Shifting Gears: Toward a New Way of Thinking about Transportation by Susan Handy

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Posted 2024-03-18

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

In this book, Susan Handy shows how we can re-examine long-held core ideas about transportation and reconceptualize them to build a better transportation system. Using her translational work (p. 5) to synthesize research, history, and practices, the author shines a light on the shifts in thinking about nine core ideas in transportation: Freedom, Speed, Mobility, Vehicles, Capacity, Hierarchy, Separation, Control, and Technology. Through this examination, she reveals how we can untangle the often-polarizing conflicts favoring rationalist or urbanist transportation approaches. The critical insight is that outdated assumptions hold us back from what she identifies in her conclusion as "a transportation system that works better for everyone in all respects" (p. 237).

Because of the author's skill in outlining the shifts in fundamental transportation ideas, this book is a handy guide to the past century of transportation assumptions and how they are changing in the United States. She examines the foundations and flaws of traditional assumptions and documents the shift toward approaches rooted more in human experience rather than rationalism and technological determinism. Everyone involved in planning, building, operating, or using transportation should read this book--professionals, students, citizens, decision-makers, and transit riders. A large audience can gain insight into how these core transportation ideas affect us today through existing and proposed infrastructure, engineering, vehicles, modes, and practices. Most importantly, Handy shows how we can gain power by realizing that we can chart a different course for transportation.

In reading Handy's book, I can better understand these main points about the nine core ideas:

  1. Freedom Handy describes a shift from the core assumption driving transportation for nearly a century: the assumption that the automobile is the best means of providing transportation freedom. While cars offer freedom for some people, this assumption is insufficient for "ensuring equitable freedom of movement for everyone." (p. 43). Many people do not drive (Handy cites the figure of nondrivers at 30% (p. 42)). Moreover, those who do drive face steep car ownership costs, a heavy driving burden in terms of time and lost productivity, deaths and injuries, health deterioration, and unmet possibilities for alternative transportation choices. Most importantly, automobile use has dominated city planning and development for a century, creating a landscape warped by accommodating the car (see multiple readings).

    As an illustration of the difficulties of overturning the cars = freedom (automobility) paradigm, Handy cites the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that sought equal access for people with disabilities to public transit. This Act faced significant resistance and setbacks, and eventually, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 (p. 44).

    The automobility paradigm has led to the oversubsidization of car use and the starvation of public transit and other modes of mobility. It often uses the circular reasoning that "everyone drives"; therefore, other modes are irrelevant—only car use should prevail. While car use can benefit many people, it is a false premise that only cars guarantee freedom and that other means of mobility do not provide freedom and are, therefore, unimportant. The "cars = freedom" assumption thus should be understood in its Orwellian tone: a rejection of empirical human experience by using a slogan about freedom that is ironically authoritarian in its intent. Handy does not mention how automobile drivers, who are so used to absolute dominance in mobility, may find any shift away from car dominance to be a "war on cars" (Walker, 2023).

    Peter Norton examined the core idea of car use equated to freedom as a contributor to the rise of motordom in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (2008).

    While Handy does not delve deeply into the underpinnings and consequences of automobility (car orientation), research has shown the hazards arising from equating automobiles with freedom. Car bias presents a risk to public health, safety, and the environment. In their article, "Motonormativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard," researchers Walker, Tapp, and Davis (2022) showed how automobile bias is an unexamined force that introduces environmental and health hazards. Orientation towards cars as the only means of transport can obscure the harm cars inflict, as Miner et al. (2024) examined in "Car harm: A global review of automobility's harm to people and the environment." Car dependency as a policy goal has warped cities to revolve around cars (Kay, 1997; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021), endangering a healthy mix of transportation options.

  2. Speed While speed has traditionally been seen as the chief aim for automobile travel, Handy shows how a re-examination of the safety problems with speed has brought about a shift in thinking: rather than encouraging automobile drivers to speed by building a safety margin in the roadway, drivers need to be made aware of safety issues and take responsibility for the safe operation of their vehicles.

    Higher speeds kill more people by making crashes more severe, particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists. While not widely known or understood, the speed limit signs have been set not by engineers according to the roadway geometry but by drivers themselves: engineers take a survey of free-flowing traffic to determine the 85% percentile speeds being used, and that, in general, is what gets posted on the sign (p. 59; Marohn, 2021). Thus, the level of roadway deaths is the result of deliberate design decisions to place the risk of more severe injury on all people involved--drivers as well as pedestrians and bicyclists. As a result of using a method of driver accommodation, the USA's roadway safety problem has achieved the highest rate of deaths due to motor vehicles in the world among high-income countries. The mitigation of injury to automobile drivers in crashes by hardening the automobile's structure makes death and injury to people other than car drivers even more possible.

    The method to change the assumption about speed requires engineering roadways to reveal the safety issues directly to drivers to motivate them to drive at a credible speed (p. 67), that is, at a speed that is not set by drivers enjoying themselves but by members of their community and elected representatives, in consultation with engineers. This credible speed method comports with Marohn's evaluation of traffic in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (2021).

