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Transportation and Society - The Role of Values

Patricia F. Waller

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, 2901 Baxter Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-2150, USA


In America we are embarking on a new era in transportation. Having spent 35 years designing and implementing the Interstate Highway System, we are now building the foundation for what our transportation system will be for the next thirty or forty years. A major focus of this new undertaking is what is referred to as Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, sometimes referred to as "Smart Cars/Smart Highways." It entails the application of communications and other technologies to the transportation system, so that vehicles will be communicating with the highways (and vice versa) and with each other. In addition to increasing the efficiency and capacity of the existing transportation system, ITS holds the promise of increasing safety, in part by detecting driver impairment prior to a collision. Driver impairment may result from use of alcohol or other drugs or may be the result of age, illness, fatigue, or other conditions. However, thus far most of the ITS planning, designing, implementation, and funding is focused on technology, with market forces providing the primary motivating force.


We should review our past history with the Interstate System to learn what we did well and where we could have done better. The Interstate System was eminently successful in what it set out to accomplish, but it was accompanied by unintended consequences, creating problems that affect all of society. These include disrupted neighborhoods; urban sprawl; increased use of the private automobile, with attendant safety and environmental impacts and energy consumption; and the demise of public transportation, with loss of access to major services for significant segments of the population. The ramifications of these and other consequences of the Interstate will continue to confront us for decades to come.


What have we learned from the past 35 years? How can we use our experience to improve the decision and policy making process as we embark on the next major era in transportation in the U.S.? First and foremost, we need to re-consider how we envision the role of transportation in our society. While historically transportation has been defined as "the safe and efficient movement of people and goods," in our society, it is far more than that.

Today, in America and much of the western world, transportation is an essential component of health care, education, employment, recreation, culture, maintenance of ties with family and friends, and all that makes life worthwhile. Transportation is what enables individuals to become full-fledged, participating, contributing members of society and what enables communities to work the way they could and should. In this day and age, and in this society, transportation is a necessity.

We need to recognize that when we make decisions concerning infrastructure, highway location, privatization, modal choice, intermodal facilities, we are, in effect, making social policy. We do so, either inadvertently, as was often the case with the Interstate Highway System, or consciously and conscientiously, as is our option at this point in our history.

We can either proceed on the narrow view that transportation is concerned only with the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, or we can broaden our vision to consider transportation as an integral part of the larger society and, as such, something that must be considered as we wrestle with larger societal issues.


It has been recognized that the transformation of our transportation system has broad societal ramifications, as well as technological ones. Indeed, the original strategic plan for ITS defines the new approach as a paradigm shift--a sociological as well as a technological revolution. The technological aspects, while formidable, are well in hand. By contrast, we have scarcely begun to envision the sociological possibilities, both positive and negative.

The transportation policy decisions that we make, either deliberately or by default, result in two major categories of social costs. Both categories of cost must be considered in calculating the social costs of transportation.

Social Costs of Transportation Provided

The first category is more readily recognized and consists of those societal costs that result from the transportation that occurs. These costs include such factors as consumption of non-renewable energy, compromise of air quality, pollution of ground water, destruction of vegetation, disruption or dissolution of neighborhoods, increased congestion, and transportation-related injuries and death. These costs are at least acknowledged, even if they are not always given sufficient weight in transportation policy decisions. Part of the difficulty in considering these costs stems from the lack of appropriate analytical tools and the lack of awareness of those tools that are available.

Social Costs of Transportation Not Provided

The second category of social costs is less obvious and consists of societal costs that are incurred as a result of the transportation that is NOT provided. This second category of costs is based on the critical link between mobility and larger societal goals. These costs are rarely acknowledged and pose even greater measurement challenges. Yet we are at a major choice point in the history of transportation, and it is imperative that, to the extent possible, we give due social consideration to both categories of costs.

Examples of this second category of cost are less obvious. However, based on the link between mobility and social goals, they include increased medical costs resulting from delayed medical treatment because of a lack of transportation to medical care; termination of schooling related to lack of transportation to the site of instruction; unemployment resulting from lack of transportation to jobs; and other societal costs that result when people cannot realize their full potential because the lack of transportation creates a barrier.

