Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life

AMERICANS RIGHTLY CELEBRATE freedom of opportunity, but how far would it take us if our movement 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 can 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).

When we enjoy efficient mobility, we can fill our personal lives with rich and varied activities, thanks to what Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie calls a “culture boom,” that is, “a massive and prolonged increase in art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression.”

Economist Tyler Cowen, in his book In Praise of Commercial Culture, chronicles cultural proliferation: “From 1965 to 1990 America grew from having 58 symphony orchestras to having nearly 300, from 27 opera companies to more than 150, and from 22 non-profit regional theaters to 500.”

Since 1990 our culture has continued to boom. Consider, for example, that the American Symphony Orchestra League currently boasts nearly 1,000 member orchestras. And countless other cultural offerings—from restaurants, to health clubs, sports complexes, and art galleries—have also grown more plentiful. The more mobility we enjoy, the more we’re able to take advantage of our cultural bounty.

But our ancestors had to make do with smaller opportunity circles and fewer choices. Long ago they had only their feet to rely upon. But new modes of travel—wheeled carts, animal-powered carriages, trains, cars, and planes—have allowed us to cover more ground faster.

What’s the Best Way to Get There?

The average person can walk about four miles per hour, but cars can easily travel on arterial streets at 30 miles per hour. It’s a substantial increase in speed, but the impact may be even greater than it seems. A person who walks for an hour has access to 50 square miles, but someone who drives at 30 miles per hour for 60 minutes has access to 2,827 square miles. In other words, the driver’s opportunity circle is more than 56 times as large as the walker’s. And when conditions permit, motorists may drive much faster on highways, thus expanding opportunity circles even more.

In many cases public transit offers greater mobility than walking and, in some cases, it can also beat driving. But auto travel is generally much faster than taking transit.

Other factors, from transfers from one bus or train to another to time spent walking to the transit stop, make a slow transit trip even slower. Even though transit commutes typically cover shorter distances, Department of Transportation data show that it takes the average American transit user about twice as long to get to work as the average car commuter. This holds true in some unexpected places. For many New Yorkers transit offers the fastest way to get to work, but, on average, transit commutes take much longer than auto commutes even in the New York metro area. Indeed, New York’s transit commuters endure the longest commutes in the nation (52 minutes each way vs. 28 minutes for solo driving). Transit commuting takes much longer than driving in many other areas with celebrated transit systems (see table).

Motorists enjoy additional advantages that push many people toward cars and away from transit. Travelers can reach relatively few destinations directly by transit, but motorists can go from (almost) anywhere to (almost) anywhere. Transit service frequency varies according to schedules, but motorists can travel whenever they like. Their travels are not as restrained by fatigue as are those of walkers and transit users who trek to and from transit stops. Simple conveniences, like trunk-space, make it easier to carry things and additional seating makes it easier to transport small children, the elderly, and the handicapped. The enclosed space of a car can also spare travelers from the rain, snow, heat, and humidity. And although driving brings its own risks, many people feel safer traveling at night or through unfamiliar areas within the confines of a car.

Yet, as they have always done, Americans will trade in their cars once a superior form of transportation comes along. Telecommuters already outnumber transit commuters in 27 of the top 50 metro areas, and telecommuting has already partially replaced cars for millions of American workers. And why not? Even with no traffic congestion and nothing but green lights, driving to work will never be as fast as the zero-minute commute that telecommuters enjoy. New technology has given us a new kind of mobility. Armed with cell phones, laptops, and PDAs we can “be” almost anywhere without crawling into a car, train, or plane. But that should not diminish the importance of “old-fashioned” mobility—moving people, parts, and products across physical space.

Although a growing number of people can work remotely, countless occupations—from hair stylist to dentist to construction worker—remain location-specific. The telecom explosion allows more business to get done over the phone or via e-mail. The falling cost of communication has generated more communication—even across continents—and these interactions routinely result in new plans that require traditional mobility.

