“The Giving Tree” Lambert’s Lagniappe-July 09

The Texas Transportation Institute released the “2009 Urban Mobility Report”.  http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/ The report always receives wide distribution, and this year, the economic recession caused a drop in vehicle miles traveled. As the authors noted, traffic mirrors the economy, and although volumes declined last year, they are expected to return once a recovery begins. The authors cautioned that the report remains the same as it has in previous years: we are still spending a lot of time in traffic.

In thinking about this, I was struck with the parallel of the highway system to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”. The story highlights the relationship of a boy and a tree.  When the boy was young, he enjoyed access to the tree. He swung on the branches, ate of the apples and wore a garland of leaves. The tree was happy as the boy had unlimited access to all the tree could offer. This unlimited access to the highway is similar to the myth of the open road, where we find relatively empty roads one can drive without constraint. This was the futuristic model with efficient traffic flows. (The myth is still echoed in auto advertisements.)

As the story progresses, the boy grows up and does not play with the tree. Instead, the boy wants money and asks the tree for help. The tree tells the boy to sell the apples. Like the Federal aid program, there was enough available to finance other valuable programs while not compromising the tree. The interstate provided connectivity, which generated economic growth and opportunities for the nation.

Later, the boy comes back and wants to build a house, so he removes the branches. As related to highways, the branches mirror the suburbanization of the United States with the resulting lost of the urban city. But this transformation was not without cost as sprawl and congestion began to cripple national mobility.

Next, the boy comes back and removes the trunk to build a boat, as the boy is sad, and wants to go away from his problems. Here, the congestion and transit issues are leading us to fundamentally consider a new transportation system. In some way, we no longer viewed the construction of the highway transportation system as relevant for national discussions as “the work of constructing the interstate system” was completed. At the time, ISTEA was viewed as the beginning of a new era in transportation.

Finally, the boy returns as an old man. The tree, now but a stump, cannot provide the boy with anything but a place to sit. The old man, without any energy or needs, is content to simply sit on the stump, which is where the TTI study comments on our present situation.

There is a limit to how much any analogy can be made but for both TTI and “The Giving Tree” the story ends the same – everyone is sitting. I need to read more stories with happy endings.

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