The Insidious Dynamics of Driving to School

When I passed by my old high school a few years ago, I was astonished to see that they’d paved over a nice grass field to make room for a vast parking lot, which must be for students. There’s really no excuse for driving to school in Palo Alto, CA – the weather is great, it’s flat, and no one lives more than a couple miles away.
Most of the responsibility falls to this nest of positive feedback loops:

I’ll start with a perception: parents worried about the safety of their kids start driving them to school (or, in Palo Alto, buy them a BMW so they can drive themselves). All that extra driving adds to traffic density, reinforcing the perceived danger on the roads. Over the long haul, all that traffic demands more lane space, so bike lanes and sidewalks get crowded out. And who wants to bike next to a bunch of hot, smelly tailpipes?

The more students drive, the less fit they get, which diminishes the fun of riding. They also become less tolerant of weather – in spite of Gore Tex, a lot of people react to a little water falling from the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West.

The result of all this is a kind of phase transition – at some point, conditions are right for all these positive loops to kick in, and everyone shifts from bike-dominated transport to driving.

This transition should not be irreversible, if one is patient. One can move the point at which the phase transition occurs, to encourage bicycling. I think there are two leverage points. First, a society that can afford cars for kids can afford to provide Dutch- or Danish-style traffic separation, breaking the safety loop and decreasing the attractiveness of driving by removing traffic lanes, which causes congestion until people go back to bikes. Second, make the cars pay for the infrastructure they use and the environmental and safety externalities they cause. Once people are back on bikes, they’ll get fitter and healthier, and the positive loops will help lock in a more sustainable mode.

Inspired by a comment in Bert de Vries’ talk this morning at the 30th Balaton Group meeting.

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