The Ghost of Transportation Future

In Dickens' Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his less-than-ideal future, causing Scrooge to beg the Ghost for another future. Since Scrooge's future is not set in stone, he is able to mend his ways, resulting in a happy ending, both for Scrooge and the book.

Although the Christmas Carol is an apocryphal story for the way people are to lead their lives, it can be applied to almost any decision taken by humans, individually or collectively; quite simply, decisions or actions we take today will affect us in the future. Consider transportation planning -- a decision taken today can influence the growth and well-being of neighbourhoods and communities both now and in the future.

When most people think of transportation, they think of mobility; however, most researchers discuss transportation in terms of mobility and access. Mobility is the method by which goods or people are transported from one location to another, and include non-motorized transportation (such as walking or cycling) as well as motorized transportation (buses, automobiles, trucks, rail, ships, and aircraft).

On the other hand, access is a qualitative term related to mobility, referring to how accessible a destination is for an individual or group. For example, a wilderness campsite may only be accessible by canoe, whereas many "big-box" shopping complexes can only be accessed by automobile or truck. Accessibility depends upon a number of factors, including age (a child cannot drive an automobile, thereby restricting access to the immediate neighbourhood) and affordability (a person on fixed income may not be able to afford the bus fare to visit the doctor, limiting the person's access to health care).

Over the years, politicians and planners alike have confused mobility with transportation, spending vast sums of money on the construction of roads for automobile and truck transportation. These decisions, often taken decades ago (without thought being given to access), have resulted in a number of peculiar paradoxes. By building more roads and encouraging people to use the automobile for their mobility, many town centers have become less accessible to the automobile, causing businesses to relocate in suburban business "parks" and hastening the "death" of the city. On the other hand, some cities with limited automobile accessibility exhibit excellent accessibility for people who are willing to walk or ride a bicycle.

The twin issues of mobility and access have been facing humans for centuries, often resulting in a cycle of problems spawning solutions creating more problems. With this in mind, it is often useful to consider how other cities address yesterday's transportation solutions.

Brighton, a city on the south coast of England, has a population of about 300,000 and occupies an area of about 90 square kilometers. Brighton is an example of what many planners call compact urban form because of its population density.

Much of Brighton's compact form reflects its evolution from a collection of fishing villages into a Victorian seaside resort (made popular by its proximity to London). The road network in the town center is laid out in a grid-like fashion, with a major boulevard running east-west along the seafront and the remaining streets varying in size from narrow lanes to urban streets.

This layout probably made sense to the Victorians, offering easy access by foot to the sea, shops, places of work, and home. However, after the First World War, things began to change, with people's mobility patterns evolving from walking and carriages to automobiles. Narrow lanes that once allowed for the free-flow of pedestrians now became places for parking automobiles.

Rather than attempting to discourage the use of the automobile in the town center, Brighton's politicians and planners searched for other ways to accommodate the automobile. The solution was predictable: build multi-story car parking lots, some like office towers, others underground with green space left on top. Rather than addressing the problem, these solutions simply encouraged more people to use automobiles.

Brighton's parking problem is chronic. Space is at such a premium, automobile owners must wait up to 20 months before being allocated a place to park. On some of the roads leading into the city centre, there are illuminated signs, indicating the number of free parking spaces in the public parking lots.

In parallel with the growing rise in automobiles was a decline in the use of public transportation. Fortunately, over the past decade, Brighton council has recognized the fact that the growth in automotive mobility has not translated into a growth in accessibility, and there has been a push for more public transportation.

The bus company operating in Brighton has what we would consider a number of novel ideas to encourage bus ridership. For example, a rider can purchase a one-trip ticket for £1.30 or an all-day ticket for £2.50, allowing the rider to ride on any bus, anywhere, throughout the day. Weekly, monthly, and yearly tickets are also available, while discounts are given to students and pensioners. Many bus routes have up to 10 busses an hour, some of which operate 24 hours a day, thereby allowing access to places of work and entertainment by a low-cost form of mobility.

Real time displays can be found at a number of bus stops, announcing the times of buses and, if necessary, giving reasons for delays in service (during the Labour Party convention held in Brighton last September at which there were numerous protest marches, the message Delays in service can be expected due to demonstrations appeared on the displays!).

Sadly, the past acquiescence to the automobile does have serious impacts upon the potential improvements offered by public transportation. Streets that are designed to allow two vehicles to pass one another are reduced to effectively one lane because of parking, slowing down traffic as drivers take turns using the road in each direction. As a result, bus schedules are thrown into disarray and one finds herds of buses on the same route, closely following one another.

Recently there has been a push to encourage people to use bicycles in place of other modes of transport. Although this is a laudable goal, simply designating part of a road as a bicycle lane (to be shared by parked and moving vehicles) is a recipe for disaster; not surprisingly, a number of serious accidents have occurred, in some cases, resulting in the death of the cyclist.

Mobility and access have been and will continue to be central to the growth and well-being of our cities. By looking at Brighton, we have seen a possible future of our cities; fortunately, we should be able to mend our ways and, like Scrooge, have a better future.

An abridged version of this paper was published in the November 2004 issue of the Atlantic Transportation Journal.