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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