A better way; the 30% fewer car solution

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Eye from Albany
February 2006

A better way; the 30% fewer car solution
by Paul M. Bray

Our nation is in a dual crisis of dependence on “polluting, terror-promoting foreign oil” and rising energy prices hampering the “financial freedom of the working family, their employer and their economy”.

Regrettably, President Bush, his inner circle beginning with VP Cheney and the Republican Congress don’t get it. They would rather fight terror at the same time as they fan the flames of terror with our oil dependency. Most everyone else gets it including New York’s Republican governor and a growing number of corporations all seeking a way out of this crisis situation.

Without leadership from Washington, it leaves the vast array of stakeholders to fashion remedies, all of which will be at best half measures until we have a national leadership.

Governor Pataki’s way is to “jump-start a new era of statewide availability and use of renewable fuels” and thereby maintaining our auto dependency.

The Governor wants to begin “with an initiative to make renewable fuels available at service stations all across the state, starting with the New York State Thruway”. His plan includes elimination of state taxes on renewable automotive fuels; creation of new renewable fuel stations across the State; development of “clean coal” power plants; a new hybrid vehicle tax credit; discounted Thruway tolls for hybrid vehicles; creation of a new state-of-the-art alternative fuel vehicle research lab; and new tax-free benefits for clean energy companies that create jobs. He also talked about creating ethanol refineries that use agricultural and wood products.

No thank you, Governor, there is a much better way than trying to maintain auto dependency, congestion and sprawl. The better way maintains mobility and gets us walkable communities.

First of all, the renewable energy solution is a minimal solution at best. It takes energy to make energy. The New York Times reported that a Cornell University study points out “that producing ethanol from corn costs more energy that it creates, when the diesel fuel used by tractors and the production of fertilizer and other factors are considered”. The Times also quotes Peter Iwanowicz from the American Lung Association saying that, “Ethanol increases ozone formation, which is obviously harmful for people with lung disease, and biodiesel increases emissions of nitrogen ozide”.

Furthermore, growing non-food use of crops places affordable supply of food at risk. Instead of paying more at the pump we will pay more at the supermarket. Use of vegetable oil as a substitute for diesel fuel has increased the price of canola oil. Joachim von Braun, Director of the Washington based, nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute said, with regard to the demand for energy from farm products, that “the mouth of your car is a monster compared to your family’s stomach needs”. He forecasts instability of energy prices will be mirrored by instability in food prices.

These renewables and the far off dream of a hydrogen economy have huge start-up and maintenance costs. As Albany columnist Fred LeBrun concludes, “So look at those pump prices today, folks. It may never get better than this.”

There is a better way through non-auto dependent mobility options. In 2002 I wrote an Eye column suggesting that the way out of auto dependency is by out competing the automobile through other and better means for mobility. Since that column was written, albeit very quietly, many things are happening that will allow us to reduce out auto dependency and thereby out dependency on foreign oil.

In fact there are a number of things happening to reduce auto demand like increased demand for city living by empty nesters and young professionals where residents use transit, take elevators and walk rather than drive to get a loaf of bread. Car sharing, cost effective transit and customized paratransit for groups with common mobility needs also reduce the demand for auto use.

Former Mayor Jaime Lerner of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, population 1.7 million, has been traveling around the world with the mantra, “Imagine a City with 30 Percent Fewer Cars”, as he touts the benefits of bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT is a cost effective way of transforming “dowdy bus lines” into fast, comfortable and reliable” transportation. Light rail is 10 to 20 times more expensive than BRT. With BRT encourages growth along the BRT line for integrated living between home and work.

West coast cities that were in the vanguard of auto dominance when they tore up trolley tracks are now along with cities like Seoul, South Korea and 60 other cities worldwide opting for some version of BRT.

The tip of the BRT iceberg is about to happen in New York State along an approximately 20 mile stretch of Route 5 between the downtowns of Albany and Schenectady. Although much of this BRT route will not have the dedicated lane Lerner desires, quality stations for express service displaying time of arrival as well as having priority at traffic lights will make fast, reliable service possible.

Transportation brokering for organized ride sharing is another emerging approach for reducing traffic and thereby dependence on foreign oil. The technology of the internet, integrated geographic systems, computer assisted scheduling programs, and commercial billing systems can be combined to deliver transportation to affinity groups as a utility.

“In a transportation brokering system”, claims Dorothy Camer who is organizing a paratransit project in Prince George’s County, Maryland, “the customer will have the opportunity to interact with the system to identify the specific transportation needs. The system will then search for solutions with no additional hassle to the customer and deliver the service. The service should be as unobtrusive as possible, very much as utilities are delivered.” Camer’s handbook on a brokerage system for group ridesharing to reduce traffic congestion can be found at www.geocities.com/takoma20912.

As reported in the New York Times in an article, “By the Hour, Your Chariot Awaits; A Few Keyboard Clicks Put Car Sharers on Wheels”, car sharing is a growing business phenomena in a growing number of cities. Car sharing programs allow members to reserve and drive a car whenever they want without the hassle of car ownership.

Shuttle services for short trips at malls and residential developments are also on the rise. As you can see alternatives to the auto and more efficient use of the auto are beginning to reduce auto dependency and therefore dependence on foreign oil.

Let us consider financing renewable energy sources against the option of a mobility campaign to reduce auto use by 30%. Not only will reducing auto dependency be less costly, it will allow us to foster a pattern of living where activities of life are better integrated and that make for more humane and healthy communities.

Hopefully, some of our political leaders will step up and make the case for the 30% solution.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental lawfirm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.