Transportation and Urban Design

"When I was growing up, getting a driver’s license and access to the family car meant freedom and getting out of the house. Some part of me still carries that association, but the larger part associates driving with traffic jams, nonproductive time, and expense. More and more, we have nowhere to go in our cars. If we surrender our towns, countryside and cities to the car, we will also be surrendering many other values that we hold dear: neighborhood life, a sense of history and place, a feeling of belonging somewhere."
–Hank Dittmar, "Road to Nowhere: The Automobile, Sprawl, and the Illusory Suburban Dream"

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

Our dream is that this will someday grow into the "transportation and sustainable urban design" puzzle piece. For now it’s mostly just about cars. After all, in 1990's America, transportation is cars. Well, also sport utility vehicles and six-lane freeways and traffic jams and parking lots the size of a small city. In our car-obsessed culture, advertisers spend more on vehicles than on any other product category, consumers bypass efficiency for size and speed, the pursuit of cheap oil dominates our foreign policy, and local governments struggle to build enough roads to outpace congestion. Unfortunately, study after study verifies that even the biggest of highway expansion projects can’t outrun sprawl and traffic jams. As we learned in Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." Of course its corollary, "if you don’t build it, they can’t come," also holds true as proposed policies and infrastructure to support pedestrians, bikes, and transit languish in the shadow of the automobile.

Car ownership comprises a major share of American families' budgets. The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that owning and operating a 1996 2-Wheel Drive Chevrolet Blazer sport utility vehicle for the typical 15,000 miles per year costs $7,487 per year (or 49.9 cents per mile!). (1) Add 4-Wheel Drive and the cost rises. Incorporate the true cost of this gas-guzzler to society and the environment and the cost skyrockets.

The hidden costs of driving in the U.S. amount to at least $184 billion per year, including $40 billion for road costs not covered by fees and tolls and $56 billion for health damage due to air pollution. (2) American motor vehicles consume fuel at the highly unsustainable rate of 155 billion gallons per year(3) and the Union of Concerned Scientists recently reported that the manufacture and use of consumers' vehicles cause more environmental damage than any other single consumer spending category (4) So much for cheap gasoline!

Our sprawling car culture is also a driving force in perpetuating poverty and social injustice.(5) Suppose a single mother is hired in the suburbs (a fair assumption given that two-thirds of all job growth between 1960 and 1980 occurred in the suburbs(6) and most "big-box" retailers, a prime employer of low income people, tend to locate outside of cities where land is cheap). This job would likely pay slightly more than minimum wage, say $6 per hour ($12,480 if she works 40 hours/week for 52 weeks). Now suppose she purchases a small, relatively inexpensive car - a Ford Escort for instance. AAA reports that a 1996 Ford Escort LX costs an average of $5,565 per year to own and operate. If she finds an apartment for $500/month (no mean feat in most of the country), she has $915 to pay for a year’s worth of food, clothing, and taxes (the taxes alone would exceed $915!). This is an argument for a livable wage, but also demonstrates a flaw of our car culture and its sprawling growth.

Other forms of transportation merit a mention. On the downside, air travel is arguably even more devastating than driving. While not quite as omnipresent as cars, nor as guilty of perpetuating sprawl, jets on average need 40% more energy than cars to move a passenger each mile. (7) On the upside, rail uses far less fuel per passenger mile. Technological advances in "fast trains" promise to equip trains to compete with cars and planes, though wasteful highway and oil subsidies will need to be eliminated before rail can truly thrive. (8)

There are signs of hope. Bike paths are springing up in communities across the country. Car manufacturers have developed the technology to make clean, efficient vehicles, and major environmental groups have launched campaigns to demonstrate consumer demand for such "green cars." While carpooling rates continue to languish, High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes have proven effective at rewarding those who do carpool. The Washington State Transportation Center reports that, during Seattle's morning commute, HOV lanes average 14,600 people in 4,670 vehicles per hour -- 3 people per vehicle. General-purpose lanes, on the other hand, move 9,950 people in 9,400 vehicles per hour, an average of 1.06 people per vehicle. (9) Many city and regional governments are seriously reconsidering sprawl development and citizens are returning to cities as downtown areas reclaim their popularity as convenient and enjoyable places to live.

We all need access to transportation - it’s one of our most basic needs - and cities can potentially be resource efficient dwellings for our population. But we must always consider that urban life has a major impact on the use and flow of material resources. Smart choices can optimize this impact. Selecting a fuel-efficient vehicle and opting to bike, walk, or ride transit when possible improves our financial status, makes our communities more livable, and lessens our burden on the earth. By making smart personal transportation choices and supporting zoning policies and tax structures that revitalize community and fight sprawl, we can successfully convert the car piece of the American puzzle into the transportation and sustainable urban design piece of the New Dream Puzzle. Another step is avoiding rush hour traffic, but we’ll let you read more about that in the Work puzzle piece.


  1. "Driving Costs" The American Automobile Association (AAA, 1996).  On the household costs of automobiles, see also the money/personal finance puzzle piece.
  2. "The Roads Aren't Free," a July 1998 paper by Clifford Cobb of Redefining Progress.
  3. Office of Highway Policy Information, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. 1998 Highway Statistics: Table MF-21 and/or Table VM-1. See
  4. Union of Concerned Scientists, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (UCS, 1999). See also the global environment puzzle piece.
  5. See also the justice/equity puzzle piece.
  6. Gas Guzzler Campaign. "Getting There" (Advocacy Institute, 1996)
  7. Alan Thein Durning, How Much is Enough?, Worldwatch Institute, 1992
  8. See also the government policy/economics puzzle piece
  9. Washington State Transportation Center,

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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