Friday, January 23, 2015

What is Hydraulic Autoism? Why it's our Mobility Paradigm!

In an attempt to formulate a handy summary of our prevailing transportation philosophy, I have been using the phrase "hydraulic autoism." It's a stab at what a historian writing in the 22nd Century might have to say about the 20th Century and its characteristic patterns. Maybe the term is not very good, and maybe I haven't read widely enough, but I haven't seen anyone really try to identify the key features of our approach to mobility.

A Project for Public Spaces piece, "Levels of Service and Travel Projections: The Wrong Tools for Planning Our Streets?" doesn't have a name for it, nor does Todd Littman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in pieces like "Reform Transport Engineering: Expand Beyond Just Roadway Level of Service (LOS) Ratings" and "The New Transportation Planning Paradigm." You'd think a name for the paradigm would show up in sources like this. But it hides nameless, innocuous even, as our standard traffic engineering and planning.

So since a name hasn't appeared, I propose hydraulic autoism. (Do you know a better term or a deeper historical analysis of the trend?)

In a nutshell, hydraulic autoism is this:

1937 propaganda - via NYRB
It is characterized by:
  • The use of hydraulic metaphors and analysis: It's all about the free-flow of a fluid stream of cars. (This move to borrow from a hard science had analytic goals, of course, but it is also associated with making a professional guild more "scientific" and "respectable.")
  • Its principal tool is a dredging operation: Widen and straighten the road.
  • It prefers deep and wide channels to distributed networks: If streetcar-era grids are like river deltas with meandering, intertwined lowland shallow courses, the modern approach is for wide highways and arterials (like the picture!).
  • Modern analytics based on "Level of Service" count delay, congestion, meanders, anything that impedes powerful free-flow for cars, as problems or noise to be engineered out of the system.
  • People on foot are "pedestrian impedance"; they are noise in the system that cause delay. Other non-car users of the road are also noise. The roads aren't true public space for everybody, but are primarily for cars and their drivers.
  • Road "design speed" should be much higher than posted speed limits. It should be possible for drivers to exceed posted speeds routinely and safely. Not to do this is to engineer a "dangerous" road. Roads should "forgive" a range of driver error. (Consistent with theories of pedestrian impedance, roads do not need to forgive a range of errors by people on foot or on bike.)
  • A primary commitment to the drive-alone trip - autoism is about autonomy and individualism.
  • These principles are formalized in the MUTCD, AASHTO publications, and other professional standards adopted by governmental agencies.
One of the bibles

Another of the bibles
Moses-Eisenhower School of Mid-Century Autoism

Hydraulic autoism is a key tool in the broader city planning and development patterns of the Moses-Eisenhower school.

Named in honor of Robert Moses and President Eisenhower, this mid-century school of autoism dominated urban forms for most of the second half of the 20th century. It's still powerful today. Though other schools and visions have critiqued it, and cities are beginning to phase it out, none of the other visions have yet become themselves dominant.

What characterizes it?
  • Loop and lollipop suburbs
  • Local-collector-arterial functional road heirarchies
  • Urban expressways, highways, and by-passes
  • Interstate Highway System
  • Exclusionary zoning that keeps employment and business destinations far from residential enclaves
  • Because most destinations are too far for a comfortable walk, driving becomes the default mobility choice
  • Drive-alone trips dominate; transit, walking, biking, carpools distinctly second-class
  • A belief that gas should be cheap.
  • Only capacity at peak matters; surplus capacity at off-peak is a null value; it cannot be used or relied on.

Give Yourself the Green Light via the Atlantic and Prelinger Archives

All this adds up to the belief and assumption that the only form of mobility that is meaningful is the drive-alone trip and that we have to shape our cities and streets around accommodating the drive-alone trip during rush hour. That's the only thing that matters.


Here's a similar thought:


Unknown said...

Excellent summary. It will probably be a slow and painful transition away from this kind of thinking over the next 20 years. Places like Salem may linger behind in the old mode of operation while Portland and other bigger metropolitan areas are able change more quickly. Mainly because they have a greater mass of young and innovative thinkers as well as the monetary means to affect big infrastructure. I'm not saying Salem can't, but we'll need to work really hard to move the dial.

I do think you could make one distinction however. Freeways and surface streets should be thought of entirely differently. I have no problem with "hydraulic autoism" principles applied and limited to freeways. While our city streets should be all about livability and vitality (pedestrians).

Anonymous said...

"Traffic sewer" is another alternative for streets like Liberty approaching downtown northward, Commercial exiting downtown southward--or all of Lancaster.

Not an original thought, though. James Howard Kunstler appears to have coined the phrase back in the 90s, but sadly, it's an apt name in too many places.

Can you imagine, though, how much the current Salem leadership would HATE that concept? Delicious thought!

Walker said...

Carhead -- the mode of thinking dominant among the cyborg organisms created when humans and autos merge, a mode of thinking that is characterized by a sharp or total decline in empathy for humans not similarly cyborged, who are viewed either as lesser beings or even competitors to be eliminated. Carhead is such a powerful thinking deficit that most victims are permanently impaired and the condition continues even when the cyborg state is not in use. Many victims are so affected that they adopt the priorities of the cyborg state at all times, even to the detriment of their own offspring, which they willingly sacrifice to others in the cyborg state, because species loyalty to the cyborg state entity – carhead -- is exceptionally powerful. Members of the species carhead View all life as a fierce Darwinian competition and act accordingly, doing everything possible to capture resources and ensure their own reproductive success and to disable or defeat competitors.

Anonymous said...

Vox has a good history of the interstate system and its affect on cities and suburbs -

Anonymous said...

BikePortland has a piece that discusses "jaydriving" -

Anonymous said...

At the Strong Towns blog -

"Instead of a river network, examine a similar system of roadways during a typical commute. Here we have rain of a different sort: the automobiles that emanate forth from the development we induce, subsidize and cheer for out on the periphery of our cities.

Why are we so shocked when this produces a flood?


If we were going to design a system to generate the maximum amount of congestion each day, this is exactly how it would be done. This is why all American cities -- big, small and in between -- experience some level of congestion during commutes. We take whatever cars we have and funnel them into the same place at the same time. We manufacture a flood."

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Just a footnotey parenthesis on how hydraulic autoism has been adopted by government:

From an FHWA notice:

"As codified in 23 CFR 625.3 and 625.4, the geometric design standards for projects on the NHS [National Highway System] are A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (2011) and A Policy on Design Standards Interstate System (2005), published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)."

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

A reader sends in another instance of the hydraulic metaphor from Governing Magazine, What Plumbers can teach Public Managers.

"I've been intrigued for many years by the things one can learn from the concepts underlying hydraulics. It is an axiom of highway planning, for example, that engineering hydraulics predict much of the phenomena experienced in traffic flow. Hydraulics explains, for example, why it takes so much longer to clear a traffic backup after an accident than it does for the backup to develop. And it explains how a single driver can trigger those infuriating "no cause" stoppages.

But engineering aside, much of public management rests on virtual 'plumbing.' As in preventing a household plumbing emergency, careful attention to throughput capacities, sticky valves, identification of blockages and plugging of leaks is essential.

Anonymous said...

American Conservative has an interesting piece about the ways the New Deal and FHA draw on and reinforced "autoism":

And it references an interesting article from 1995, "Street Standards and the Shaping of Suburbia" in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Here's a scan of that:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's another contribution, this by a legal scholar:

"Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency on the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it."

In ""Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It" at The Atlantic.

(It's a preview of a law review article, "Should Law Subsidize Driving?")