The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Out of Chaos


There is only one solution to intensifying traffic congestion -- Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. Other touted remedies only tinker at the edges.


This is the transportation story so far:


Current strategies to provide mobility and access, perpetuated by myth and fraud, are tragically flawed. (“Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004.) Current mobility strategies kill tens-of-thousands every year, cause dependency on foreign oil, run up balance of payments deficits, and befoul the air and water. (“Death and Taxes,” June 21, 2004.) All citizens hear from the public officials responsible for mobility and access is that they need money. When voters say no to tax increases, governance practitioners turn to private “partners.” (“The Perfect Storm,July 12, 2004 ).


The Other Solutions


Many, including those who know that the only long-term cure for immobility and congestion is Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns, say, “Yes, you are right, but there must be other solutions.” No knowledgeable observer claims that any of these are "the" solution, but advocates of Business As Usual and those who fear Fundamental Change spin discussion of these tactics in ways that make it seem that way.


In the July 12 issue of Bacon’s Rebellion ("The Network of Space") Jim Bacon profiled the wonders of telework. Tele-work can be useful, but it can also exacerbate regional immobility. Telework is not “the" solution. If it were, it would have reduced immobility and energy consumption already.

The idea of telework in all its current forms has been around for over 30 years. The 1973 Arab oil embargo brought forth scores of good telework ideas (including telecommuting), teleservices (including telemedicine and teleshopping) and telerecreation. These ideas were predicted to save energy, slash automobile dependency and usher in the good life. Three weeks ago, we recycled from S/PI’s library well over 200 pounds of private and public reports, including our own, written between 1969 and 1994 on these topics.


As technology (hardware, software and bandwidth) improves, so does the complexity of applications. That is clearly the case regarding the substitution of telecommunications for travel. When telework was first a topic of intelligent discussion, 60 percent of AM Peak trips were Journey-to-Work trips. Now because automobility has disaggregated all elements of contemporary life, Journey to Work accounts for only 25 percent of AM Peak trips. 


In Virginia, the case on telework is very clear: Every solution on the table in 2004 was outlined at an April 1993 Williamsburg Telecommuting Institute and Telework Conference. “Workplace 2000" was sponsored by Virginia’s Departments of Transportation and of Economic Development. I am sure these topics were covered because Linda (my wife and S/PI partner) and I were responsible for the content and selection of nationally recognized speakers for the conference. In addition, along with Secretary of Transportation John Milliken, Secretary of Economic Development Cathleen Magennis and Virginia Chamber of Commerce Chairman Bob Skunda, Linda and I participated in regional “opportunity to expand your competitive options” fora on telework. Well attended fora for private executives from across the Commonwealth were held in Hampton Roads, Richmond and in the northern part of Virginia to lay the ground work for the commonwealth-wide conference. 


That was 11 years ago. The regional fora, the Williamsburg conference and a blue-ribbon Governor’s Telework Advisory Council spread the word on telework but it barely made a dent in the mobility problem. Congestion has grown faster than telecommunication substitutions for travel could remove automobile trips. In some cases, telework has encouraged counterproductive disaggregation of travel demand.  


Besides telework, other tactics are often called “the solution.” Transportation demand management tactics including congestion pricing can help. Jim Bacon makes the case for demand management in “Straws in the Wind,” April 12, 2004, a column to which Ray Pethtel of Virginia Tech took exception. Also see “Demand-Side Economics,” October 20, 2003. Congestion management in all its forms is exhaustively discussed in Tony Downs revised book Still Stuck in Traffic. Intelligent transportation demand management can help, but it is not “the solution.” In spite of enthusiastic implementation in selected regions, congestion continues to get worse in every single region in the United States and that trend is projected to continue.


Smaller cars can help. In the early 1990s, one could see two mini Mercedes backed into a single parking place perpendicular to the curb in Berlin, Kobenhavn and elsewhere in Europe. Mercedes says they will be importing these cars to the United States by 2006.   Pooled short-term rental cars at METRO stations can help. See “Step Up to Flex,” May 10, 2004


Small, more efficient electric motors and hybrid gas-electric cars can help with both car size and energy consumption. However, even if Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia sent the United States their oil as a free goodwill gift and even if every private vehicle had a new clean emissions engine, it would not solve the mobility problem.


