Currently much of the effort to change transportation is directed at creating or increasing alternative modes. While I applaud and welcome these efforts, the deeper issue is to create the demand for non-car transportation. We seem to believe that just adding bus lines will make people suddenly want to ride the bus. Simply putting alternative modes in place is not enough. In fact, such isolated non demand based projects may be counter productive as these projects through their inappropriateness will only serve to reinforce the mind set of those who say, “People will never give up their cars.”
Some of these efforts do succeed, and they succeed because there is demand. Here’s an example.
Mount Desert Island Bus Service. Acadia National Park has some 2,5 million visitors a year. As traffic and parking pressures were increasing Mt. Desert Island and the Park Service made a decision. They would limit increasing capacity for both car travel and parking and instead fund and run a bus service to deliver tourists and campers around the island to the ferry terminal and the airport. The first year they expected peak ridership of 1,000 a day in fact they hit 3,000! There are some unique aspects to this situation, but the response is fundamental to creating a less car-oriented society. Don’t increase capacity for cars. Create demand for alternative service by limiting carcentric planning and infrastructure. Provide increased capacity for people not cars.
Currently, typical transportation planning studies start from the “no-build” option. The no-build is seen as the identifier of the problem. If we don’t increase capacity the road service level will degrade to a grade of “F”, there will be more accidents etc. These planning documents tend to be driven by a crisis (congestion) and they tend to approve the building of more capacity or traffic management (lights, turn lanes). What these planning documents usually fail to look at, because they are so narrowly focused on transportation, is how do people behave when road service levels drop? The obvious answer is people avoid the congestion through small behavior changes Maybe they realize it’s easier to take the bus from work as far as point ‘A” and drive from there rather than drive all the way to work so a demand for some bus service is created. Some entrepreneurs might start to consider businesses based on how drivers may seek to avoid congestion. Maybe someone contemplates a passenger ferry service to avoid the congestion on the bridge. Possibly a business may cater to worker’s needs near the work site so they can do shopping before setting out on the commute thus staggering their departure time and avoiding congestion. Given their workers needs to avoid congestion, an employer might consider how to change hours of operation or flex time and thus create less demand on capacity. None of these entrepreneurs or employers will currently consider responding in any permanent way to the demands created by congestion because they know that the government’s response to demand is always to increase capacity. Yet, it is these very businesses that we want to create—businesses with a vested interest in non-car transportation.
Solutions need to fit.
In 1974 we changed the nation’s speed limit to 55m.p.h. Reacting to the gas shortage crisis, congress passed one of the most self-defeating laws of American History. By requiring everyone to drive the federal speed limit or break the law, we encouraged the eroding of speed limit enforcement. Today we see the continued repercussions of that act as speed limits are routinely ignored. If the goal was to conserve gas than at a minimum, some sort of analysis of benefits should have been undertaken. The law should have applied proportionately to use. Areas with the greatest overall use of fuel should have had to meet the strictest speed limits. The benefits of applying the 55 mph speed limit in, say, rural Texas, are insignificant compared to that benefits of that same speed limit being applied to any of the major East or West coast Highways
In Maine we have a split in the state between the “developed coast” and the rural areas. People who live in rural areas depend on cars due to the greater distances to services and shopping and see any infringement of driving as a justifiable crimp on their economic wellbeing and lifestyle. People on the coast where population and economic growth is creating demand for development could, through changing their development patterns, have significant impacts on the effects of the automobile. Those same changes in rural areas would have insignificant impact on those same efforts. Targeting the “cure” to the “afflicted” areas makes sense and avoids unnecessary resistance.
Binary thinking First, we need to recognize that cars are going to be with us for a long time to come. Individual transportation of some sort will never disappear.
When I was teaching at Southern Maine Community College I asked the class to consider what a world without cars would be like. I expected an answer that would reflect a more European model. Towns and Cities connected by rail and bus lines, either a much denser model or an expansion of alternative mode systems. Instead the answers I got were that the economy would collapse, no one would be able to work, people wouldn’t be able to get to stores to buy things. For them, it is as though there is a world with cars and all the things associated with them or we live in some kind of post Armageddon world a la Mad Max. It was their very lack of grasping the idea that we could shape the world that was so disconcerting. As long as we conceive of cars this way it is natural that people will resist limiting the car.
