Is It Broken?

At a recent talk in Los Angeles, New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn made the following seemingly innocuous statement, “no one can claim the current system isn’t broken.” It was an offhand thought that got general murmurs of agreement. But in some ways, I think this may be the most radical thing she said all night. Ironically, it may also be one of the least accurate things she said.

Sadik-Khan is famous (and infamous) for rapidly and shockingly veering NYC transportation priorities away from the standard “move the most cars as fast as possible” mission statement to one that at least considers pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit priorities and their needs. Without overstating her impact, it does seem that starting from this fundamental belief that the current system does not function has allowed her and her department to embark on a series of experimental approaches. Departments of Transportation are notoriously hidebound and resistant to change. Many planning concepts and priorities are still based on approaches developed in the 1950’s and earlier. Indoctrination into these traditions is passed on as new engineers study under the last generation and then begin to work in the real world.  So rather than nod in agreement, let’s take her statement at face value. Is the current system broken and can anyone claim that it’s not?

I doubt anyone would argue that our current transport system is ideal, at least no one who commutes in any moderately sized city would. But “broken” is a distinction of kind and not degree. Like the apocryphal boiling frog placed in a slowly warming pot of water, people have an amazing capacity to adapt to slow changes over time without noticing, each new level of degrading conditions becomes the new “normal” that is accepted as the way things are. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people per year are killed in traffic accidents in the US. Your chance of getting killed in an auto accident is roughly 1 in 87. The chance of being killed by terrorism…1 in 9.3 million. But which is seen as an existential threat to our country? In 2007, the overall cost of traffic congestion is estimated at $8.7 billion, $750 for every traveler and wasted time added up to 4.2 billion hours, roughly one full work week per traveler. Over the last decade, we have added an average of 32,000 lane-miles per year to the nation’s highway system. Despite the huge social costs and big investments, traffic congestion has gotten worse, nearly continuously. The only event that seems to have decreased it in recent history was the intense economic slowdown of the last two years, and there are signs the economy (and traffic) are on the rebound.

Does all this mean our transportation is “broken”? Hard to say perhaps. People enjoy greater mobility than they ever have in the past, cars are improving rapidly; becoming safer and less polluting. But will incremental improvements fundamentally change anything? Beyond easy statistics, some of the biggest criticisms of auto-centric planning are of the costs in terms of community and quality of life. These criteria are tough to quantify on even the broadest criteria. Perhaps all that can be said is that there is a rapidly spreading belief that the system is broken. It is that belief that there is a better way that is forcing change in cities, large and small, around the country.

To the initial assertion that “no one can claim…” Well, here I will have to take exception with Sadik-Khan as much as I wish I could agree with her. I won’t bother to link to the wide range of voices, from the marginal to the powerful, who would do anything other than admit that our system is broken. Even those who will admit that there are problems will usually assign the cause as being a lack of commitment to an auto-centric policy rather than an over commitment to it.

While I can’t agree with Sadik-Khan in a literal sense, I will stand with her vision without reservation. Change often requires both the belief that change is itself possible and that it is necessary. I think she is demonstrating the power of one’s basic assumptions and why they are so critical.

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