As a matter of science, not policy, none of these tactics –- telework, demand management and smaller vehicles, energy efficiency, etc. -– are “the solution” to growing immobility. More widespread use of these tactics may make congestion “better,” but each “improvement’ separately barely makes a blip, and all together they cannot solve the problem of immobility and lack of access caused by dysfunctional human settlement patterns. In fact, adding these tactics to a program to build more roadways without fundamental change in human settlement patterns would only result in immobility getting worse a little less quickly. As noted in “The Perfect Storm,” July 12, 2004 , adding shared-vehicle systems to the mix without the creation of supporting station-area land uses just wastes money faster. 


It turns out that none of “the other solutions” are really “solutions.” Individually and collectively, the best that can be said is that they can help mitigate immobility and lack of access while human settlement patterns are changed and transport system capacity is balanced with travel demand. 


Unfortunately, just talking about these tactics in glowing terms gives governance practitioners –- both elected and appointed -– an excuse to obfuscate reality. It gives editorial writers the opportunity to champion this or that idea. (See column by A. Barton Hinkle in the Richmond Times Dispatch on July 13 citing with approval Jim Bacon’s column “Straws in the Wind” noted above.)


A Matter of Physics


The core problem with private-vehicle-based mobility (aka, automobility) in an urban society is a matter of geometry and physics, not public policy. Length x width x height = volume for each vehicle. This quantity plus the width x length x headroom of roadways =  the space required for automobility. This is space that is consigned to automobility even if there are no automobiles using the space. Based on this geometry, physics determines the parameters of traffic congestion. (See the PowerPoint presentation “The Physics of Gridlock” by SYNERGY/Planning, April 2003.)  


Each standard-size private vehicle occupies 200 +/- times more space to park and from 400 to 4,000 times the space to drive as a person requires to stand and walk. Collectively, the space occupied by a mobility system relying on automobiles has disaggregated the origins and destinations of trips in contemporary society to such an extent that the pattern of land use is not amenable or convenient for human use unless they resort to a vehicle. (One way to come to an understanding about the role of automobiles in human settlement patterns is to understand the place of horses in urban areas over the past 6,000 years. See End Note One, a reprint of a box from Chapter 13 of The Shape of the Future.)


Creating pathways and safety devices to accommodate bicycles and Ginger/Segway, the two-wheeled human transporter offered on Amazon.Com, cut space and energy consumption as compared to automobiles. These alternates also can make walking almost as convenient. But they cannot be effectively applied in an automobile-dominated human settlement pattern.


The bottom line is that there must be Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. That is good because the settlement patterns that do “work” from a transportation perspective also are the ones where humans feel most happy and safe, as measured by the square-foot value of urban property. (See “Wild Abandonment,” September 8, 2003.) Humans cannot achieve safety and happiness relying on automobility.


How We Got Here


Before a path out of immobility is sketched out, it may be useful to understand how we got here.


It would not have had to come to this, if only...


1.       There were not an oversupply of land for urban development. This oversupply means that developers, builders and the others in the “business-as-usual” crowd can make larger profits in the short run by building in places where land is cheaper. The land is cheaper because it is not well located with respect to other, critical land uses. These important uses are the same ones necessary to create a balance of jobs/housing/services/recreation/ amenity -- the resources needed to create Balanced Communities. Building automobile roadways provides access to remote land. This facilitates land and building sales and short-term profits for developers, builders and related sectors of the economy. These roadways thwart the market which, but for the subsidy, would agglomerate Balanced Communities.


2.       Developers, home builders, road builders, land speculators were not quite so greedy. Citizens need some land developed and a lot of land redeveloped. They need new and renewed housing and probably some new roadways. However, the roadways citizens need are ones to serve functional human settlement patterns, not roadways to create new access to cheap land for scattered urban land uses.


3.       Transportation planners told the truth and governance practitioners had the backbone to tell citizens they have been led to have unrealistic expectations and are deluding themselves with respect to the realities of access and mobility. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004. and “The Perfect Storm”, July 12, 2004 .)


