Accessibility and the Pursuit of Happiness

As I have argued elsewhere [Towards A General Theory of Access]:

The only reason to locate anywhere is to be near some people, places, and things, be far from others, and possess still others. Since being far from something is really just being near the absence of that thing, and pos-session is just the ability to have something (and legally prohibit someone else from having it), we can see that location is about proximity. People make location decisions all the time, from whether to move from North America to Australia, to traveling to the mall by car or bus, to standing near a person at a reception, or even sitting on the chair or the couch.

Cities and their networks exist to easily connect people with each other. We measure that ability in terms of accessibility. The more accessibility, the more opportunity. Opportunity gives choices, and better choices make for happiness (too many choices may paradoxically reduce happiness, but surely that is a problem we would prefer to have than too few.) In short cities and networks allow the pursuit of happiness. So accessibility is about freedom: the freedom to pursue happiness.

But this freedom is limited by at least three types of constraints (Hägerstrand, 1970). Extending an earlier discussion:

  • Capability constraints refer to biological (e.g., sleeping and eating) and physical (e.g., vehicle ownership, time availability, maximum speed of travel, ability to afford) limitations that restrict an individual from participating in activities. In our case network speed and directness affects travel times, and the spatial distribution of activities affects participation. Dependence on public transport restricts travel to the schedule of the service. The less frequent the service, the less freedom one has, as argued by Jarrett Walker in Frequency is Freedom.
  • Authority constraints represent limitations to accessing particular areas (e.g., military bases) or individuals that are classified by certain people or institutions. Legal barriers to travel, regulations on speed, rules about what vehicles can be in which spaces are all authority constraints.
  • Coupling constraints indicate limitations for two or more individuals to participate in an activity in the same location at the same time interval. There may also be social and familial obligations that limit the ability to pursue other activities.

These are not fully independent. Policies about the allocation of road space, which may give more space over to automobiles than bicycles than warranted is a combination of authority constraint and capability constraint.

So because the value of cities emerges from freedom and access, the limits to freedom and access limit value. While some of those limits are unavoidable, others, like authority constraints, can be determined by policy.

Staying in my lane, transport in cities have a number of problems. The following is a non-exclusive, unranked list. These are all problems associated with access in one form or another.

  1. Pedestrian and bicyclist conditions, particularly safety from vehicles, are worse in many ways than a century ago. My ability to move on foot (and thus access destinations) is restricted by traffic signals and the danger of moving cars.
  2. Violence, and more significantly fear of violence, especially state-sanctioned violence, discourages people subject to such violence from taking advantage of access that is already there. If there are places you cannot go without risking life and limb, you will avoid them, reducing your access and freedom.
  3. Job/housing imbalance exists and may get worse as cities get larger. Longer commute distances (and thus times) reduce access and opportunity. Many cities have regulations that limit housing in job-rich areas. The City of Sydney is no exception. This necessarily increases commute times.
  4. Failure to efficiently price parking and roads leads to overuse. Roads are congested and transport is underfunded. If only there were mechanisms to reduce overuse while raising revenue. On-street parking reduces capacity for movement (car, bike and bus lanes), reducing the speed, and thus access by those modes, while benefitting very few who need to walk a shorter distance to their final destination.
  5. Transport externalities (road hazard, noise, pollution) are underpriced, and thus overproduced. This increases the social cost of access. They are ignored in most analyses of traffic, and so spending is misallocated.
  6. Walled and fenced schools, lack of integration between schools, playgrounds, and libraries make things that should and could be accessible with a modicum of management inaccessible much of the time.
  7. Housing affordability, quality, and supply directly relate to how easily new housing can be reached. Lack of housing reduces accessibility.
  8. Poor design and aesthetics makes places unpleasant and reduces the valuation people put on those places. Effective accessibility drops.
  9. Concurrency between infrastructure and development is hard to achieve in growing areas. Lack of infrastructure increases travel costs (and reduces access) for existing residents as well as new. Access creates value but that value is not captured to fund access.
  10. Overspending on capital and underspending on maintenance means that transport facilities built a long time ago fail more quickly and become unavailable, reducing access. Existing facilities are almost always more important than new facilities, because the demand (and access) provided are certain, because they have become part of the landscape, and so decades of decisions have been made assuming their existence.

The right to pursue happiness is a fundamental value in the United States, right there in the founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It depends entirely on the ability to move in order to reach people, places, and things that might provide happiness. That is, in modern terms, access.

The problems enumerated above are all solvable, like so many other problems in modern society, and yet remain unsolved in many places. Without much technical difficulty we could expand effective access for people on foot, on bike, or on public transport, and even those in cars. Transport access problems may seem prosaic compared to the core issues of environmental disaster, economic exuberance, or the risk to democracy. But these problems relate directly. Transport produces pollution, more than it should because the pollution is unpriced. Transport spending is inefficient, stretching the economy. The problems of democracy are in many ways problems of access as well, not just access to polling places (though that is worsening), but access to the decision process, and access to information.

Queen Victoria Buidling, George Street, Sydney.
Queen Victoria Buidling, George Street, Sydney.