Freedom and inclusive mobility

STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete - The Freeman

Jarrett Walker, author of the book “Human Transit”, is one of the easily recognizable names in inclusive mobility in the US. To many, when it comes to cities, mobility is seen as freedom to move around as fast as you can from one part to another, and the car is usually voted as the one that brings the most freedom. But incidents of traffic congestion all over the world belie that. Jarrett Walker thinks differently – “The only tools that deliver freedom in a dense city are those that use scarce space efficiently: walking, cycling, and public transit.”

There’s truth in the saying that it takes some difficulty to show what really matters, or a crisis to illuminate what the better solutions are. The COVID-19 pandemic surely revealed this reality; the EDSA Bus Carousel and the Cebu BRT and the deluge of bike lanes all over the country bears truth to that. Think back. More than a year ago, there was not a single centavo for any bike lane in the national budget. The national government put on hold the Quezon Avenue and EDSA BRTs, while DOTr Secretary Tugade and OPAV Mike Dino fought hard to have the Cebu BRT cancelled. They were forced to continue the latter and the EDSA BRT was also grudgingly executed, albeit both with revised terms. It took a pandemic to do that. Same with the bike lanes which are now the government’s favorite spending item. All these were non-existent desires in the past.

The truth is, the government, or even the general public, almost always have different opinions on what we need, easily swayed by what seems classy or glittering. That’s why they continue to crisscross Metro Manila with expressways nowadays, in spite of the apparent failures that hound many US cities. I’m not against expressways as I have written years back, where these are direly needed. But Jarrett Walker’s statement will always remind us that “The only tools that deliver freedom in a dense city are those that use scarce space efficiently: walking, cycling, and public transit.”

The key element in all these is “scarce resources,” and urban space is certainly one mostly in short supply. Mobility is maybe about many things but what it is most of all is geometry and physics. No matter what you do, you can’t put an elephant inside a bottle. You can’t expand city roads infinitely because every square meter you expand is one square meter you subtract from the built environment. The more logical proposition is to make better use of available space. And walking, biking, and public transport can carry more people per square meter of space than any other transit mode. In fact, the most inefficient of all are private cars!

But we don’t realize that, and of course, many don’t like that. It would need a jolt of a pandemic to awaken people to reality. That’s why we’re having BRT’s now and a deluge of bike lanes, many of which, unfortunately, are wrongly placed. Imagine if we realized this earlier, years and decades ago. We would have had a much better urban environment than what we have now.

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