A recent decision in the state of Michigan is a case in point. Because of a radical change in the funding of public schools, many school systems in Michigan are faced with severe funding shortages and are being forced to make difficult and unpopular cuts in programs. In November, 1994, in an effort to cut costs, a school system just outside Detroit decided to eliminate bus transportation for students in the junior high and high school grades. This leaves many students, living four or more miles from school, with no transportation to school. The community involved is characterized by high crime neighborhoods, no sidewalks, and poor facilities for pedestrian traffic, e.g., some students will be walking along railroad tracks. Getting to school will require walking in darkness on icy roads and in bitter cold weather. It is highly probable that many will miss days as a result, and some are likely even to drop out. What are the larger social costs of this lack of transportation to school?

The growing trend toward user fees, with a corresponding focus on toll roads, congestion pricing, and calculation of the full costs of transportation so that charges can be made accordingly, creates a serious danger of marked increases in the societal costs of transportation not provided. When Sears, National Safety Council, and other large employers move their offices from downtown Chicago to office parks many miles away, which employees are least likely to have ready transportation to the new facilities? And what are the social costs of such employees not being able to get to jobs?


Cost-Benefit Analysis

A standard approach to making transportation decisions is cost-benefit analysis, whereby we measure the costs of providing the transportation against the benefits, usually measured in terms of how many people and/or how much goods or information are transported in a specified period of time. Consideration is also given to ease of use, comfort, etc., but by and large we focus on the immediate benefits. However, there are also longer term monetary consequences to the transportation policies we implement. We are becoming increasingly sensitive to some of these in relation to environmental impacts.

Moral Cost-Benefit Analysis

In considering parallel issues concerning environmental damage, Alan Gewirth (1990) makes a distinction between economic cost-benefit analyses and moral cost-benefit analyses. The two approaches are not diametrically opposed but rather are orthogonal. At times the economic approach may also be the most moral approach, but at other times the relationship could be different. The economic cost-benefit analysis defines both costs and benefits in monetary terms. Even health and life are reduced to dollar values, defined in terms of willingness to pay, or to be paid, for values realized as a result of the program. Decisions on whether to proceed with a project or program are determined by the relationship of the costs to the benefits--if the benefits exceed the costs, then it makes sense to proceed. (It is recognized that some transportation programs are implemented more for political reasons than economic reasons, but presumably even these decisions could be reduced to monetary terms, even if some of the "benefits" fall outside the realm of transportation.)

In contrast, a moral cost-benefits analysis is based on the assumption that all persons have certain human rights . Objections to this approach have been made, including the objection that it is difficult to reach agreement on just what is included in these basic human rights. A second objection concerns the difficulty in quantifying these rights so that one proposal may be weighed against another. Gewirth addresses these and other objections and discusses some of the specifics included in basic human rights. Among these are the right not to be "lied to, stolen from, or threatened with violence," as well as the right to "self-esteem, education, and opportunities for earning wealth and income." Each person has the right to take actions to realize these ends, although there is no requirement that one do so. Gewirth also defines rights as being hierarchical in nature. For example, the right to life and health would take precedence over the right not to be lied to.

This moral cost-benefit analysis can be applied to the transportation policies that we design and implement. Because in our society access to what is required for health care, education, employment, recreation, and other commodities necessary for human fulfillment almost always includes transportation, it may be argued that transportation itself must be included in the basic human rights that must be made available to all, independent of ability to pay. The move toward pay-as-you-go transportation may thus be depriving persons of this basic right.


Cost-benefit analyses usually focus on those costs and benefits most directly related to the transportation itself. Economic costs and benefits emanating at least in part from transportation policies are also experienced in the future, both near term and far term.

In addition to the moral cost-benefit approach, the environmentalists also clarify the rights of future generations. Partridge (1990) maintains that future generations, unborn and anonymous, have legitimate claims on us, and that we, in turn, have responsibilities toward these unknown future persons. Among these responsibilities is that of leaving the planet in reasonable condition, that is, with its air, water, and earth free of toxic substances; and with its flora and fauna likewise in reasonable numbers and health. We do not have the right to pollute the environment or to hunt and fish to extinction the animals and marine life with which we share the planet. Partridge elaborates at length the basis for his position, but it is our responsibility to the future that I would like to consider in regard to transportation policy.

The economic cost-benefit analysis is being applied widely in making decisions about transportation programs. While issues of equity are increasingly being raised, we in transportation have not seriously explored how a moral cost-benefit approach might be applicable to the transportation policies we are currently formulating. When significant numbers of the society are deprived of their "right" to transportation, and are consequently unable to access education or health care, the consequences may result in far greater societal costs than the monies "saved" by eliminating or not providing the transportation in the first place.

