Mobility and Prosperity

Mobility and Prosperity

Peer into any society throughout history, and the relationships between mobility and prosperity will almost always be the same “the rich travel more than the poor. South Koreans travel more than Indians, Brits travel more than Hungarians, and Americans travel more than Italians. Since the 1960s, the median family income in America increased by 27 percent. It’s not surprising that mobility increased alongside prosperity. Americans travel about 3 trillion miles each year, a threefold increase from a few decades ago. Yes, prosperous societies travel more, but does mobility make them prosperous? “Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More than You Think

Is the relationship between mobility and prosperity a result of causation or correlation? That is, does greater mobility cause greater prosperity, or do they just coincide for another reason? Studies show that the ability to be mobile may indeed increase economic opportunity. While studying employment dynamics in 22 French cities, Remy Prud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee found that mobility does open up economic opportunities. A worker may live in a vast city with scores of job opportunities, but if it is hard to get around, his pool of opportunity dries up.

Prud’homme and Lee found that prosperity increases when the number of jobs a worker can access in a fixed amount of time increases (they used 30 minutes in their study). Increasing average travel speeds by just 10 percent boosted a city’s productivity by 3 percent and expanded the labor market by 15 percent. The expanded market, then, helps businesses as well; they gain access to more customers and are better able to match the right employee with the right job. Mobility equals prosperity.

The connection between mobility and prosperity is not limited to France. An analysis of 99 urban areas around the world examined the percentage of area jobs a worker could get to in 45 minutes. The results were not a surprise: prosperity was greatest where mobility was best. American workers were the most prosperous and could reach 93 percent of jobs within 45 minutes. Consider that the average American with a per capita income of $32,000 traveled 12,500 miles; while the average Asian with a per capita income of $3200 traveled just 2000.

Research has proven that one of the most promising methods for helping the poor achieve a greater measure of self-sufficiency was to subsidize car ownership programs. Surveys of workers who received cars through such programs revealed that improved mobility brought them access to better jobs and higher wages. A University of California study estimated that auto ownership could cut the black/white employment gap nearly in half. Further, Evelyn Blumenberg of UCLA found that residents in Watts, Los Angeles who were able to drive had access to 59 times as many jobs as Watts residents who relied on public transit.

Modern society has an underlying need to travel, and mobility leads to prosperity. But it is also important to note that mobility is a form of prosperity. It is an end in itself. Whether a road trip across the country or simply the opportunity to leave one’s immediate surroundings, mobility is something we aspire to. Samuel C. Florman captures this sentiment perfectly in his book, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering:

Man’s technological skills may be responsible for the automobile, but he wants it and uses it because of his craving for new experiences, experiences of which he can conceive only because of his highly developed sense and existential yearnings. We know what the anti-technologists want for mankind. They want serenity and spiritual peace. But man wants something more. He may seek serenity when he does not have it. But as soon as he has it, he becomes restless and seeks some new adventure. No single way of life can satisfy him ultimately, least of all a return to the simple, rustic routines of earlier times.

We cannot go backward; we do not even want to. The Parkway City can offer the opportunity for spiritual peace and serenity while moving forward with a new adventure for man’s restless and intrepid spirit.

Richard Vermeulen - Construction Economist for Green Building

Richard Vermeulen is the construction economist creating profitable sustainability in the built environment. He’s the founder of GreenLight™, author of Green at No Cost, and developer of the Total Benefit Analysis and The Value Process as well as co-CEO, lead economist, and chief estimator for Vermeulens. Richard has developed industry-leading standards for estimating and data-basing complex construction projects throughout North America. In addition to consulting for thousands of major projects over 30 years, Richard has designed and built residential and commercial projects, from hammering nails to hound-dogging bureaucracies. He has traveled extensively, always with an awareness of how cities do and don’t work.

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