Ecological transportation

by Michael Schafer and Stephen Wheeler

When planners and politicians discuss transportation they often focus on congestion and reduce the situation to a simple problem of demand exceeding supply. Too often they simplify the solution as well by assuming that the answer is to increase supply—to build more roads and freeway lanes.

Likewise, many policy-makers these days are focusing on high technology innovations such as "smart cars" and "smart highways" as ways to increase the capacity of existing roads. Yet these approaches do little to address the complex, interconnected problems of air quality, congestion, parking blight, suburban sprawl, ecosystem destruction and social fragmentation which have resulted from our current transportation policies.

The ecological approach to transportation, in contrast, looks at the demand side of the equation rather than supply. By reducing demand—actually lowering "vehicles miles travelled"—we can begin to solve our current transportation dilemma and improve our quality of life without building new roads.

Since any attempt to reduce demand must consider the relationship between transportation and land use, this ecological approach necessitates a restructuring of our cities and towns in ways that will significantly reduce dependence on the automobile. In short, to solve current transportation problems we must look at how we plan and build cities.

The problem

Prior to the advent of the automobile, most American cities were compact and walkable. This design can still be seen in the central areas of cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and many others. In the early twentieth century, streetcar lines extended the physical size of many of these cities, but the pattern was still walkable, with development closely following the rail lines.

Seventy years ago it would have been difficult to anticipate the impact of the automobile on the environment and society. Urban residents could not have imagined living in a neighborhood in which basic services were not available within a convenient walking distance. Transit linked nearly every community with the central city. People walked, neighbors conversed, communities thrived, and streets were safer.

However, since then our cities have been redesigned and rebuilt to accommodate the automobile. In many urban areas, homes were razed, businesses displaced, and neighborhoods destroyed to build freeways. Streetcar companies went bankrupt in a single generation. Automobile interests made sure that the streetcars disappeared; more than 100 electric trolley systems were bought up and scrapped starting in the 1930s by National City Lines, a company owned by General Motors, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Mack Truck and others.

In recent decades, the automobile has become a necessity for almost every trip we make. The physical size of our cities has exploded far beyond what might have been required by population growth, as suburban sprawl has become the dominant development pattern. Housing, jobs, shopping, and recreation have become dispersed into a physical form that is clearly unsustainable.

The solution

It is difficult to envision what our cities can become in the next century. We are not trained or encouraged to look so far ahead. But we must. We must again redesign and rebuild our cities—this time to accommodate people and ecosystems rather than the automobile.

Most European cities as well as older American cities (which many Americans love to visit) are compact and walkable. They were designed around the pedestrian, and demonstrate "access by proximity." Despite growing automobile ownership, many of these European cities are now moving aggressively towards giving even greater priority to pedestrians, bicycles and public transit. The Netherlands has constructed more than 9,000 miles of bicycle paths in recent years, and cars are being progressively banned from central Amsterdam. "Traffic calming" measures have been adopted in many German cities since the early 1980s. Florence, Naples, Bologna, Genoa and Rome have all implemented partial or total automobile bans in downtown areas. And by the year 2000, Bordeaux, France, plans to reserve half its streets for bikes and pedestrians.

Elsewhere in the world, in cities such as Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Curitiba, Brazil, innovative programs have been developed to reduce automobile use. These initiatives point the way toward less automobile-dependent, more sustainable cities of the future.

Transportation in the ecological city will most likely be based on several simple principles: access by proximity, an inversion of the current transportation hierarchy and demand reduction.

Access by proximity

When almost everything a person needs is nearby, within a comfortable walking distance, he or she doesn't need transportation. So naturally, any attempt to reduce transportation needs and automobile dependency should start with "access by proximity."

The ecological city is likely to feature relatively dense, mixed-use neighborhood centers. These compact "urban villages" will contain all the critical components of a community: shops, homes, workplaces, parks, civic centers, and recreation—all within walking or bicycling distance of one another. Surrounding these urban villages will be large areas of natural and agricultural lands. Transportation between urban villages can be provided by light rail or high-speed heavy rail. But most needs of daily life will be relatively close at hand for residents.

