On one reading, bike riding makes Copenhagen one of the healthiest cities in the world.
But Danes do not ride their bicycles everywhere because they are health nuts. Rather, they ride because they perceive that doing so is convenient. Deliberate engineering by forward-thinking decision makers many years ago ultimately created that perception.
Creating a healthy transportation system means accounting for people in addition to infrastructure and technology. And a funny thing about psychology is that people will consider an option convenient or otherwise desirable because they have been told to see that option as convenient or desirable.
For this reason, peer pressure, advertising, and an impulse toward self-gratification play roles in encouraging more bicycle use – or use of transportation options besides the drive-alone car in general.
People are creatures of habit and convenience. Which is fair enough – life is hard, so we try to minimize stress. Unfortunately, subjectively convenient transportation options are often unhealthy.
Some benefits of car ownership cannot be denied. Others, while illusory, are difficult to dismiss. Where the benefits are real, cities need to invest in infrastructure that makes other modes of transportation competitive. Where the benefits are debatable, they need to be debunked. For instance, the “freedom” of owning a car can be contrasted with taking on long-term maintenance costs and experiencing the daily headaches of traffic and parking, and the significant danger of car accidents.
I addressed the infrastructure investment issue in my last Mobility Lab article, suggesting smart roads and networked robot vehicles.
A simpler answer amounts to making it easier to ride, walk, and take public transit than to take a car. Designing a city to make bicycles, buses, trains, and sidewalks more convenient also demands ensuring that these sustainable modes of transportation are safe. Nothing kills a feeling of convenience as quickly as a sense of clear and present danger.
This is an issue of both infrastructure investment and attitude. Infrastructure needs to be specifically designed to be fit for purpose. For example, bicycles sharing roads and paths with cars and pedestrians is risky, especially when there is an emerging mode competing with an incumbent mode, leading to tension and conflict.
The problem with cities that are built for cars rather than people
Here is a straightforward list of some well-known major problems affecting cities:
- Traffic congestion
- Air pollution
- Greenhouse gas emissions
- High transportation costs
- Transit access inequity
- Physical and mental health problems
- Sky-rocketing infrastructure costs
- Urban sprawl
- Social isolation, and
- Lack of nature.
They are all connected to a car-dominant way of life.
Singling out just one of those problems, transportation has eclipsed burning fossil fuels to generate electricity as the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the United States.
It is easy, almost mandatory, to assume that tackling such massive problems would require implementing a very complicated suite of solutions such as clean energy-powered electric cars that drive themselves. Still, prioritizing cars produces disjointed communities and unnecessary travel. In the meantime, we pay for the upkeep of cities that deliver far-flung concrete isolation.
By definition, on-demand autonomous vehicles will be extremely convenient. And the more convenient we make car travel, the more we will do it. Hello, future dystopia of urban sprawl, overweight people, and increased traffic congestion – as every man, woman, child, and dog takes the easiest option.
Courage and coercion are both needed to change a bad habit
Rather than making cars evermore impressive, the better approach may be having fewer of them.
While human behavior is complicated and changing it is difficult, people will switch quickly when presented with a more convenient alternative. Selling the new option with some zippy, aspirational advertising will help spur the change.
An obvious roadblock is that cars and roads are so deeply ingrained in our culture, habits, dreams and bureaucracies. The car-first mindset is hard to shake.
This highlights the vital dilemma of transport evolution: Do we need courage or coercion to change the status quo? The answer is both.
Courage is good. Danish city planners in the 1970s displayed it when they decided to do good things for future residents.
As multimodal transportation infrastructure took shape, a number of things happened. First, the “other” modes gained legitimacy. On the map and as features of the built environment, people started to think that bike paths deserved to be there. Second, using a new mode of transportation became increasingly convenient, acceptable, and safe. This resulted in a reality in which former transportation alternatives converted to preferred options across society.
Courage also comes into play for grassroots movements dedicated to reducing car use. Over time, activists making noise and standing up for what they believe in – often at great risk to their own well-being – have inspired seismic shifts in societal norms. Consider what activism has accomplished in expanding the right to vote and the right to love whom you wish.
Activism may seem out of place in the conservative, sensible realm of transportation planning, but the stakes are real and high. The transportation systems of the future and, consequently, the cities of the future will determine how people live and the health of the planet. Speaking up about this is worthwhile.
However, minority revolutions are usually a long haul. They are also prone to getting tarred with charges of radicalism. While many people respect activists, they also often can’t help thinking that activists are idealistic “others.”
Coercion, then, would produce faster changes to transportation systems and transit choices. Appealing to people’s collective desire for belonging and manipulating emotions works well for corporations. Apple succeeds largely because its products are attractive. Cars sell because they promise freedom, status, and beauty.
We have been conditioned to think that having a nice car means we lead good lives, and in fact that we ourselves are good. Resorting to riding the bus or a bicycle, by default, means the opposite. This poor social view of sustainable transport modes is frequently reinforced in popular media, and even in well-meaning but misguided advertising by transport authorities – the very bodies who should be encouraging it.
In actuality, a life worth living is active, social, and conducted outdoors. A good life is marked by personal relationships, frequent interactions, and exercise. Properly designed cities and transportation systems can facilitate living this way. Such cities become vibrant magnets for investment, talent, and energy, in turn generating happiness.
To bring about that future – to help people live successfully in reality rather than in image – I suggest some big companies and celebrities make great ads about walking, bicycling, and mass transit. Then, we can watch the transformation from car culture.