This binary thinking also carries over into a kind of helplessness when dealing with cars. So the Smart Growth Movement tends to ignore the car question, the Alternative Modes people tend to want to build ATMs and believe that of course people will use them. We purchase conservation license plates as a way to assuage our guilt. We don’t really believe that we can do anything about cars. There is also a lurking fear that the car is the key to our economic system; mess with it and the whole structure may come tumbling down. Thus we are powerless to initiate change.
Freedom- We tend to identify with the freedom that the car provides. (Of course it helps that ads are constantly hammering at that theme and we see attempts to limit the car as limits on our freedom. Throughout our past we have, sometimes belatedly, recognized others need for freedom; we abolished slavery, acknowledged gender equality and passed the American Disabilities Act. We have not yet recognized that our driving habits and the systems that we establish for cars are a kind of tyranny for some people and make it almost impossible to choose to live without a car. We shackle many low-income people with the need to have a car which in many instances keeps them in poverty. We have an increasing elderly population to whom giving up driving is a kind of death. We have created places (not just interstates) where pedestrian access is virtually impossible; on foot you can’t get there from here. This denying of choice to fellow citizens seems un-American. We can choose to do it differently.
Anti-urban sentiment. There is a significant majority of Americans who have regarded and continue to regard cities as evil. Our mythology emphasizes the frontier; Daniel Boone wanted elbowroom. Ask most Americans to describe cities and you will hear, “noisy”, “dirty” and “unhealthy.” What we perceive as “healthy” may not actually be so. Acadia National Park (Mount Desert Island Maine) has serious air quality issues. What we fail to realize is that cars are a major factor in making cities dirty and less inviting. Without cars air quality in cities could be fairly good, as, generally speaking we no longer have large polluting industries located in cities. Without cars (and yes, smelly, noisy, diesel buses) a walk down a city sidewalk can be a pleasant experience. We are only slowly developing the concept of urban living as not necessarily meaning “big city” that we can create very pleasant urbanized areas. Portland, Oregon is demonstrating how successful this can be and yet Americans are still reluctant to equate “urban” with “good.”
The stigma of public transportation—We tend to see users of public transit as “losers”. It is difficult to fit that prejudice with the reality of say, any Los Angels Freeway on any workday where large numbers of drivers are stuck in the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) lanes in bumper to bumper traffic while those using the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes or riding light rail fly by. We would rather endure almost any frustration than “give up our freedom” and ride with others. Yet, the airlines and Washington DC’s informal commuter networks give a glimmer of hope. When necessity demands, we are able to and willing to accept Public Transport or shared vehicles. People seem quite willing to cram themselves in airplanes with all kinds of people because they accept that the alternative of driving to a distant location is just not feasible. In Washington DC some commuters line up for rides at suburban locations while others offer rides. The benefits of using HOV lanes trump the SOV. If we made public transportation faster and easier to use would people choose the bus or light rail? We have been embarked on at least a three quarter century policy of accommodating the motor vehicle with impressive if not disastrous results. This policy was for the most part haphazard and uncoordinated. Imagine what the possibilities could be of even a twenty-year plan of sensible transportation policy.
Myths/Responsibility. Here in Mid-coast Maine we have had a convenient excuse to not deal with our driving habits. We blame it on the tourists. Traffic is bad in summer, there are lots of tourists in Maine in the summer, ergo- tourism is the problem. Maine DOT’s studies have consistently shown that tourism is not a significant part of the congestion problem. We Mainers increase our driving in the summer, we’re much more active– warm weather, longer days, beach, water recreation etc. By blaming it on the tourists we don’t have to look at what we’re doing. This is ultimately about taking responsibility.
The town I live in has only small home businesses and few of them at that. We must drive for shopping, entertainment, and work. Yet our comprehensive plan doesn’t address this issue at all. It’s as though we drive out of town and we’re on another planet. We seem to believe that we have no responsibility to address the larger issues that result in part from the choices we make.
