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Archive for November, 2011

In Praise of Multi-modalism?

November 30, 2011 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy


Multimodalism (the ability to make a trip using more than one mode of transport — e.g. walking and biking, biking and driving, etc.) is overrated. Multimodalism has certain advantages over unimodalism just as it has certain disadvantages. A community or society may decide that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, or vice-versa, but our goal should not be ‘multimodalism’ - it should be ‘an awesome transportation system’.

‘Multimodalism’ in much of the blogosphere today means that a particular town allows people to get around by bike, at least a little bit. Sometimes it means that a town has a streetcar system, so at least 1% of the population can get around without a car. Fine. It’s not the end of the world. Popular use of various transportation terms is not something to get hung up about, but I think it’s important to stay clear about what our goals are, because language affects how we think about the problems we’re facing. The implication of too many posts I read is, “Hey — we’re multimodal, therefore we’re awesome, and our job is done.” I say, ‘Not quite.’

If a town has a mode split of 99% driving and 1% walk/bike/skate/train/etc., then that town is, by definition, multimodal. Mission accomplished? Of course, not.

A city that is proclaimed as ‘really multimodal,’ like New York City, might boast of a non-driving mode share of about 71%. A town that is just multimodal, like the San Jose, might boast of a non-driving mode share around 12%. Are these cities similar in any way? They’re both multimodal, but is that meaningful at all? Hardly. And they both still have disastrous transportation systems. If the majority of your population cannot get around safely, comfortably, and conveniently, with dignity intact, under their own power, then your transportation system fails, period.

The ability to get around under one’s own power is a human right — it has to be guaranteed in order to restore people’s dignity, and of course, to help head off further climate disaster.

If a town allows most of its citizens to get around under their own power — by walk, bike, skate, whatever — then that town potentially has an awesome transportation system.