Why should we construct transit systems?

One common complaint raised about car-oriented transit is that it is fixated on ‘flow’.  Conventional road projects are generally designed to move vehicles, with less concern for the local social dynamics affected by that flow.  This means that a large (wide) road is deemed successful if it is able to keep traffic flowing at desirable speeds; when flow is king, the people outside the cars simply do not matter.  There are many obvious reasons why this is bad for the community around such a road, but if flow is not the desired outcome of a transportation project then what is?

The question of what we want out of our transit systems gets far too little attention from those concerned about the politics of transit.  Many people already ascribe to a view; they may think that flow is desirable (they don’t like to wait in traffic) or instead they might shake their fists at all the passing cars and think how all this flow is ruining their surroundings.  But this typically degenerates into a battle between car owners and pedestrians, and these sort of battles rarely end in satisfactorily.  It seems that when two large portions of our society are at odds about how to proceed, the only fair path is to rethink the premises that got us to such an impasse.   The question I think we should be asking is why we want to build the transit system in the first place?

The simple answer to the above question just goes back to the idea of traffic flow; we want to build a transit system because we want to move people and things.  But this doesn’t even seem like a step beyond the question for traffic flow; the fact that movement is important is assumed in the very idea of a transit system.  The deeper question we want to ask is why we want to facilitate the movement of people and things; this challenges us to think about the sorts of things we value in life.  Such a question also forces everyone to do a new calculation about the cost and benefits of various transit systems.  At some point of efficiency, the transit system will destroy the very mode of living that we value; because it is not simply the movement that we value but something which that movement facilitates, it is possible for an increase in movement to lead to a decrease in quality of life.  So, even though adding another lane to a road may increase flow (and thus be called an “improvement” in the eyes of the traffic engineers) it could actually harm everyone involved.  At some point, being able to move across town a little faster is no longer worth it, especially if you have to destroy the town in the process.

The above is all very abstract, but it needs to be this way because I don’t  know how much flow is worth in relation to quality of life.  I suspect it isn’t worth much, but this should be an empirical question; we need to start thinking about how movement is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life.

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