Car Dependency on Military Installations
Updated: Sep 9
The Reality We Live In
It’s lunchtime on the installation. Cars stream into the commissary parking lot, filling up from the prime spots close to the entrance. Those unlucky enough to leave late for lunch find themselves in a bit of a traffic jam at the intersection to get into the parking lot. They’ll have to walk an extra fifty feet to the sliding doors leading inside.
But where are all these cars coming from?
Certainly not off-base, it would be highly inconvenient for a CAC holder on their lunch break to commute onto a base for a Subway sandwich. No, this traffic is all generated from on-base sources. Which means people are choosing to drive from their place of work or residence on-base to the commissary, a distance often no more than a mile away.
No base was named in the scenario above, but anyone who has spent time on any U.S. military installation can picture it exactly.
Car Dependency is the Norm
In defense of the drivers, on many American installations, they simply have no other choice. Even though their destination is a 15 minute walk away, they are likely to encounter dangerous crossings, speeding traffic, and poorly designed (or even nonexistent) pedestrian infrastructure. Much like civilian communities, our military installations are designed primarily for car use.
By design, bases are set up for convenient car travel. Typical layouts feature a handful of arterial roads with fast speeds and few crossings, with most buildings and destinations on streets that branch off from the arterial.
Think of this layout like trying to travel from one branch of a tree to the other without leaving wood. Even though you’re only trying to move a short distance as the crow flies, you have to travel all the way down the starting branch to the trunk, then to the exit of the next branch, then down that one.
An enlisted Navy member who lived on-base was asked about their experience:
“The more spread out a base is, the longer it’ll take to get from place to place. Are you realistically going to walk 35 minutes carrying groceries when the alternative is a 5-minute drive?”
Since that type of design requires traveling further distances between destinations, it makes sense that the primary form of transit is usually the fastest: by car.
The Downfalls of Driving
Why does this pose a problem on military installations? Civilian and military communities suffer from several detrimental effects of car dependency. A short list includes:
Air quality impacts
Accidents and injuries
Upkeep cost of highly trafficked roads
Upkeep cost of private vehicle ownership
The downfalls of car dependency also have some military-specific implications, such as:
Decreased operational efficiency
Longer response times
Reduced capacity for future development
Financial Burden of Car Dependency
Additionally, the private cost of vehicle ownership is especially relevant to military service members. It is well documented (see here or here) that some car dealerships and loan centers target military service members with predatory loans.
When serving on an installation requires car ownership by design, military personnel may find themselves saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of high-interest debt through one of these businesses, which can stick with them for decades.
Not to mention the record-high cost of vehicle ownership: Kelley Blue Book found that the average cost of a new car was over $48,000 in June 2022, and AAA calculated that in 2021, the annual cost of vehicle ownership was $9,666.
Strategies for Reducing Car Dependency
In a car dependent development, there is a disparity between the convenience of driving and the convenience of any other form of transit. To influence individuals to choose another form of transportation, that disparity must be addressed.
It is rarely a best practice to outright inconvenience drivers. Instead, municipalities have widely adopted traffic calming strategies to ensure drivers do not endanger pedestrians or cyclists. These include:
Reducing speed limits
Cars yielding right of way at intersections, turns, and merges
Street trees and medians
Small building setbacks
Active pedestrian signage
Curb bumpouts at crossings
There are many actions installations can take to improve the walking and cycling experience on-base:
A complete bike lane network
A complete sidewalk network
Wide sidewalks and bike lanes, at least 5’
Benches to rest
Well-marked, safe crossings
Longer cross signal times
Covered bike racks near entrances at destinations
Planning Against Car Dependency
Additionally, there are three more planning strategies to reduce car dependency. First, reducing parking availability. Modern parking standards often oversupply parking, which incentivizes driving.
Second, efficient land use. Place destinations for on-base residents, like the exchange, Child Development Centers (CDCs), schools, playgrounds, community centers, and recreation facilities near housing. Provide direct bike and pedestrian access to these amenities from housing.
This applies to operational facilities as well. Site related or co-dependent functions near each other. Adopt a campus-style layout, with one outer parking lot, and all facilities along an inner walkable campus. Link each mission with bike and pedestrian networks and ensure destinations like the fitness center and commissary are easily accessible. Nearby space can be devoted to greenspace, dining pavilions, and food truck courts for additional access to amenities.
Lastly, provide on-base transit options. Many bases with large administrative facilities run shuttles from satellite parking areas to the building; this can be done to also connect the facility to the commissary, exchange, and housing areas for on-base residents. Ensure covered bus stops are provided at convenient stop locations, and ensure the service has low headway times, making it a convenient choice for traversing the installation.
Just like civilian communities, American military installations often rely on the car for mobility. There are numerous negative consequences of car dependent design, with some unique implications in the armed forces.
Modern planning, however, has given us a wide range of tools to make it easier to travel by foot or bike. Municipalities across the country are adopting these standards and strategies and reaping the benefits. It’s time for bases to do the same.
The Schreifer Group, a woman-owned, veteran-owned small business, is a federal planning firm with extensive experience in smart, sustainable planning for non-auto transit. Explore some of our projects specializing in pedestrian and bike infrastructure, learn more about the services we offer, or get in touch with us personally.