  3. Mobility Handy charts the shift in the assumptions behind why people travel in the first place. Using the assumption that the ability to traverse distances to reach destinations quickly is key, mobility (speed) is the focus. In contrast, a focus on the ability of people to access their needs within near destinations represents a focus on accessibility.

    While mobility and accessibility have been perceived as competing goals, the focus on mobility has been the primary emphasis of rationalist approaches of transportation planners (p. 73). However, the shift has been toward accessibility (p. 79). Handy's Ph.D. dissertation focused on accessibility, and she unwinds the conflict between mobility and access by explaining how neighborhoods work. A neighborhood works by people being able to meet their needs by traveling a certain amount of time. If people can travel by foot or bicycle (or a combination) for up to five or fifteen minutes to meet their needs, this defines a "five-minute" or "fifteen-minute" neighborhood (p. 86). This time-defined neighborhood ideally places key destinations (grocery, work, medical, education, recreation, entertainment, civic, parks, and other essentials) within these distances defined by time using a travel mode. Handy notes that many transportation planners do not study land use or pay attention to access; hence, this accessibility work is often a blind spot in the transportation field.

    Handy does not mention public transit, although it is a crucial travel mode for the many people who cannot use or do not wish to use an automobile, bicycle, or scooter of some kind. The 20-minute city concept has been developed by adding transit (see "Accessibility in Practice: 20-Minute City as a Sustainability Planning Goal," Capasso Da Silva et al., 2020).

    Public Transit, despite its extensive, worldwide use for centuries, is often ignored in many conceptions of urbanism today. For example, many New Urbanist diagrams or plans completely ignore public transit stops, as if public transit does not exist at all. In the Strong Towns viewpoint, Charles Marohn states, "Deploying transit is a primary strategy for building wealth within a community" in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (2021). However, Strong Town discussions do not seem to scale up to the metropolitan level where a much more diverse demographic, a significant many who do not drive cars, requires public transit for access to life's needs. This access includes a much more diverse mix of transit modes, many not found in small towns, that require significant infrastructure investment. Todd Litman writes in defense of public transit ("Responding to Public Transit Criticism" (2024)) and extolls its benefits (Evaluating public transit benefits and costs: best practices guidebook (2023)).

    Handy asked (perhaps rhetorically) if anyone lives in such a 5, 15, or 20-minute city: "What share of US residents can say that?" (p. 87). I live in such a city neighborhood. For four consecutive years, I used only walking, our local streetcar, and buses to meet my needs, and many of my travel times met the 15 or 20-minute measure. So, such cities are perhaps more common than Handy seems to imply, and many car-free people in various cities--even away from metropolitan coastal cities--may live in 15 to 20-minute neighborhoods, accessing life's needs.

    As a measure of mobility, I find it surprising that an over-emphasis on Level of Service (LOS) (p. 77) so stubbornly ignores basic physics equations such as distance = speed * time. Traditionally, LOS considers speed to be the main aim of transportation. However, the travel speed varies by distance and time spent, expressed as speed = distance/time or time = distance/speed. If one reduces the distances involved in travel, the shorter distances can be traversed in a shorter amount of time, even while simultaneously reducing travel speed. This analysis is Physics 101, yet it eludes the LOS approach to transportation planning. Handy does not expound on this irony, but I am puzzled why transportation planners would resist the simple idea that distance matters and is a variable, along with speed, that determines the time required for someone to use a mobility mode to reach a destination. Of course, not all land use patterns are the same. For example, different densities exist among urban and suburban areas, and people might prefer either one and, therefore, have different distances to traverse. The key would be to provide a wide range of densities, land use patterns for people to choose from, and a wide range of transit modes. Rather than a LOS approach to maximize speed, reducing travel distances can provide people with better transit times. Handy's access-based emphasis seems an essential breakthrough in assumptions about mobility, considering the simple equation that ties time, distance, and speed together.

  4. Vehicles Handy describes the shift from a transportation focus on vehicles (p. 94) to one where people are considered part of the transportation system (p. 98). Traditionally, according to a car-centric and engineering-rationalist view of transportation, the fundamental player in transportation and the focus of accommodation is the vehicle—the automobile. While people are considered drivers, their vulnerability as pedestrians and their role in transportation has only recently been acknowledged. Reforms such as complete streets (p. 110), road diets (p. 112), or parking reform (p. 114) have come about only after a significant struggle and documentation of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths (p. 95). The shift away from focusing only on ensuring the rapid movement of the automobile and its storage (Shoup, 2005, 2011; Shoup, 2018; Knowles, 2023) as the focus of our transportation system has been surprisingly harrowing.

  5. Capacity Closely related to the idea of transportation's rationalist goal of ensuring the rapid speed of automobiles is the pursuit of widening roadways and highways in a (futile) effort to increase the speed of automobiles. The shift in this thinking has come about in a similar historical arc from rationalism to actual real-life observations.