A number of steps can begin creating "access by proximity" within current cities. Mixed-use, higher-density zoning is particularly important, especially around transit stops, downtown areas, and neighborhood centers. "First source" hiring policies, which give preference to local residents, help as well. Planners can employ specific tools to increase density, such as "density bonuses" in which parking requirements or other planning standards are reduced for appropriately sited developments that provide large numbers of housing units. The results of such zoning can be seen around rail stations in Toronto and near some stations of the Washington, D.C. Metro system.

Studies have shown that automobile use decreases directly with housing density. In San Francisco, with an average of 32 housing units per acre, annual automobile use averages 5,000 miles per capita. Compare this with suburban Danville/San Ramon, CA, which has four housing units per acre and annual auto use of 10,000 miles per capita. The environmental impacts and implications are obvious—we must return to urban densities if we want to reduce automobile use. Not the high densities of Manhattan or Tokyo, but a more modest European-style density allowing for walkable neighborhoods. To make density attractive and livable, we must take additional steps to create ample parks, garden areas, greenways and community facilities, as well as actions to promote diversity, social justice and safety.

Inversion of the transportation hierarchy

For the past five decades the automobile has been far and away the main focus of transportation planners and public officials. Next has come public transit. A distant third has been the bicycle. Pedestrians have hardly warranted mentioning.

This hierarchy of priorities should be reversed, with the heaviest emphasis placed on helping pedestrians, who, along with bicyclists, represent the most energy-efficient forms of transportation. Adopting traffic calming measures and more compact, mixed-use land use policies are both ways to foster pedestrian transportation.

Bicycle planning also should be placed at the top of the priority list. Currently in the United States less then five percent of the population rides a bike to work, even though millions of Americans live close enough to their jobs to be able to do so. Americans keep their bikes in the garage for good reasons—automobile-dominated streets are unfriendly, unsafe places for cyclists. But this situation can be changed, if governments are willing to plan for the bicycle instead of the automobile. Over a recent 10 year period, the Netherlands spent $250 million on bicycle lanes, while even progressive U.S. cities like Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland spent little or nothing. No wonder more of the Dutch ride bikes.

Public transit needs attention as well, particularly transit that serves existing central cities and communities of color. Priority should be placed on rebuilding and modernizing the old streetcar lines scrapped by General Motors. In contrast, far-flung commuter rail systems like the San Francisco Bay Area's proposed BART extensions—which open vast amounts of rural land to suburban sprawl development—should be actively discouraged.

The automobile should be given lowest priority in the new hierarchy, and all existing automobile subsidies (which the World Resources Institute estimates at $300-400 billion a year) should be ended immediately. New freeway and arterial development should be dropped from transportation planning, in line with the philosophy of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. Currently, state departments of transportation often try to justify new freeway construction as necessary to accommodate High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. However, HOVs should be given existing freeway lanes, rather than being used as an excuse to widen the roads and increase capacity.

Demand reduction

In the end, ecological transportation planning seeks to solve the transportation crisis not through technology or capacity increases, but by reducing the need for transportation in the first place. "Access by proximity" helps do this. Reversing current transportation priorities helps do this. And many market-based mechanisms can help as well.

The concept is similar to energy conservation. In the 1970s electric utilities began to realize that [energy conservation was more cost-effective and ecologically responsible than building new power plants]. Now "demand-side management" is one of the hottest concepts in the energy planning field.

The situation is similar with the field of transportation planning in the 1990s. Instead of building more and more roads, the challenge is to "conserve" traffic demand. This will entail not just tweaking the current system through regulations and market incentives, but rethinking the basic patterns of urban development that have held sway for the past 50 years.

To solve our transportation problems we need nothing short of a new vision of pedestrian-oriented cities, with cleaner air, safe and friendly streets, more land for parks, agriculture and housing, more money for real necessities, and a healthier population.

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 1993 issue of The Urban Ecologist, the newsletter of Urban Ecology, 405 14th St., Suite 701, Oakland,CA 94612, (510/251-6330). Urban Ecology is one of the world's leading ecocity organizations. Memberships are $35.


Back to top

EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

Back to Corn Fields contents


Transportation in the ecological city will most likely be based on several simple principles: access by proximity, an inversion of the current transportation hierarchy and demand reduction.



In the end, ecological transportation planning seeks to solve the transportation crisis not through technology or capacity increases, but by reducing the need for transportation in the first place. "Access by proximity" helps do this. Reversing current transportation priorities helps do this. And many market-based mechanisms can help as well.


go to home page

Related Links:









Partner Links