All of us who have an interest in promoting transportation alternatives have encountered people afflicted with what I like to call “Monomodal Fixation Disorder.” Let’s just call it MFD for short. These poor souls not only prefer to use a single mode for all travel, but more importantly seek to impose their preferences on everyone else. They simply can’t understand why anyone would want to travel any other way!
The classic MFD case we usually encounter is that of the Motorist. Rather than simply being a person who sometimes drives, a Motorist drives absolutely everywhere and thinks that is a superior way to live, a lifestyle for everyone to replicate. They are most often found in suburban environments where the cul-de-sac street network and strip malls make any other mode naturally inconvenient. Motorists despise any attempt by government agencies to paint bike lanes, slow down traffic for pedestrian safety, or spend money on public transit. Not only does the Motorist not benefit from these improvements personally, he or she does not see how anyone else would benefit, since driving is the most superior form of transportation.
In a growing number of cities, but most notably Portland, we find another MFD type that is remarkably similar to the Motorist in attitude if not in appearance: the Cyclist! Usually young, fit, childless, and affluent, the Cyclist is willing to ride a bike for long distances all over the city, in any kind of weather, to any kind of destination, up hills and along dangerous roads. The Cyclist can’t conceive of why anyone in Portland would ever use another form of transportation. After all, cycling is faster than transit, bikes are easy to park, and you get exercise. Given the clear superiority of cycling, the Cyclist starts to wonder why government ever spends money on improving travel for cars or freight. Many Cyclists even wonder why the region is spending money on buses and streetcars, which often conflict with bikes on major roads and move so slowly. Since the Cyclist would never ride the bus, why should anybody else? Let Them Ride Bikes, they cry!
As a new student in the Portland State urban planning program, I encounter the Cyclist version of MFD all the time. When I say I generally prefer to take the bus to campus, many of my peers scoff at the idea of ever riding the bus. One student even wondered aloud whether TriMet’s inconvenient and infrequent bus system might be a good thing, since it could push more people onto bikes. This bizarre statement fails to recognize that for most people, cycling and transit are mutually supportive modes that work best in combination.
When I have brought up the idea that the $190-per-quarter student TriMet pass should be made universal to bring costs down and boost transit use, my fellow students assure me that the Cyclists (and the Motorists, of course) would never support that idea. Why should they subsidize such a clearly inferior mode of travel? It is strange to go to a school with a campus at the center of public transit access in Portland, only to find that they are unwilling to make any serious effort to make transit more affordable to students (for the record, the universal U-Pass at the University of Washington is only $76 per quarter).
I would argue that Monomodal Fixation Disorder is the main reason for the pernicious and destructive tone of transportation debates in Portland, and ultimately keeps us from achieving a just and equitable transportation system. The essence of MFD is the attitude that “what works for me should work for everyone.” It sees transportation as a zero-sum game, in which any investment in one mode automatically reduces the value of another. It is essentially an egotistical position, with no sense of civic-mindedness or recognition that everyone has different needs and preferences. Transportation debates often end up as arguments between Motorists and Cyclists, using nasty rhetoric and ignoring the rest of us who might want a balanced system.
The opposite approach, and a key to a transportation system that is useful and equitable, is to focus on a multimodal network that gives everyone reasonable access to a variety of ways to travel. This is a system that recognizes the inherent differences between people and respects those differences. I personally find it very easy to ride my bike around the SE and NE, but when going to downtown or beyond, the distance and geographic barriers make me prefer transit. However, my neighbor on one side might prefer to take transit for all her trips beyond walking distance, while my neighbor on the other might ride his bike everywhere for casual trips within town but prefers to drive to work so he’s not sweaty and tired. We all have different levels of income, fitness, willingness to endure weather events, and ability to live close to our destinations. Our transportation system has to reflect that.
One important caveat is that the balance of modes certainly needs to change in response to each neighborhood. In a suburban built environment where transit is harder to access and cycling is inherently more dangerous, cars will probably always be the dominant way to get around and policy should recognize that. However, we need to resist Monomodal Fixation and ensure that even in the suburbs people have access to long-distance transit service, bike lanes and bike boulevards, and a better pedestrian environment.
In denser, urban environments like inner Portland, it makes sense to prioritize somewhat more on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements since this is where those improvements will be most effective. Huge swaths of the Portland region fall in the gray area between these two environments. East Portland, for example, is currently an area where driving is often the only reasonable choice for getting to a destination in a reasonable amount of time. Some targeted improvements could give residents many more modes to choose from when planning different kinds of trips.
In my ideal world, everyone would have a set of choices for each trip. If I am going across town, I can ride my bike if it is nice out and I have the energy, but I would also like to be able to take transit if I want to relax and read a book, and I would also like to have a carshare service like Zipcar in case I need the storage capacity or plan on going out of town later that day. Currently many people in the Portland region lack these choices. Transit runs too infrequently or doesn’t run late enough or on weekends. Cycling is unsafe and the bike paths don’t link up to one another. Sidewalks are missing or the street grid doesn’t provide direct paths. Zipcar might not have cars nearby or is too expensive to use. These are the problems that need to be fixed, and to do that the Motorists and the Cyclists need to cure themselves of Monomodal Fixation Disorder and focus on Multimodal Choices instead.