The mobility maze

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Mobility is good, so more mobility is better, right? If only it were so simple.

Mobility, after all, is generally less important to people than accessibility. When we go somewhere it’s not the movement that’s valuable, it’s the access to something – a school, shopping, a workplace, a friend’s house or a park – that really counts. That holds true whether we’re walking across the street, taking a subway to work, or navigating suburban traffic in an SUV enroute to the big-box store.

A prioritization of mobility in transportation planning, unfortunately, often has the result of reducing accessibility.1 Particularly in North America, a century-long focus on mobility has resulted in drastic changes to urban and suburban landscapes. As we travel into a new century facing the challenges of climate change and reduced energy affordability, the inherited legacy of mobility-fixation presents major challenges to average citizens and land-use planners alike.

If we look back just over a century, both the bicycle and then the car initially increased both mobility and accessibility for many people. True, it was a thrill to travel at speeds that had previously seemed inhuman. But fast wheeled transportation also opened up many new opportunities for late nineteenth and early twentieth century people. The local school, local stores, local employers were no longer the only options – suddenly many people could easily access opportunities on the other side of the city or the other side of the county.

The increase in accessibility was especially significant to rural Americans whose social worlds had been tightly circumscribed by the distance they could walk or ride a slow horse. There was very good reason that “Of the first million Model Ts that Ford sold, 64% went to the farm and small town market.”2

Yet as quickly as cars increased accessibility for rural people, cars decreased accessibility for a great many city-dwellers, especially those not privileged enough to drive a car. The first change was that on many streets, it was no longer safe to access the other side of the road by foot, as people had done for millennia. If the threat of being run down was not enough, PR campaigns and then laws created the new crime of jaywalking. In busy areas, pedestrians had to walk down the block to a traffic light, wait for their turn to cross, and then double back to the destination. Thus in millions of situations in cities every hour, cars increased accessibility for their drivers while reducing accessibility for people on foot.

A single-minded focus on mobility, however, would introduce far more sweeping changes over time. Once large numbers of people moved through cities by car, big parking lots were needed between stores. Whether on foot or behind the wheel, people now needed to move farther to get where they wanted to go. New zoning regulations separated workplaces from shopping, education and residential districts, requiring people to travel farther.

This mobility focus reached its fullest expression with the mid-twentieth century expressway, AKA “controlled access highway”. All across North America, vast swaths of land were devoted to traffic lanes reserved for high-speed vehicles, with entrances and exits only at widely spaced intervals. Particularly when these expressways slashed through existing cities, they instantly disrupted accessibility in previously thriving neighbourhoods, making a host of urban amenities more difficult to reach for those traveling on foot or by bicycle.

As a general rule we might say that more mobility results in more accessibility, if all other relevant factors remain the same. But when we increase mobility, many other factors do tend to change, either immediately or over the long term, and often the end result is less accessibility.

Can you get there from here?

When looking at maps of North American suburbs and exurbs, an old joke comes to mind. An elderly villager, when asked for directions from his hamlet to a town across the county, answers, “Well, if I wanted to get to [Coventry] [Mariposa] [insert favourite town name], I sure as heck wouldn’t be starting from here”.

But for better or worse, we have to start from right where we are. So in considering the challenges in correcting a decades-long focus on mobility at the expense of accessibility, I’ll conclude this post with a few examples taken from my region.

In the grandly named “Greater Toronto Area”, a heavy reliance on expressways has made the later introduction of commuter rail services both more difficult and less effective. The extraordinary allocation both of land and public finances to expressways encouraged people to commute by car, from far outside the city to jobs in Toronto or its suburbs. But when, inevitably, rush hours lengthened and gridlock became common, belated extensions of mass transit services had to fit into the spaces between expressways, parking lots and major arterial roads. As a result, these transit facilities are neither particularly accessible nor attractive to people who don’t drive.

The Google satellite map below, for example, shows a shopping mall called Scarborough Town Centre, which is attached to a station for a light rail line to downtown.

This “City Centre” concentrates a wide variety of functions including retail stores, restaurants, theatres, office buildings and government services. But because so many people in this area will arrive by car, these functions must be widely spaced to allow many hectares of access roads and parking. Thus the City Centre is not accessible by foot except for determined hikers. Furthermore, the 14-lane expressway Highway 401 is adjacent to the complex, creating a wide separation between this centre and any residential or commercial districts to the immediate north.

As illustrated here, a residence just north of the expressway is only about 800 meters from the train station. But getting past the auto-induced obstacles involves a bike ride of almost 3 km. And it’s not a pretty ride. As shown in the Google Streetview image below, crossing the bridge over the 401 means a noisy, windy, polluted journey over more than a dozen lanes of car and truck traffic.

The need to accommodate car traffic is an even greater handicap for commuter rail stations further outside the city. To the east of Toronto, the GO Transit commuter rail line currently ends on the outskirts of Oshawa, about an hour’s train ride from downtown Toronto. Although several buses bring commuters here from surrounding suburban areas, huge numbers of people arrive by car, and the seemingly endless parking lots are never adequate. The presence of these parking lots, on the other hand, is a barrier to creation of any major, concentrated residential or commercial district within walking distance of this station.

Even for commuters from nearby residential areas in the upper left and right of this image, getting to the station without a car would include navigating the spaghetti-string intersection of Highway 401. (Also shown in image at the top of this post.) Cyclists and pedestrians are seldom seen crossing that bridge in droves.

Recently-built residential neighbourhoods in this area show the same strong emphasis on mobility over accessibility. Here are two examples from the sprawling subdivisions that stretch far to the north of Highway 401.

A small strip mall provides a few services, including a restaurant. As shown here, if you could walk directly to the restaurant from an address just one short block away, you’d only have to travel 120 metres – but as indicated by Google Maps, the actual walking distance is 1 kilometre.

Within these neighbourhoods the intentional lack of a simple grid street plan, replaced instead by irregular blocks, loops and cul-de-sacs, supposedly makes areas like these unattractive to through traffic and therefore quieter. An unavoidable side effect, however, is a major reduction in the number of neighbours or services accessible within a couple of hundred metres. In example below, two neighbours who would be only 135 metres apart in a grid system are instead faced with a 1.2 km one-way trip. In other words, mobility-focused design gives such neighbourhoods poor accessibility for anyone but drivers.

No easy fix

Achieving a transportation mix suited to the coming century will require a focus on accessibility more than mobility. This is a tall order in areas where an expensive, land-use-dominating infrastructure is currently devoted to car culture. It would be comforting to think that this built infrastructure took several decades to construct, and we can now spend several decades fixing the inherited problems. However, the urgency of reducing carbon emissions means we do not have several decades to respond to our current challenges.

Fortunately, there have been citizens’ movements, city governments, urban planners and scholars in many countries who have already provided many valuable lessons. A new book, Beyond Mobility,3 summarizes many inspiring illustrations, and I’ll turn to that book in the next installment in this series.

Top photo: Google Satellite View of intersection of Highway 401 with Stevenson Rd, Bloor St, and Champlain Ave in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.


1For this framing of mobility vs. accessibility, I am indebted first of all to John C. Falcocchio and Herbert S. Levinson, and their 2015 book Road Traffic Congestion: A Concise Guide.

2Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania, pg 37.

3Robert Cervero, Erick Guerra, and Stefan Al, Beyond Mobility: Planning Cities for People and Places, Island Press, December 2017.