    The recognition of induced travel (p. 127) as an outgrowth of roadway widening is a crucial shift toward understanding the futility of widening roadways. Handy highlights the shift "away from the prioritization of vehicle movement toward the prioritization of people and their need for accessibility" (p. 135).

    Handy's evaluation comports with other findings. Jake Blumgart (2022) describes how expanded highways tend to invite still more traffic (called induced traffic) and that decision-makers regularly ignore this phenomenon despite decades of research on the topic (Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel"). By failing to address induced demand, widening highways creates more traffic, which leads to further highway capacity problems (Transportation for America, 2020 "The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more congestion"). Widened highways also have subsequent costs of automobile crashes. The cost of these crashes reduces savings from any temporary congestion reduction, as Robert Steuteville wrote in the CNU Journal (Steuteville, 2022). Therefore, widening highways to reduce congestion is an unsustainable and expensive cycle and suggests circular (Singer, 2013) or invalid (Jacobs, 2004) reasoning. The result is that highway departments spend large amounts of money to make congestion problems worse, cause deaths, and increase costs.

  6. Hierarchy Hierarchy is the system of roadway sizes, shapes, and connections that form a system for people to travel on to access land. Handy describes the shift in thinking about the hierarchy that has gone back and forth among various geometric patterns used to design roadways.

    The historical development of street patterns such as gridiron, fragmented parallel, warped parallel, loops and lollipops, and lollipops on a stick (p. 147) have all shown a variety of emphases and uses. While each pattern has a specific aim, the drawbacks of non-grid street patterns have become apparent throughout suburban superblock developments--where the convoluted lines create chokepoints for traffic and cut off direct access from one point to another (p. 148). The shift has been from emphasizing vehicular travel only to seeking ways to provide connectivity and a resurgent interest in street grid patterns (p. 158).

  7. Separation Separating roadway traffic by mode goes back more than 100 years (p. 181, 183), and it has only been in the past decades that ideas about this separation have shifted from the goals of increasing the throughput and speeds of automobiles to one in which people and other modes of travel play a role in transportation planning. Separation on roadways by prioritizing automobiles has wreaked havoc on other modes of travel, particularly vulnerable human pedestrians and bicyclists. Although engineers have come up with ideas to place the physical roadway under or over other traffic or roadways, and wild-eyed ideas such as Elon Musk's fantasy of a never-proven "hyperloop" have been proposed, the thinking presently is a call for integration of many modes--for example "complete streets." (p. 186).

  8. Control Handy traces the varying approaches to control along a transportation corridor through the shifts in thinking from loose control to strict control and a contemporary approach that can be described as cooperative.

    Traffic in the US was initially a jumble of all kinds of modes—horses, streetcars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and early motor cars—jostled in a kind of ballet. Once automobile flow became a priority, traffic control devices attempted to make cars flow well at the expense of other traffic. The shift now is to self-control, where automobile drivers must recognize competition for space and must take responsibility for cooperating to move through it. The fundamentals of control are that space is limited, and control devices, roadway structures, and self-control all play a role in traffic cooperation in a way that enables everyone to travel.

  9. Technology Handy observes that new technologies promising transportation improvements have varying success--some have dramatically improved human mobility, and others have proven to be overhyped failures. While Handy outlines electric vehicles, segway scooters, electric bikes, light rail, micro-mobility, ridesharing, and other modes, she concludes the chapter with the healthy skepticism that Peter Norton showed in evaluating the overpromise-undeliver-fail profile of many hyped technologies in Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, (2021). While Handy does not go into the depth that Norton does, she nonetheless outlines a viewpoint that, while being open-minded to the promise of electric vehicles or micromobility, she cautions that "Technological innovation is not enough" (p. 224). The ultimate test of innovations is their effect: do they make life better for people or worse?
Handy's final chapter, "Up Ahead," summarizes her book and asks, "Could we be at a tipping point toward a new way of thinking?" (p. 227). The total of shifts in transportation ideas may be like "turning an ocean liner" (p. 226), but Handy's guide helps us navigate these changes.

The shift in thinking about transportation has moved away from a superficial understanding of speed, vehicles, capacity, separation, hierarchy, separation, control, and technology to a rethinking of the basic assumptions about freedom and mobility (pp. 227-229). These dramatic shifts have emerged from a gradual recognition of the folly of "improving efficiency narrowly defined" to a rethinking of the relationship among people, destinations, and transportation modes, so that "congestion [is] less relevant to people's lives." (p. 229). Handy claims that "focusing on accessibility--in place of rather than in conjunction with mobility--is a way to solve our congestion problem" (p. 229). Handy states that "we do not need to completely abandon the old ideas of freedom, speed, mobility, vehicles, and capacity," but we do "need to consider which ideas are relevant in what situations and how best to apply them" (p. 229).

Eventually, all shifts in ideas about transportation must gain public acceptance (p. 234) and show a "new conception of freedom" that is not based on cars only but on freedom of choice within a more resilient and locally sensitive community (p. 235). Handy concludes that with this "fully dimensional definition of freedom ... we could end up with a reconfigured transportation system... that works better for everyone in all respects." (p. 237).

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com