Posted by: chrismaser | July 30, 2011


Sitting on a riverbank the other day, I watched millions of cottonwood seeds ride the breezed hither and yon. Bits of while fluff with their tiny, suspended seeds were entrusted by Nature to the vagaries of the wind.

Where, I wondered, is the wind coming from? Where is it going? How many of these minute seeds will land in a favorable place, germinate, and survive to become a stately black cottonwood tree to cast its seeds aloft to ride the currents in the ocean of air as they circumnavigates the globe?

Although Nature’s strategy is highly effective in perpetuation cottonwood trees throughout the centuries and millennia, industrialized humans would hardly deem it efficient. They would point to the many seeds that landed in hostile places or encountered otherwise unfavorable circumstances and shout in dismay, “Look at all the wasted seeds!” But then, efficiency is not always the wisest course of action in the long term, as attested by pine trees.

Pine trees also cast upon the winds of fortune a prodigious amount of pollen to be blown hither and yon. I say “the winds of fortune” because it takes an inordinate amount of pollen riding the vagaries of air currents to come in contact with and fertilize enough pine seeds to keep the species viable through time. Although an extremely inefficient mode of pollination in that many, many more grains of pollen are produced than are used to fertilize the available pine seeds, the system is highly effective, as evidenced by the persistence of pine trees through the ages. And if you are wondering what happens to all the “unneeded” grains of pollen, they are eaten by a variety of organisms that benefit from an extremely rich source of nutriment.

Although highly inefficient by human standard, Nature has been—and still is—profoundly effective. Moreover, nothing in Nature is wasted. “Waste,” as people think of it, is an economic concept based on some arbitrary standard of economic efficiency. It is not an ecological concept.

What do these trees teach us about transportation and the quality of our lives? When a system of transportation becomes the centerpiece of a city’s development, the city is placing its primacy on the efficiency of mass movement from one place to another that coincidentally determines where and how the population and open spaces will be situated. Here, a fundamental question might be posed: Does building more and more roads really relieve congestion, which, after all, seems to be what drives the design of a transportation system?

According to Bill Bishop, editorial page columnist for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky, building more roads only add to congestion.1 A parallel can be seen in the continual growth of “self-storage units,” as they continue springing up across cities, where they fill the role of “supplemental garbage dumps” for all the stuff Americans are constantly purchasing, but have nowhere in their homes to keep it. This compulsive buying is the same as our compulsive road building. The former does not fill the emptiness of our souls and the latter does not relieve vehicular congestion.

If our cities’ roads are congested and we build more roads to relieve the congestion, will we not just fill the new roads again to the point of overflowing? It seems to me one could logically say: like our houses, so our roads.

“Trying to pave your way out of traffic congestion,” writes Bishop, “is like trying to eat your way back into your high school jeans. Cars fill in the new pavement, just like middle age created the market for Dockers.” Although it seems counter-intuitive, says Bishop, building more roads actually leads to more traffic. On the other hand, he continues, closing roads, or even narrowing streets, does not create more congestion—it tends to cut the volume of traffic, especially in cities.

“Lord knows,” says Bishop, “the evidence of this phenomenon is stalled in full view of most citizens. As soon as roads are built, they’re filled. And to relieve the new traffic, we build new roads. You’d think somebody would connect the dots.” What dots? The dots that illustrate the level of consciousness causing a problem in the first place, is not the level of consciousness that can solve it. A higher level of consciousness is required—recognizing, accepting, and acting on the evidence under our noses is connecting the dots.

Some people have connected the dots, quips Bishop. “Adding new roadways and widening older ones was seen as the way to solve the problem,” observed the Texas Transportation Institute in a study of city traffic. “In most cities, this new roadway capacity was quickly filled with additional traffic, and the old problems of congestion returned.”2

On the other hand, researchers at the University College of London, England, examined sixty cases from around the world in which roads had been closed. They found that a goodly portion of the traffic that once used the roads simply “evaporated.” The cars and trucks were not simply rerouted on nearby streets, but disappeared altogether.

On average, one-fifth of the vehicular use, and in some cases as much as 60 percent, went away once a road was closed, and the full volume of vehicles did not reappear once a road was reopened. The Tower Bridge in London, for example, was temporarily closed in 1994, and the traffic dispersed. Three years after the bridge was reopened, traffic still had not returned to its former level.3

Writers James O. Wilson and James Howard Kunstler argued in the on-line magazine Slate that, “we have transformed the human ecology of America, from sea to shinning sea, into a national automobile slum.”4 Bishop, meanwhile, wonders if we just “can’t remember any other way to live?”.5 At this juncture, you might well be wondering what any of the foregoing has to do with efficiency versus effectiveness when it come to the quality of our life

That’s a good question because, if the transportation system is the pivot around which a city’s planning centers, it will hide the night sky with light pollution and disguise the bird song with noise pollution, while simultaneously precluding much of Nature through habitat fragmentation. These alternatives leave a city only two options in planning its transportation system: ecological constraints that place the greatest emphasis on quality of life, both short and long term, or economic constraints that focus the greatest emphasis on maximizing immediate and short-term profit margins.

If a city chooses to design its transportation system around ecological constraints, it will place the components of the system where they will best honor the integrity and connectivity of the available habitat, including the city’s interface with its surrounding landscape. When a transportation system is planned around ecological constraints (effectiveness), the probability of being able to have a relatively good system of open spaces is greatly increased.

On the other hand, if a city chooses to design its transportation system around economic constraints (efficiency), available habitat will suffer far greater fragmentation than if an open-space system itself had driven the city’s planning and its implementation. Under the efficiency mode, open space, as a viable system, will be foregone because fragmentation of habitat is inevitably maximized, as are noise and light pollution. There is also a greater likelihood that exotic and naturalized species would colonize the remaining landscape because the transportation system—acting as a conduit of immigration—puts ever-more outside pressure on the survival of indigenous species.

Nevertheless, the choice between ecological constraints (with its emphasis on quality of life) or economic constraints (with its emphasis profit margins) is seldom posed. Peter Headicar, Transport Planning at Oxford Brookes University in England, states this perpetual lack of choice eloquently. He says that basic questions about the urban future in the context of transportation are not often asked because “they are both politically uncomfortable and tractable only over the longer term—hence conveniently forever deferrable in the present.”6


Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Resource overexploitation (Oceanic Extinctions—Part 2)

• Principle 7: All relationships have one or more tradeoffs.


1. Bill Bishop. “To reduce congestion, don’t build more roads—close’em.” Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. May 20, 1998.

2. The preceding three paragraphs are based on: Bill Bishop. “To reduce congestion, don’t build more roads—close’em.” Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. May 20, 1998.

3. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: (1) Peter Headicar. “Traffic in Towns.” Resurgence 197 (1999):22-23 and (2) John Whitelegg. “Sorry Lorries.” Resurgence 197 (1999):28-29,

4. James O. Wilson and James Howard Kunstler. The War on Cars. Slate. (1998). (accessed January 22, 2009)

5. Bill Bishop. “To reduce congestion, don’t build more roads—close’em.” Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. May 20, 1998.

6. Peter Headicar. “Traffic in Towns.” Resurgence 197 (1999):22-23.

Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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