Refrigerator Boxes and the Law of Scale

by Felix Landry

The earth has many laws. Some of these laws – like the law of gravity – are well known. Others are less obvious. I’ve noticed a law at work both in nature and in the structure of cities which I call “the law of scale.” There is an important relationship between the size of the creature and the size of the environment it inhabits. They should “scale up” or “scale down” together. If one grows or shrinks without the other, the health of both the creature and the habitat begin to suffer. For example, it is obviously a problem if a mother bird does not make her nest big enough. What may be less obvious is that if the nest is too big that can also cause problems. If a bird builds her nest too large, then the upkeep of the nest eventually consumes the time and energy meant for gathering food and other necessary activities.

This law applies to people as well, but we are not as good at obeying it as the birds seem to be…particularly when it comes to transportation.

boys in boxesImagine you work in a busy office building. There are lots of people in the halls all day, but everything generally flows smoothly. Then imagine that for some reason your employer implements the bizarre policy of requiring everyone to wear a refrigerator box whenever you travel the corridors. What would happen? Immediate, aggravating, stressful congestion in the halls. Why? Because your boss has broken the law of scale. You, the creature, got bigger, but the environment did not get bigger. The halls in your office building are built to human scale, not to refrigerator scale. If your boss were determined to continue this refrigerator box policy, the congestion would eventually drive you to take the expensive step of remodeling the building with much wider and longer corridors.

This is very similar to what we do with our current transportation system. When we step out of our homes or offices and into our vehicles, we suddenly explode in size like the incredible hulk. We, the creatures, have scaled up in size, but our environment, the roads, have not scaled up with us. We end up with maddening congestion such as we see along China Spring Hwy or anywhere in the City of Austin. We have broken the law of scale in regard to our city streets, and we will continue to have congestion until we restore the correct proportions.

For 50+ years of vehicle centric development we have tried to deal with this problem by scaling up the environment.   We have “hulked out,” we reason, so our roads need to “hulk out” to keep up with us. We have basically fallen into the following pattern:

      1. More (and bigger) vehicles are on the road,
      2. Which leads to congested roads,
      3. Which leads to building wider and longer roads,
      4. Which in turn increases the distances between destinations,
      5. Which of course increases our dependence of vehicles,
      6. Which puts more vehicles than ever on the road.

The above cycle has two major problems in my opinion.

Problem 1: Between steps 2 and 3 whichever government agency wants to build the road must first gather the taxes to pay for the project. We are running out of tax money for road construction and maintenance, and not many people want to raise taxes.

Problem 2: Step 4 boils down to sprawl, which over the long haul decreases the average value of land serviced by the road system, while simultaneously increasing the amount of roads needed. The need for tax revenue increases while the capacity to generate it decreases.

In other words, our current approach to development is leading us to be like the bird who has made her nest too big. We are getting to the point that we must waste valuable resources just to maintain the nest.

Fortunately, there’s another way to approach the problem. We could figure out ways to not “hulk out” between our front doors and our destinations.

27- transportation flyerLet’s return to our crazy refrigerator boxes (vehicles) in the corridors (roads) at the office (city) analogy. The refrigerator boxes make each person take up too much space. The root of the corridor congestion is that the halls were not built for such a high space to person ratio.

Here are some suggestions on how to lower the space to person ratio and ease congestion:

  1. Don’t take your box on every trip.
  2. Use smaller boxes.
  3. Fit more people in fewer boxes. If two or more people are headed to the same destination, they could all take the same box instead of each taking their own.
  4. Create a system of large high capacity community boxes that travel the main corridors of the office at regular intervals. Anyone could hop into a community box as it passes by decreasing the overall ratio of box area to person area.