For example, if health care is not accessed because transportation is a barrier, the condition in need of treatment may worsen, eventually resulting in emergency care, provided at a much higher societal cost and resulting in loss of productivity, if the person in question is in the labor force. If education is not accessed, the results can be even more costly. Young people who do not complete high school and/or do not acquire basic minimum literacy skills are at high risk of becoming a criminal justice statistic. Each year in Detroit we put more young men into prison than we graduate from high school. As in other states, our prison population is rising dramatically, and with ever increasingly Draconian sentences, and with less and less discretion left to judges, the prison budget is becoming an increasingly large proportion of the tax burden. Because more and more offenders are being sentenced to long or even life terms, the burden of their maintenance will fall in part on future generations. In addition, because neither those incarcerated nor those providing for their care are participating in the productive labor force, the larger society loses their potential contributions. They add nothing to the gross national product.

Thus we are incurring long term costs that future generations will be forced to bear. Even if, in the future, decisions are made to reduce the prison population, those who have spent years incarcerated are not likely to become fully productive contributing citizens. This is the legacy we are leaving our children.


Finally, we should consider the values that underlie the transportation policies we develop and implement. At the present time, our transportation policies are largely based on economics, and short term economics at that. We say that if someone wants transportation and can pay for it, then it should be provided, with no questions asked.

This short term view of the costs and benefits of transportation often fails to take into account some of the longer range and cumulative environmental impacts. These environmental issues are beginning to gain attention, perhaps moreso in parts of Europe than in the U.S. But in addition to environmental impacts of transportation, there are other impacts that need to be considered, both in the short term and the long term.

We are facing some very tough choices that will be made, either with careful thought and deliberation, or by default. For example, in the U.S. at the present time we have large numbers of elderly people living in the suburbs. These are folks who, as young marrieds after World War II, moved to the suburbs, had children, and raised their families. As the years went by, the children grew up and left home. Frequently one of the spouses died, usually the husband. For the first time in its history, New York City now has more elderly living in the suburbs than in the city itself. Detroit has noted the same phenomenon.

While the elderly need and want transportation, there are other transportation needs in our society as well. The elderly, as a group, have strong political clout, as well as reasonable affluence. In contrast, the largest group living in poverty in the U.S. today is children under five. This population has no money and no vote. But if the needs of this population, including its transportation needs, are not met, the result will be major societal costs in the future. Transportation policies based primarily on ability to pay are not adequate.


How do our underlying values affect our alcohol policies, particularly our policies relating to drunken driving? How carefully have we even considered the values reflected in our policies? Based on our laws and policies relating to drunken driving, it may be surmised that for decades drunken driving was not viewed as a serious offense. It may also be surmised that individual responsibility was valued over collective responsibility, with a corresponding focus on severity of punishment for transgressions. Other values frequently affecting policy decisions include political considerations and economics (often closely related).

Historically, in much of the western world, we have viewed drunken driving as a "folk crime." As recently as fifteen years ago, it was generally accepted that we would never be able to do anything about drunken driving, at least in the U.S. We have known since shortly after the turn of the century that alcohol is associated with an increased risk of crash, and as early as 1936 Norway established 0.05 percent Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) as the legal limit for driving. Numerous studies clearly demonstrated the increased crash risk associated with drunken driving. Yet in many parts of the western world, drunken driving was still not viewed as a serious problem.

In the U.S. it was not until the citizen action groups came into being that the evidence was translated into public policy. It is highly unlikely that they could have succeeded in the absence of good data, but the data alone were not sufficient. Our society clearly does not place high value on lives. The pressures that eventually brought about change were political, not scientific. In the U.S. we are currently faced with the possibility of losing the effectiveness of proven traffic safety measures, including the 21 year minimum legal drinking age, motorcycle helmet laws, seat belt use laws, and national maximum speed limits. Again, the primary thrust behind this movement is political. The underlying values have more to do with votes than with data or decreases in injury and death.

Yet the example of drunken driving reveals other interesting clues to our underlying values. When the citizen action groups began to have an impact, the initial focus was on punitive measures. This focus remains a prominent feature in U.S. society, as increasing budgets for prisons outstrip every other social need. The public clamors for stiffer penalties and mandatory sentencing. In Michigan we can imprison young people for years for possession of a few ounces of marijuana, and our prisons are bursting with drug offenders with no other record. Recent legislation called "three strikes and you're out" can send someone to prison for life for writing a bad check if it is a third conviction. In Michigan were scheduled to run out of prison space in July of this year and are arranging to "rent" jail space in county and municipal jails. Retribution is a value we hold dear. This value is based on a strong belief in individual responsibility, in contrast to societal or community responsibility.