Physical proximity might matter even more for personal life than it does for business. Even with the growing popularity of online games and shopping, many still find relaxation or stimulation by experiencing a new location. They look forward to trying a new restaurant across town, taking their kids to the park, or taking dance lessons. So when it comes to enriching our personal lives, traditional mobility does indeed matter. And, for now at least, the car usually offers the best way to stretch our circles as wide as they can be.

Progress Gets Stuck in Traffic

When mobility improves, our opportunity circles expand and we have access to more of what’s available not only in our neighborhoods but also in nearby regions. Yet how much a city offers is quite different from how much any individual denizen can access. We have come so far, but in so many places mobility is no longer improving. Mounting traffic congestion chips away at the progress we have made.

Today congestion smothers well established areas (up 183 percent in Washington, D.C., since 1982, according to the Travel Time Index) 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, but it’s also making life increasingly sluggish across the nation, from Portland to Austin to Charlotte.

The average urban American now spends 47 hours a year stuck in traffic—more than an entire work week—and it’s much worse in our big cities. In Los Angeles, the average driver spends 93 hours sitting in traffic jams on the roads. In 1983, only one urbanized area, Los Angeles, had enough congestion to cause the average driver to spend more than 40 hours per year stuck in traffic. Just 20 years later, 25 areas reached this threshold.

The future looks bleaker still. Congestion in Los Angeles is legendary, but if officials continue to respond to the mobility crisis with a shrug, many more areas will succumb to LA-style gridlock. David Hartgen and M. Gregory Fields estimate that by 2030, 11 additional urban areas (Chicago; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Atlanta; Miami; Denver; Seattle; Las Vegas; Minneapolis–St. Paul; Baltimore; and Portland) will suffer through traffic conditions as bad as or worse than present-day Los Angeles. (See Hartgen and Fields’s paper “Building Roads to Reduce Traffic Congestion in America’s Cities: How Much and What Cost?” Policy Study No. 346, published by the Reason Foundation.) Eighteen other areas, from Phoenix to Orlando, will endure a level of congestion only slightly less severe.

Our elected officials have been slow to address the problem, and for many years few people seemed to care. Traffic congestion was long regarded as little more than a minor annoyance. But times have changed. Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta recently called gridlock “one of the single largest threats to our economic prosperity.” Public opinion has also changed. Silicon Valley CEOs rate traffic congestion as their second most pressing concern, as do business owners in downtown Portland, Oregon. In its aptly titled new study “Growth or Gridlock?” the Partnership for New York City estimates that traffic congestion saps the regional economy of as many as 52,000 jobs each year. According to recent surveys, congestion is among residents’ top concerns in places as different as Denver and Washington, D.C. Residents have placed congestion atop their list of concerns in Austin, Atlanta, Houston, Portland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco. The longer public officials put off dealing with it, the more traffic congestion will transform from a minor annoyance into a force that threatens economies and quality of life, dampening our enjoyment of so many of the things that make life fun, varied, exciting, and fulfilling.

The Cost of Congestion

Often officials and planners tout a supposed urban renaissance in which everyone, from singles to empty-nesters, is moving to downtown centers. Although this may be true in some cases, it obscures the bigger picture and real trend: Cities are losing influence.

Since 1950, suburbia has accounted for more than 90 percent of the growth in our metropolitan areas. Cities like Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia continue to lose population, and even foreign immigration cannot keep some of our most celebrated urban centers growing. In the first half of the 2000s, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston lost population.

The situation would be less dire if demographic trends simply reflected the preference of Americans to live and work in suburban environments. Indeed the lure of suburbia has much to do with Americans’ preference for distinctly suburban features such as affordable single-family homes and backyards. And although it’s true that suburbia grows more cosmopolitan all the time, cities still offer a greater concentration of cultural offerings, be they restaurants, art galleries, museums, theaters, playhouses, or most anything else.

