Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reason on Why Mobility Matters

Continuing from my last post on the new Reason congestion reduction study, Reason simultaneously released an essay on why mobility matters. It's an excellent essay to remind us why these huge mobility investments are necessary. To quote the essay,
"We rarely contemplate the importance of mobility for the same reason we rarely contemplate the importance of oxygen. Mobility is so intertwined with our everyday lives that it can be easy to forget how essential it is."
Their concept of opportunity circles particularly struck me as remarkably similar to the opportunity zones concept I articulated a few months ago. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some key excerpts:
Americans rightly celebrate the freedom of opportunity, but how far would it take us if our movements were severely restricted? How might the lack of mobility affect the kind of jobs we hold, the places we explore, or even the people we marry? The freedom of mobility helps make other freedoms more meaningful. The more mobility we enjoy, the more choices we have. Mobility gives us more of what’s
important in life.

Imagine that you are in the center of a circle. Call it your opportunity circle.

The space within the circle represents the amount of ground you can get to in a reasonable amount of time, say, one hour. The dots represent all the possible jobs you could apply for. The bigger your opportunity circle, the more jobs you can get to, and the better chance you have of landing the job that is right for you. If your mobility improves, the circle grows and you have more opportunities. If mobility degrades, the circle shrinks and you have fewer opportunities. And the dots need not represent just job opportunities. If you are an employer, the dots could represent potential customers or your available labor pool. The dots could actually represent just about anything, from dining opportunities (area restaurants) to opportunities for love (available singles). But whatever the dots represent, the bigger the opportunity circle the better.
We’ve come so far, but now something threatens to chip away at our progress. The freedom that mobility gives us is gradually being taken away by congestion. It strangles dynamism from our lives, our cities, and our nation. Some disagree. They argue that congestion is evidence of economic vitality. Yet clogged roads are evidence of economic vitality only in the same sad way clogged arteries are evidence of nutrition.

Clogged arteries sap life from even the strongest man. When blood flow slows, his speed of life slows. The activities that once provided fulfillment, joy, and prosperity become chores. The man gets winded from the slightest bit of activity. He reacts by doing less and less. He winds down.

Many of our great cities are winding down, forcing their productive residents farther and farther away. Here clogged streets sap the strength from the circulatory system of urban life. When mobility slows, the speed of life slows. Eventually, the city simply does less and less..

Congestion is more than 200 percent worse nationwide than it was two decades ago. Now it smothers well-established areas (it’s up 183 percent in Washington, D.C.) as well as upstart ones (up 475 percent in Atlanta). Not only has congestion gotten much worse in areas where we expect it to be bad, it’s also making life increasingly sluggish across the nation, from Portland to Austin to Charlotte.

The average American now spends 47 hours a year stuck in congestion—more than an entire work week—and it’s much worse in our big cities.
A lack of mobility is a key reason why the transit-dependent poor have trouble moving up the economic ladder. Although congestion makes auto travel increasingly sluggish, driving is still generally much faster than taking transit. It takes the average transit user twice as long to get to work as the average car commuter. This is true even in the New York metro area, where transit commuters endure our nation’s longest commutes (52 minutes each way). In Chicago, the average transit commute is 50 minutes and it’s more than 45 minutes in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Most jobs are not clustered around a rail line or bus route. Rather, they are scattered throughout a metro area and that makes the kind of point-to-point travel offered by the automobile particularly helpful. UCLA’s Evelyn Blumenberg discovered that residents in the Watts section of Los Angeles who can drive have access to 59 times as many jobs as their neighbors who rely on public transit.

Few things are better at helping the poor pull themselves out of poverty than improved mobility. Programs that get cars to the poor—though relatively rare—have shown strong success. Surveys of workers who received cars through such programs reveal that improved mobility brought them better jobs and higher wages, and a University of California, Berkeley study estimates that auto-ownership could cut the black-white unemployment gap nearly in half.
It’s the rare city that really decides to tackle congestion, but a growing number of companies have decided that if city leaders refuse to deal with congestion, they will. They’ll leave. Degraded mobility now joins high housing costs, taxes, and regulations as a reason why companies leave or avoid certain cities (see Box).

Congestion prompted Dell to expand in Nashville instead of its home base, Austin. “We lost 10,000 jobs in one day,” recalls a local official. That incident sobered up leaders to the importance of mobility. Since then, Texas has embarked on the nation’s most ambitious congestion-reduction plans and recently those efforts were rewarded.

After considering many locations, Samsung decided to bring a multi-billion dollar chip manufacturing plant and 900 jobs to Austin. Transportation was one of the major reasons behind the choice. Initially, the congestion on I-35 made Samsung wary of Austin because silicon wafers from the new plant would be trucked to Dallas before being sent by plane to South Korea for final processing. Congestion can cause costly delays, but local officials’ new commitment to mobility assuaged Samsung’s concerns.

Congestion saps cities of their vitality, but improving mobility helps invigorate urban economies. Researchers Rémy Proud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee analyzed employment dynamics in 22 French cities. They discovered that when mobility increased—when people were able to increase the area they could reach in a fixed amount of time—the economy expanded. A 10 percent increase in average travel speeds was associated with a 15 percent expansion of the labor market and a 3 percent increase in productivity. Jobseekers were able to find better jobs, and employers had access to more workers and more customers.
But why not imagine a world where people, products, and ideas mix freely? What might the mobile society be like? Our opportunity circles would expand. Jobseekers would have access to more and better job opportunities. Business owners could attract more customers and better employees.

Some might find the preoccupation with speed and efficiency rather unseemly. Enjoy life’s journey, they might say. But sitting in gridlock is one of the least fulfilling things we do. We are trying to do something that’s important to us, but congestion holds us back. No wonder we get so frustrated. But in a mobile society, the stress of sitting in gridlock and the anxiety of never knowing when it would strike would be lifted. Since travel would be more efficient, we could get to and from work, run our errands, and have more time to spend with our loved ones. We could stay home and relax or we could do just about anything—explore a new neighborhood, drop in on a friend, take in a concert, go to a new restaurant, the zoo, the park, the beach, the gym, and know that our journey would be swift.

When it comes to the future of mobility, politicians and pundits tell us to lower our expectations; perhaps it’s time to raise them instead.


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