One thing that makes Smart Growth appealing is its language. Terms like “livability” and “transit-oriented development” sound engaging, and “smart” growth is, frankly, self-flattering for its acolytes. On transportation matters, advocates rarely declare their intent to reduce roadway capacity and divert money to transit projects (along with other auto unfriendly policies). Instead, they say they are pursuing a “multi-modal” strategy to promote “transportation choice.”
But what are acceptable modes in a multi-modal strategy? And do all choices equal greater mobility?
In Boston, some enterprising businesses have been renting out Segways – those futuristic, gyro-balanced transporters. Tourists find them easy to ride and extremely convenient for scooting around the historic landmarks on the city’s wide sidewalks. But residents see them as a nuisance, so the 13-member Boston City Council has voted unanimously to ban them from city sidewalks.
The Segway is certainly another mode of travel. Shouldn’t the Boston City Council, which promotes multi-modal transportation, embrace the Segway?
Those favoring the ban don’t necessarily want the Segways to disappear from the city. They want to move them onto roads where tourists unfamiliar with Boston’s road network can jostle with hurried commuters in 4,000 pound cars and even heavier buses and commuter rail cars.
Like cars, Segways provide motorized transport for individuals, and its self-balancing upright design makes it more compact and maneuverable than a bicycle or moped and, thus, more suitable to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk. And like roads, sidewalks are inherently multi-modal and can accommodate more than just foot traffic.
When planners and progressive politicians bark the virtues of “multi-modal” and “transportation choice,” they are usually just pushing taxes and subsidies for mass transit, especially rail transit. Unfortunately, clever rhetoric too often trumps critical thinking.
For example, light rail transit is considered by many to be the apogee of an urban transportation system, but replacing existing bus lines with rail lines does not necessarily enhance mobility but simply substitutes one form of collective transport for another.
Furthermore, in most communities the only mobility choices people have are private transport (automobiles) or public mass transport (buses or rail). Expanding transportation choices would mean introducing private competition for mass transit services and public support, such as mobility vouchers for low income people, for private transport (e.g., Zipcars or taxis).
As cities continue to face bleak budget forecasts, the costs of different travel modes will remain an important consideration. Because mobility is intricately tied to economic prosperity, it’s equally important to understand which modes enhance mobility and which ones merely give it lip service.
Ed Braddy is the director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit organization promoting freedom, mobility and affordable homeownership. He can be reached at 352-281-5817 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.