Traffic: What the Heck Do I Want?

Derek Edwards found my ancient post Packets beat Circuits and wrote this response. I replied in his comment stream, but decided to duplicate my comment here on my own blog.

Well, since I wrote the original post that apparently triggered this (via @aarjav), let me take some time to answer your question.

“What the heck do I want?” Pretty much what I’ve got, and it sounds pretty much like what you want. I live in Midtown Atlanta (about six blocks from where your photograph of Piedmont Park was taken). I bike to work. My wife and I walk to the movies or to the Fox Theatre or to a dozen different restaurants. I take MARTA rail to the airport. I have a detached home on a teensy 1/6th acre without a blade of grass, and I love it. My pharmacist calls me by name when I walk into the store (can’t say the same about any bartenders, because I don’t go to bars much). I know waitresses by name at four different places within a mile from here, and I can get a meal from any of them by saying “the usual.” When I drive, I drive a MINI Cooper, which only racks up about 3000 miles a year; I only buy a tank of gas every six weeks or so. (Edit from a month later: And my wife drives a plug-in hybrid, and hasn’t bought gas yet!) I’ve done the suburban-mansion thing, and decided it wasn’t for me.

So… that’s what the heck I want. And I have it. Big green checkmark in the book of life.

But — and this is where I part company with every urban planner I’ve ever met — I don’t believe that what I want is right, or even that it’s better than other choices, or that anybody else should be encouraged/coerced/required to live this way. I like my urban environment, but others will make different choices. And I passionately defend their freedom to do so, even though I might find their choices incomprehensible.

(One of my staff drives 120 miles round trip to the office every day. That’s 2.5 hours if traffic cooperates. I think he’s nuts, but he values a rural environment for his kids and grandkids. Freedom. His choice.)

The other driving force (if you’ll pardon the pun) behind my support of traffic-reduction measures is a hatred of waste. Not in a crunchy-granola hug-the-fuzzy-bunnies sense, but as an engineer. Time spent in traffic is wasted time. Fuel burned in traffic is wasted fuel. And the waste products (human stress, NOx particulates) are bad for the driver as well as for me on my bike. Engineers hate waste (at least, the good ones do).

So the solutions I suggest here aren’t taken from a vision of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. They’re meant to minimize waste for those individuals who choose to live in the suburbs in car-centered lifestyles. And taking away their freedom to make that choice is a slippery slope that ends in Stalinist apartment blocks fed by fleets of Maoist bicycles. No, thanks.