We believe that we are a beacon of hope for the world and we like to feel good about ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as the model for the world along with that democratic and free enterprise model, we also have exported our model of development too much of the rest of the world. We hear about the destruction of the pyramids in Egypt due to smog in part caused by increased automobility and the building of more roads. We know that emulating us, China and India are moving into car ownership at a rapid pace. Do we believe that the planet can withstand the demands of billions of new drivers? Any substance abuse counselor can tell us; Even though we can see the effects of our oil and car addictions on the rest of the world and on us, we are in denial.
Solutions During times of high gas prices, articles appear about how we should all keep our tires properly inflated to get better mileage and the President says we should not take frivolous trips by car. These Band-Aids are like dieting–Too easily forgotten and not very effective. The problem cannot be addressed by simply changing our habits for a few months.
While actually driving less is a fine ideal. I also hope that it is clear that driving less is difficult to do unless we somehow make our habitual daily lives require less driving. Obviously there are many things that we could all do to help, but individual actions in isolation will not solve the problem. We need a structured approach. What is needed is a hierarchy of actions. Just as we had the recycling hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle, we need one for individual transportation choices– Don’t’ drive, drive less, drive wisely. We also need a hierarchy for legislative and regulatory decision-making. This governmental hierarchy is essentially the same, but would state that first priority shall be given to actions that allow citizens and commerce to conduct their business without needing to use a car. Second priority will be given to actions that will lessen the use of motor vehicles and lesser priority still will be given to actions that increase the efficiency of cars and the manner in which they are used. Government’s role in this hierarchy will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter.
All the steps of the hierarchy have dual approaches–1) What you can do yourself and 2) What you can do to make it easier for others to do the same. The second approach should outweigh the first thus, for example, walking to work may be fine for you to do, but making it easier for others to do the same would be better. Feeling good about the choices you’re making, being an example, is great, but it’s important not to lose sight of the goal. Lots of people only driving slightly less is a lot better than one person never driving.
Don’t drive–This strategy, the most important of the hierarchy includes everything from making vacation choices to choosing where you live. It can be as simple as planning a trip that doesn’t involve driving. Recently, we took a trip out West. Part of the goal for that trip was to avoid needing a car and we were able to avoid driving for the entire trip except for a two-hour drive back to the airport. We used trains, buses, vans and ferries. At the other end of the spectrum, the “Not driving” strategy may include very basic life choices such as deciding where you are going to live. Can you move near to where you work or near to a transit system that can get you to work without a car? And, with the greater value of the “not driving” for others, you could promote not driving options or work with organizations or government bodies to do the same.
Drive Less –One obvious thing to seriously consider is car-pooling. Even ride sharing just one day a week can be a significant change. The choice doesn’t have to be a binary choice–ride sharing or not ride sharing. We are not going to change overnight. We still need to do errands pick up the kids etc., but can’t we give it up for one or two days per week? Besides, it doesn’t preclude doing those things after you get dropped at the park and ride lot. It does take a commitment on your part; we don’t give up our “freedom” easily. We can acknowledge our fears-fears that we don’t really have good car etiquette for car-pooling. (Do you listen to the news, do you talk?), fears of being stranded if your ride share forgets to pick you up. (In my state if you register with the state car pool you are eligible for a free emergency car rental if your ride does not come through.) We can overcome our fears and maybe even enjoy riding with others. We can figure this out. The Washington DC “sluggers” have.
Driving Less can also include fun activities; I set up a bus run from our town to a popular annual event. Instead of twelve cars going to the fair, one small bus went. If the fair had discouraged the driving of individual vehicles to the event, parking priority adjacent to the fair and a bypass system so we could drive there directly without having to wait in line with the cars might have been available.
In order to promote less driving you might vote against moving the High School or other municipal facilities to the outskirts of town, but joining a Smart Growth group would ensure a more consistent action. Ask about workplace incentives. Do you get free parking at a parking garage as a benefit? Would your company be willing to pay you some portion of their incurred cost to not provide you with that benefit? The list is long; it is difficult to think creatively about transportation choices when we are afloat in the sea of car dependency.
