On the Role of Frustration — and of Dignity — in Transportation

Narrow and poorly-maintained sidewalk that cyclists and pedestrians are required to share while the cycle route across the street is under construction.

Dignity for all, not some.

Transportation should be a human right — people will always need to move. (You sometimes hear that more movement is not always better for society, but, to me, that’s a cop-out; we probably can’t accommodate much more automobile travel in our cities, sure, but there are plenty of more efficient and sustainable ways for people to get around). And yet it’s impossible not to notice that our transportation system is not designed to make moving safe or comfortable for most people. It’s baked into our engineering standards, that make it difficult for elderly people to cross with enough time at a walk signal. It’s baked into our planning practices, that result in snow or garbage piled onto already-narrow sidewalks. It’s baked into our zoning and land use standards, that enforce automobile-dependency and encourage congestion. It’s no surprise people are frustrated!

Snow and garbage blocking the sidewalk is a familiar sight to anyone who has walked in a city.
  • When we design bus stops without benches or shelters, or without safe and close crossing locations, we deprive bus riders of dignity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, instead, dignified traveling by bus by making basic amenities and safety features standard at every stop?
  • When we use zoning and land use planning to encourage sprawl and automobile dependency, we deprive those who can’t afford a car of dignity. We deprive those who sit in congested traffic of dignity. We deprive those who would choose not to drive of dignity by depriving them of the ability to make the choice in the first place. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, instead, reconsidered the spatial arrangements of our neighborhoods to promote — to dignify — choice?
  • When we use car-oriented flow metrics to evaluate transportation network functioning, we systematically deprive non-drivers of dignity. If a bus of 30 people and a car pass through an intersection, car-oriented flow analyses take the volume as two — is the person driving alone 30 times as valuable as the bus riders? What if we, instead, considered — and dignified — people, and not cars, in transportation decisionmaking?
  • When we close bike paths and force pedestrians and cyclists to share too-narrow and poorly-maintained sidewalks, we systematically deprive both groups of dignity. What if we, instead, gave all people the space they needed to travel safely and comfortably? (With respect to my close call on the Redbridge Causeway, I wouldn’t have to avoid cycling to the beautiful New Forest due to anxiety over crossing the narrow sidewalk again, and I wouldn’t have to hope, when I do go, that I don’t see anyone else out exercising).
  • When we rely on predominantly white, middle-class, and male planners and engineers, we run the risk of systematically depriving other groups of dignity. For example, a circumstance that I may grin and bear but ultimately accept — a too-short walk signal, for example — may be one completely impassible for someone else. What if we, instead, dignified and uplifted diverse groups within transportation planning and engineering processes?

Dignity for all, not some.

Planners and engineers, taking this mantra to heart in their work, could make a world of difference to how people get around.

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Michael Tormey

Michael Tormey

Thinking about a built environment that dignifies all; about safety, sustainability, and equity; about better transportation engineering and urban planning