Obviously these suggestions have real world counterparts:

  1. Walk
  2. Ride a bike
  3. Car pool
  4. Public transit

I am not trying to build a “cars are evil” bonfire. We don’t need to get rid of vehicles. But we could choose to scale ourselves down rather than choosing to scale up our road system. We could lower the amount of space people take up traveling on our roads. We could reduce the high vehicle to person ratio that is currently clogging our public right of ways. This “scaling down” could be much less expensive and more sustainable financially in the long run. The great news is that Waco, from what I’ve seen, has a large number of people who would love to lower their own vehicle to person ratio. Yes, we would have to make some initial investments to build the infrastructure to accommodate them. But, with enough support, Waco has great potential to facilitate a much lower vehicle to person ratio which will be a much more sustainable way to satisfy the “law of scale” in the long run.

felixFelix Landry is the senior planner and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Waco. He and his wife moved here in 2010 from College Station, Texas. They have two young boys.

Are you Interested in getting in on the conversation about transportation in Waco?  Plan to attend an upcoming Metropolitan Transportation Plan Community input meeting.  Meetings are scheduled for May 5, May 8, May 12 and May 15.  For more details please visit the website:  or the Act Locally Waco May Event Calendar.

Designing a transportation network with everyone in mind

by Felix Landry

Since I moved to Waco and began working as a city planner, Waco’s poverty has been the topic of discussion I run into most. I hear it at work, church, in local magazines, the newspaper, the radio, from our city leaders, and even at social events. Most Wacoans I know seem to agree that our level of poverty is a huge concern and detriment to our civic health.

Poverty varies across cultures, climates, and geography; it also exhibits consistent elements that are identifiable the world over. Food and shelter come to mind immediately for most people… transportation? It doesn’t come up as often – but it should.

many carsThe vast majority of urban transportation networks in the US are designed to move as many cars as possible at safe speeds. This approach caters to vehicles more than to people, which has resulted in at least two major problems cities are facing today.

First, many places in the US have no additional space in their public right of ways (ROW) to increase the number of travel lanes for vehicles. Even if additional space were available for purchase (at incredible cost), the funds available for new road construction decrease every year due to the rising cost of maintaining our existing transportation network.

Second, and closer to home, many people cannot afford to purchase or operate a car. AAA has released an annual report, “Your Driving Costs,” every year since 1950 that analyzes the cost of owning a vehicle in the US. According to the 2013 report, the average annual expense for owning and operating a small sedan (think Chevy Cruze or Ford Focus) in 2013 and driving it 10,000 miles was $5,952. That is the cost to pay for insurance, fuel, maintenance and other operating expenses – purchasing the car is an additional cost. According to the Census, 23% of families (31% of individuals) in Waco live below the poverty line. A family of four living below the poverty line has an annual income of $23,050 or less. In other words, that family, in a vehicle-based transportation system, will be using more than a fourth of their small income just to get to work, take the kids to school, and go to the grocery store.

When people come together as town or city, they create an opportunity to pool resources for common infrastructure (i.e. water and sewer lines) and services (i.e. fire and police protection) at a lower overall cost. We readily agree that every citizen has an equal right to such services, regardless of income. However, our existing transportation network does not always provide the same level of service regardless of income. Most transportation systems in the US cater primarily to the most expensive (and dangerous) form of transportation: personal vehicles.

60 peopleMany sections of the transportation network in the US could carry more people if they were re-designed for multiple forms of transportation instead of just for vehicles. The photo on the left illustrates this principle well. It shows the same 60 people along with the number of bikes, cars, or buses it would take to carry them. The drawing on the right  illustrates how a network designed to move people rather than vehicles facilitates a higher traffic volume without expanding the right of way. Such a re-designdesign is more efficient and effective: Dedicated space for pedestrians and cyclists, and shared space for vehicles and buses can move more people than the same amount of space designed strictly for personal vehicles. It also decreases the amount of public funding needed for construction and maintenance and generates a transportation network viable for all income levels.

Improving and diversifying our transportation network would alleviate some of the burdens that keep people impoverished. Not only would it provide greater economic potential for low income earners, but it would also increase Waco’s appeal to businesses and new residents. It’s no coincidence that attractive places to live in and visit around the world often have a viable public transit system and walkable streets.

felixFelix Landry is the senior planner and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Waco. He and his wife moved here in 2010 from College Station, Texas. They have two young boys.