Drive Wisely. This one is pretty obvious. Of course you could buy more efficient cars thus creating demand for more efficiency. You can also rent larger vehicles when you need them. I rent pick-ups when I need to haul heavy things around; the rent is cheap compared to all the costs of owning and operating a large vehicle. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a car co-op, join it. Yes, you can keep your tires inflated, but maybe more importantly join a group (or start your own) or maybe even a business that may be looking at how to make it easier for people to keep their tires inflated. The possibilities are endless, but individuals need support and encouragement to make changes.
It is government’s role whether that governing body is federal, state, regional or municipal to implement the hierarchy through creating opportunities. Specifically, government needs to define strategies to make it possible for individuals to choose to live without cars, to not need to drive as much and when driving to use less resources. Government will also need to create the environment to make these changes possible. Part of that process will be to prioritize changes so that immediate implementable short-term goals (for instance, fuel efficiency standards) are pursued as the longer term strategies are developed
It will also be government’s role to foster dialog on how we get from complete auto dependency to at least a more balanced use of modes. . In the early nineties, Maine passed the Sensible Transportation Policy Act (STPA). One of the requirements of that act was to set up Regional Transportation Advisory Committees (RTAC). The committees’ members were from various segments of the society, Business, Transportation Industry, Municipal, Environmental, Land Use, and Interested citizen. The idea was to bring all the different voices together and attempt to address future transportation needs and directions. In Maine, this attempt was not very successful because in part, the discussion was not focused enough on how to change transportation to meet future needs, because there was no central advisory (RTAC) for MDOT, MDOT was not ready for this mission lacking and non-highway planning staff and still being a reactive as opposed to a proactive agency. Still, the model is a good one—focus on the future, have at least some clear goals in mind and involve diverse interests.
The government’s goal, in line with the hierarchy should be: to make it possible for a citizen in any region to choose to live without a car and because of that choice to suffer no reasonable limitations on their freedoms, well being, and economic opportunity. This goal is to be implemented by 1) Creating demand for non car transportation, 2) By removing impediments to the maximum efficiency of public transportation, 3) By fostering transportation choices that conserve energy and natural resources, 4) By Redefining the role of Departments of Transportation to reflect our future transportation vision.
In part, demand will be created through the defining of transportation growth corridors. The government will: 1) allocate resources to that corridor consistent with developing demand for public transit. 2) Zoning will limit and ultimately ban commercial development outside the corridor and to make residential developments outside the corridor as ATM friendly as possible. All this zoning will be aimed at discouraging the use of cars and promoting demand for ATMs.
Future planning and infrastructure will give priority to public transit and other ATMs. Infrastructure changes will include maximizing efficiencies of ATMs by giving them priority at intersections and through separate lanes. Governmental planning resources will be funded through the Transportation departments and will focus on regional, and local interconnectivity. Departments of Transportation will also act as a clearinghouse for information on ATMs
Departments of Transportation will function under the following objectives: conserving or lessening highway capacity. Establishing benchmark Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) benchmarks and set goals for reducing it. Align funding with new priorities (disconnect “gas tax” to highway funding), Reducing fuel consumption, improving emissions and conserving resources will be priorities.
Because, the car is so enmeshed in our society, it is difficult to look at it objectively. For many, any attempt to limit the car brings up fears–loss of freedom, economic disaster. For others who may recognize the conundrum of the automobile, it’s fear of that thin line between “denial and despair.” As Al Gore said in “An Inconvenient Truth.”–the fear that nothing can be done to effect a change.
We do not need to fear changing our transportation system, our country thrived when we had a water based transportation system and later with the railroads—our transportation system is not who we are. The great American automobile is clearly a part of our culture and even without the car as the currency of our transportation system we can still honor that culture. We can still have NASCAR. We can still admire the lines of a DeLorean. What I think we can no longer do is ignore the consequences of depending on the car as our main means of transportation. We simply can no longer tolerate a future that resembles our present.