4.       Citizens understood transport reality and could therefore avoid making bad location decisions based myths and misrepresentations. 


Fortunately, in a democracy, there is a silver bullet -– citizen education. Governance practitioners must begin arming citizens with the information necessary to understand what it requires to provide mobility and access.


How Do Virginians Extract Themselves from Delusion-Induced Misrepresentations?


If government policy, programs, controls and incentives are the problem, what is the solution?


An answer is not “less government,” but “better governance.” Better governance does not mean bigger state or municipal governments. It means that a Fundamental Change in governance must go hand-in-hand with Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. It means there needs to evolve a governance structure that reflects the organic structure of human settlement patterns at every level from the cluster to the New Urban Region. 


Every sage observer of land-use/transportation dysfunction correctly suggests the need for “regional transportation planning.” Some even suggest “balanced, regional-scale land-use and transportation planning” is necessary. The idea of a “regional” transportation agency is a good one. However, in large jurisdictions made up of multiple beta communities like Fairfax County, no governance practitioner (and no citizen) would support giving away power to some even more remote body without profound governance reform that also provides a voice to cluster-scale, neighborhood-scale, village-scale and community-scale concerns.


Some argue that we need a strong hand to dictate where transportation facilities go, even if it has to be over the dead bodies of NIMBYs and BANANAs. Sorry, we have had Robert Moses, and that does not work. Transportation dictatorship does not function any better than other forms of dictatorship. Neither does sneaking a project by the woodchucks while they are sleeping, as was done in the third quarter of the 20th century. The sleeping woodchucks are now wide awake, active citizens.


It comes down to this:  If there is to be a significant improvement in mobility and access, there must be Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and in governance structure.


How will this happen? Citizens must understand transportation/land-use relationships and the need for Fundamental Change. Then there must be a process such as the one outlined in “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb 16, 2004. What are the alternatives? Growing traffic congestion, economic stagnation, social instability and environmental degradation. 


You say that is good in theory, but “It will not happen.” This is not a multiple choice issue.  See “Yes, But...April 26, 2004 .


The next column will consider the role of the media in getting from where we are to where we must be.



End Note 1: The Carriageless Horse


Horses have been part of urban civilization for 6,000 years. Horses were (and are) consumptive and expensive to maintain, and so for most of this period, horses have been limited to use in high value-added activities. These have included war and transport of those at the top of the economic food chain.


When large groups of humans -- e.g., those living on the Steppes of Central Asia or the High Plains of North America -- wanted to (or were forced to) take advantage of the speed and range that the horse provided, they had to move to much lower-density settlement patterns in order to provide pasture for the horse and to dispose of the horse manure. The horse required a density so low that these peoples became nomads and/or mobile raiding parties because they could not support themselves and their horses in some more amenable pattern.


The pattern of human settlement that accommodated the wide-spread use of the horse proved, over time, to be less desirable than an alternative pattern which forsakes a horse for every adult. Humans found it better to live in settlement patterns where citizens did not need to use the extended range and speed of the horse in order to carry out their everyday activities.


Horses made a run at changing human settlement pattern early in the Industrial Era. The steel wheel and the gravel crusher made horse-drawn omnibuses, coaches and buggies useful urban vehicles. The rising affluence and expansion of the middle class, coupled with the conversion of pre-industrial cities into industrial centers with expanding “suburbs,” led to an expansion of horse ownership for travel by individuals. The private horses plus the horses used in public transit, i.e., the omnibus, caused the urban horse population to briefly skyrocket.


Horse manure piled up in the streets. The European House Sparrow introduced to North America to combat enemies of the Linden Tree learned to feed year round on the grass and hayseed that had passed through the horse. Horse manure and sparrows became twin urban problems in the cores of late 19th century North American Industrial Centers. The first automobiles were seen as a nonpolluting alternative to the horse.


When humans have used the automobile for as long as they have used the horse, citizens will find the auto, like the horse, serves civilization in much more limited ways than it is currently imagined by auto manufacturers or most citizens who do not yet realize there is a choice.


-- July 26, 2004


















































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.