Businesses think it wise to follow all these potential workers to the suburbs, even though a suburban environment is not inherently superior for many of them. Many businesses, families, and singles would love to stay in the city and draw on all the energy offered by agglomeration economies, but they are forced out by a variety of urban headaches, including degraded mobility. Too many elected leaders find comfort in misleading tales of urban renaissance and too many assume that our great cities can thrive even as mobility degrades. But improving mobility is essential to ensuring our urban centers’ long-term survival, and if we ignore the mobility crisis our cities will wither.

Not only are talented and energetic people increasingly choosing suburbia over city life, but also sluggish urban life is draining some of the talent and energy that remain. As travel becomes more difficult, fewer interactions take place. Vibrant competition has traditionally ensured that city dwellers enjoy the best of the best, but when mobility degrades, a city functions less like a grand urban space and more like a collection of isolated communities. Instead of traversing several neighborhoods to patronize the best establishments, denizens are more apt to resign themselves to whatever’s nearby. First-rate establishments find it more difficult to attract customers, and second-rate operations realize that, with less competition, they face less pressure to improve. Residents are often stuck with fewer choices, higher prices, and inferior service.

Downtown cultural institutions fret about traffic-weary would-be patrons steering clear of music, dance, and theater events. And often it’s the offbeat establishments, the very spots that give cities their character, that are particularly vulnerable to congestion. In Commuting in America III, Alan Pisarski suggests that policies that suppress freewheeling travel “are destroying part of what makes a big region a great region.”

Although researchers have done their best to explain and quantify how it restrains our lives, a complete assessment of congestion’s costs is hard to come by. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that each year traffic congestion costs the American economy about $168 billion. It’s a huge amount—more than the combined value of Yahoo!, Office Depot, Ford, Charles Schwab, and Walt Disney Co.—yet it still does not include all of congestion’s ill effects. The figure isn’t just incomplete; it’s impersonal.

Others have attempted to provide a more complete and personal assessment of congestion’s costs. Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute figure that congestion costs each big-city resident $1,000 each year. The figure is personal but incomplete, for it only accounts for the loss of wasted gas and time. Congestion also robs us of opportunities in more subtle ways. For example, it decreases our job opportunities. Instead of landing a more distant but higher-paying and more fulfilling job, those living in the midst of gridlock are more likely to stick with the jobs they already have. Researchers have begun to account for how restricted mobility limits our employment opportunities, and one analysis considers how cutting congestion back might enrich workers by matching them with better-paying jobs. According to Alan Pisarksi and Wendell Cox, a 90 percent reduction in congestion in the Atlanta area would put an extra $2,900 into the pocket of each area resident. An analysis of metro New York estimates that—because it limits how many trips they can make—congestion costs taxi drivers $6,000 per year and repairmen $7,000 per year.

The cost of congestion moves beyond dollars and cents when the issue turns to emergency response. A prompt response time saves a life; a sluggish one costs a life. Consider just one type of emergency—sudden cardiac arrest. Each year this emergency claims roughly 67,000 American lives. In most of our nation’s big cities only about 6 percent to 10 percent of those stricken are saved. These deaths are particularly tragic because this type of emergency is particularly treatable—that is, if medical care arrives quickly.

If treatment arrives within one minute, 90 percent of patients survive. At 5 minutes, survival probability drops to about 35 percent. At 10 minutes, it’s zero. Even relatively modest increases in response time yield substantial benefits. An analysis of Austin emergency medical services estimates that if response times improved by just 30 seconds, 41 lives would be saved each year.

Of course, quick response is not just a matter of ambulances arriving quickly. Often friends and loved ones rush patients to emergency rooms in their own cars. And speed is crucial not just for this particular medical emergency—many emergencies, medical and nonmedical alike, are time sensitive.

It’s especially difficult to put a dollar figure on the many other ways congestion interferes with our lives. Consider the toll it takes on our personal lives—how it keeps parents away from their kids, stymies would-be love connections, and sours us on exploring our surroundings. There’s also the psychological toll: How much is each gridlock-induced gray hair worth?


Mr. Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at the Reason Foundation and editor of Privatization Watch. This article is excerpted, with permission, from his longer paper “Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life,” Reason Foundation Policy Brief 62, July 2007.