Skip to content.

News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

Mobility as a Hobson’s choice

As more people want to live somewhere with better transportation choices, many communities are promoting their walkability and similar features. But every time a person moves to a “walkable” or “bikeable” neighborhood, they end up driving everywhere anyway. I think our towns are presenting us a Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was a 17th-century stable owner. He had a large stock of horses which attracted many customers. But whenever a potential customer had visited and had seen all of his horses, he presented them with his eponymous choice. They could either take the horse closest to the door, or none at all.

That may seem like questionable business, but it worked. Customers were lured in under the belief they had many options. When they found out they only had one horse to choose from, they would rather take anything at all than leave empty-handed.

I wonder if this is what happens when people move to new neighborhoods. When someone visits a potential new home, they see nearby walking trails, parks, cafes with quaint cobblestone sidewalks, and maybe even a bike lane and a bus stop. (Of course, they see all of these things from inside their cars.) What a nice area, they think, this is so much better than my last town that was full of interstates and car traffic.

But when the actually move in, they still just drive everywhere. They have no other choice. Getting from their house to work, to school, or to any of the (big-box) stores requires a car. The “walkability” and other features are merely an aesthetic.

Maybe an aesthetic is what some people really want, quaint scenery for when they commute by car. Maybe some people just don’t know what real walkable communities look like, since they’ve never lived in one. Or maybe mobility choices just aren’t that high of a priority for some people.

Either way, no one has any option but to keep driving. That’s the deal, take it or leave it. And whether you like that deal or not, building half-baked mobility choices that aren’t really choices at all is a disservice to everyone in our communities.