends with means: the ends being safer, more equitable access to employment, health care, healthy food, and other elements of civic life, and the means being enhanced car access.
          I’m afraid that any serious approach to providing cars for all will wind up accomplishing the means, but degrading the ever-desired after ends. Simply take a gander at the rapid uptake of personal vehicles in developing countries with their attendant skyrocketing of pollution and roadway deaths – many of them children.
          It seems the only way to achieve true transportation equity is to equitably limit human consumption of energy and speed. Thoughts?

          • Molly De Marco

            I completely agree with you on a population-level, but from an individual-level it can be hard. I have a study participant who lives at the Landings and has children who go to 2 different schools. She spends an inordinate amount of time transferring from one bus to another just to be able to get her children from one place to another. She was elated to finally be able to afford a car and I couldn’t blame her. I have the luxury of being able to choose to live somewhere that I can easily bike and bus. We need to work to make sure that affordable housing is transit accessible as more developments are approved and to work with transit planners to route busses where they can be of the most use to people without other alternatives.

          • SethLaJ

            That’s exactly right, Molly. So, while your study participant benefited from car access, everyone else experiencing lower SES automatically became worse off: her car causes other cars and buses to go slower now; she drives yet another car for pedestrians to contend with, she’s just contributed to GHGs. This is not to admonish her; it’s to consider the system-wide impacts of a dominant technology – one that appears to have individual benefits (though the cost of maintaining, insuring, registering and having to work longer to afford automobility puts this into question), but that only degrades all other options for all other users of the transportation system. So, how to raise all ships? Not by provisioning cars, but by making natural forms of travel possible, comfortable, safe, and desirable once again.