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Industry Perspective: Economic Growth, Mobility Go Hand-in-Hand

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Mobility is not just an important part of economic growth, it is the most essential component of economic growth, and is every bit as important as good soil is to good crop growth. That’s not surprising when you consider that it’s not an accident that every urban center of activity throughout history was developed along a transportation route of one mode or another.

This reality is every bit as important today. However, while the automobile promoted economic development in the 20th century, an unfortunate consequence resulted from depending upon the automobile as the main mode of transportation —to the exclusion of alternative and complementary modes.

The automobile opened up growth potential in areas previously seen as only good for farm and pasture lands. Development could now sprawl in all directions, and corridors of travel and did not need to conform to any pattern, except those dictated by maximizing the “best and highest use” of land as perceived by the landowner. Housing developments, factories and office complexes became random and dispersed, negating travel corridors. Work-based travel became more and more random, with little discernable directional travel precluding mass transit options.

The automobile was king, wasn’t it? A whole new professional industry emerged to promote land development, based the automobile mode: the traffic engineer.

The economic engine was booming at the close of World War II with the new-found mobility of automobile and highway. Any threat to overcrowding had a simple and cost effective solution: Build more highways. Land use planners were having a field day, and traffic engineers learned to improve the efficiency of crowded roads by shoehorning more automobiles in the same space.

The dangers of depending upon the automobile as the single mode of transport were evident early on, but ignored. Concern was voiced, but few visionaries realized that the urban problems occurring in every major city were directly tied to the ability to literally “move to greener pastures.” It was cheaper and more profitable to build new on raw land than to maintain and rebuild in old urban centers.

By the end of the 20th century, it was painfully obvious that dependence upon a single mode of transport had been a major blunder. The automobile, a wonderful liberator and growth stimulator, had now become the cause of so many problems.

Those heady days of foolishness are gone forever. Mobility is not a single mode of transport, but rather a multi-modal ingredient for sustainable economic vitality. The automobile is not evil, but it is limited in the mobility it affords.

The main problems from overdependence upon the automobile are societal isolation and urban decay. Healthy urban economic growth must provide mobility choices for all, not just those with a driver’s license. We are all pedestrians. This is the primary human transport mode. All other transport modes should be considered as enhancements to this primary mode in the urban environment. Social and commercial intercourse is the reason for cities. The automobile is but one of several transport modes to augment the travel needs and economic vitality of the human experience.

The modal mix will vary from town to town and from city to city, but alternative transport modes must always be available to provide optimum mobility for all.

Dave Humphreys is the executive director for the Annapolis Regional Transportation Management Association. He can be contacted at 443-292-6420 and dhumphreys@artma.org.