Nevertheless, in the case of drunken driving, there has been slow recognition that, to a large extent, we are creating the problem by our social policies. We sell alcohol for on-premise consumption where the only feasible means of transportation to and from the location is by private vehicle. We do not require that the transportation issue be addressed prior to licensing an establishment, yet we hold responsible the customer who patronizes the establishment, consumes the proffered alcohol, and proceeds to drive away. We fail to increase alcohol taxation at a rate consistent with inflation. We bombard children and young people with messages that link alcohol to risk-taking behavior, to wit, the Indianapolis 500, where racing cars are labeled with the names of popular beers. We advertise beer on television and communicate a message that it is an integral part of normal social interaction. An astonishing proportion of young people do not view beer as particularly hazardous--they make a clear distinction between beer and other forms of alcohol, even though it is beer that is most often associated with drunken driving.

There has been a gradual broadening of the view of drunken driving, as more attention is given to those factors associated with its genesis--education, advertising, marketing, taxation, media programming. Still, market values override other considerations, as was clearly demonstrated at the Surgeon General's Workshop on Drunk Driving in 1989 when marketing and advertising interests held the workshop findings hostage for months while vested interests prepared a response. While we are far from implementing many promising interventions, we have made considerable progress, and in the U.S. and elsewhere, drunken driving has decreased, particularly among younger drivers.

However, there is another, more fundamental, value issue related to how we deal with drunken driving, as well as use of other drugs. As I have read the literature and listened to presentations, I am struck by what might be described as a pressure toward conformity. If we can persuade young people to accept our health promotion messages, to abstain from experimentation with alcohol and other drugs, we will have achieved success. I would maintain that such success may carry with it risks at least as great as those associated with drunken driving.

A recent report in the U.S. found that high school valedictorians were not particularly outstanding twenty or thirty years following graduation. The same characteristics that enabled them to become valedictorians, that is, studying, making good grades, and pleasing the teachers, continued to enable them to succeed, but only in mundane ways. They were not pushing the edges, they were not creating new ways of looking at the world, they were not very creative, period. Successful, yes, but only in the sense of doing well, not in the sense of making new contributions to society.

It is the responsibility of youth to question, to challenge, to experiment, to explore. A generation of young people who blindly accept our definition of desirable behavior is, in some ways, far more frightening than a generation of young people who challenge the status quo, even if it includes drinking and driving. The solution to the problem of drunken driving lies not in convincing young people to accept, unquestioningly, our view of the world. Rather, we have a responsibility to provide them with good information, but we must also allow them some room to question, explore, and experiment. In doing so, we need to do everything we can to insure that such exploration does not destroy them and/or others in the process. We need to create environments that allow them to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, but the learning should not result in paraplegia or a life sentence to prison.

There are many ways we can destroy our youth, and drunken driving is only one.


We are at a critical time in the history of transportation. We have an unprecedented opportunity to take stock and seriously consider the role of transportation in our society. The transportation policies we are formulating today will have widespread ramifications, both for ourselves and for the next generation. To increase the wisdom of our policies, we need to look beyond their immediate costs and consequences. We need to recognize that there are costs and consequences of both the transportation that is provided and the transportation that is not provided but should be. We need to recognize the values that underlie our policies, so that we can evaluate whether these are the most appropriate values for building a fair and just society.

We, in the area of alcohol, drugs, and traffic safety research and policy, should take advantage of this window of opportunity and reflect on how our concerns are represented in the frenzy of activity surrounding ITS. We should also reflect on the broader and longer term vision of what we are attempting to achieve in regard to the use of alcohol and other drugs and how they relate to traffic safety. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to consider how they relate to broader and longer term societal values and goals. We need to discuss openly the values that guide our thinking, our research, and our alcohol policies and attempt to arrive at some consensus. Otherwise we run the risk of focusing on near term goals with no concern for the longer term ramifications. Both are important, but in the current political climate, it will be increasingly difficult to address longer term consequences, costs, and benefits.


Gewirth, A. (1990) "Two types of cost-benefit analysis," in Upstream/Downstream. Issues in Environmental Ethics. Donald Scherer, editor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 205-232.

Partridge, E. (1990) "The rights of future generations," in Upstream/Downstream. Issues in Environmental Ethics. Donald Scherer, editor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 40-66.