October 15, 2007 By John M. Eger
Photo: Stockholm's Drottninggatan Street, where autos are not allowed. Stockholm is one of the cities piloting congestion pricing systems.
The congestion on U.S. roads and in major cites is now at catastrophic proportion. High occupancy lanes and toll roads are standard practice on major freeways but a so-called "congestion charge" used in downtown London and Singapore, with cameras used to enforce the new restrictions to limit vehicular traffic, seems to be working.
Over the last several years these schemes for controlling traffic downtown -- not to mention the benefit to homeland security the cameras in London provided this summer -- have been slowly accepted by citizens, increased productivity, reduced crime and made downtown a more livable place.
By charging a range of daily fees determined by location, time of day and whether the vehicles are commercial or not and of what size or weight, both cities have successfully kept traffic moving smoothly in what used to be their most congested areas.
The European Union is giving serious consideration to nationwide road-pricing schemes using highly developed satellite positioning systems traditionally used more for location and driving directions. And the mayor of New York City -- and potential presidential candidate -- Michael Bloomberg has proposed the downtown London pricing and enforcement measure for the city. San Diego is among other cities in the U.S. looking at these transportation schemes as well.
The timing for this and other such initiatives may be ripe. Although the ACLU among others is slowing implementation -- expressing grave privacy concerns over all electronic surveillance techniques -- the benefits seem undeniable. Given the spread and influence of the Internet, the opportunity for the first time to use telecommunications as a substitute for transportation is also worth examining.
James Kunstler, author of the Geography of Nowhere, who literally hates what the automobile has dome to our urban landscape, believes the decline of our cities started in 1939 at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
The most popular exhibition, he has said, was "The World of Tomorrow in the General Motors Pavilion." It featured an enormous model of a "City of the Future," complete with elevated freeways, on-ramps and off-ramps and gleaming skyscrapers separated by miles and miles of asphalt.
For General Motors and for the rest of America, the vision became reality, as more and more roads were built across the country and more and more families were able to purchase their own automobiles. Thus the introduction of the automobile cemented and reinforced the drive toward individualism that is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of American culture. That was the good news.
The automobile's impact did not end there, however. In the post-World War II era, as the automobile became a mass commodity within reach of the middle and even lower economic strata of society, it also made possible a large-scale exodus from America's central cities to the suburban fringe. This move was in response to, and ultimately accelerated, the many serious social problems that still threaten American cities today. These difficulties range from racial and social segregation of U.S. society to daunting problems of urban sprawl and environmental degradation.
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), fearing that no more highways were possible in California, actually funded a major look at promoting the development of "smart communities" -- "communities using information technology as a catalyst for transforming life and work to meet the challenge of the new millennium."
Caltrans, however, seemed to give up, probably because the task of an alternative future where America's love affair with the automobile had to end was too formidable. Yet one of the more interesting paradoxes, particularly for San Diego and other regions struggling to divine "smart growth" solutions, is that the more we live and work in cyberspace, the more important real place becomes.
John M. Eger, Lionel Van Deerlin Endowed Chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University is also president of the World Foundation for Smart Communities.