Sunday, November 09, 2008

The law of unintended consequences

When cars first came in to being they seemed great. They allowed people freedom of transportation at greater ease and distance than walking. They were much cheaper than horse carriages, and didn't produce the 'nasty' pollution of horse manure. In California, especially, they allowed people to rid themselves dependency from the ugly train monopoly. The rail barons seemed to exercise way to much control, and this was a great opportunity to get rid of the railroads influence. Building more roads was the solution to the problem. The early adopters had great mobility advantages.

However, as more people owned cars, some problems started to appear. Congestion slowed traffic. The simple solution was 'limited access roads'. However, this ability to drive greater distances on freeways was no use unless there was a place to park. So, minimum parking requirements were put in place. Things were still somewhat manageable. Kids would walk to school, and come home at play. Most households had just one worker, so one car was enough.

However, these old neighborhoods were still a little too dense for optimal car use; and nobody wanted to live on a busy street. So, new neighborhoods were built with more space for cars, and often with 'fences' facing the busy streets. These 'fence streets' were miserable to walk on, but most everybody was expected to stay in their neighborhood. Some parents started driving their children to school. It seemed to be faster. As more households had both parents working, a daycare "drop off" on the way to work became more of a norm. Dropping off at school just seemed to be a natural extension. Since houses were further apart (and family sizes smaller), neighborhood schools began shutting down. Initially some bus service could be provided. But this was much slower than driving kids, so most parents opted to drive. Soon, driving to school became the norm. School districts then begin to offer special magnet programs at various schools. The parents are expected to drive. This all goes to create more traffic, and make it even more difficult for children to walk to school. The benefit some parents initial gained from driving kids to school, eventually became a loss to kids that actually wanted to safely walk to their neighborhood school.

These loses extended to other areas. The initial benefit of low-cost super-stores resulted in the loss of neighborhood stores. Sure, the Wal*Mart had things much cheaper than the neighborhood store. But, it required an up-front purchase of a car, and additional ongoing costs of owning and operating the vehicle, as well as taxes for the roads. (If Walmart opened with a $20000 initiation fee, and $2000 in annual dues, nobody would go there. However, by externalizing that cost in to a 'necessity', it became more palatable.) The price of low-cost also destroyed some local community institutions. Would Wal*Mart support the little league team? Would Home Depot provide the nuances of how to fix the obscure electrical outlets in your neighborhood? Probably not. But they would sell you the wrong receptacle for 20% less.

The gradual elimination of transit and scattered development seemed good at first. There was no need to funnel all traffic on trains to a central location. In theory, homes and workplaces could form a fine mesh, where nobody has to travel too far and no road is too congested. Problem is, things don't work this way. People don't want to live near retail or industrial. Businesses like to be near other similar businesses. The big-box phenomenon was affecting companies as well, through consolidation, and formation of large offices. Zoning comes in to the picture to make things even worse. So today we have a model where there are many residential, industrial, commercial and retail clusters. The clusters are large enough to cause huge traffic jams. However, they are too spread out to really enable an effective transit solution. Even the few that provide adequate clusters for transit often provide just a drop in the bucket of the overall travel demand.

And finally pollution. We have replaced horse manure with carbon monoxide, ozone, and a host of other air pollutants. Noise pollution has also become a serious problem. And, as another unintended consequence, water pollution has become a serious problems as farmers use excess chemical fertilizers on their farms. Perhaps horse manure wasn't so bad after all.

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