Mobility Partnership: Time to out compete the auto

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Eye from Albany
June 2002

Mobility Partnership: Time to out compete the auto
By Paul M. Bray

A decade or so ago I thought we were in store for a transformational change in transportation. As the horse changed from a primary mode of transportation in the 19th century to recreational use in the 20th century, there were signs the same fate would happen to the auto as its societal costs including pollution, sprawl, 40,000 highway deaths a year, congestion, inequity in mobility and energy security could relegate the auto to becoming more a recreational vehicle than basic transportation in the 21st century.

Alas, this transformation hasn’t happened even as these societal costs of auto dependency continue to increase. The forces for auto dependency have put up a wall of resistance and they have the active support of the prince of the oil patch in the White House. To illustrate, when Russian leader Putin told President Bush that he would like to ride a horse with the President while visiting his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the President replied that he does his < riding in his SUV. In light of the growing alarm over climate change and energy security (our reliance on foreign oil) after 9/11, it is logical to think that some, albeit they small, efforts would be made to tame our gasoline guzzling. It isn't happening. The two logical and immediate ways to act have been non-starters. These are increase the cost of gasoline to decrease demand and raise the fuel efficiency standards for cars and some light trucks from the current 24 miles per gallon standard. No one in the political arena dares propose increasing the tax on gasoline. The effort to set the bar higher on fuel efficiency failed miserably in the Senate by a vote of 62-38. In the Senate debate on fuel-efficient standards, Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader, pointed to a picture of the small Smart car driven in Europe as a terrifying vision of what tougher fuel economy standards would impose in America. The right to pollute by driving a gas guzzling SUV appears to be joining the right to bear arms as defining American rights. While all signs are that the auto or worst, the SUV and pick up truck, will continue to reign in the 21st century until a climate or oil apocalypse happen, let me suggest that there is a way to move beyond auto dependence in the good old American way of fostering competition. By this I mean not simply the technological fix of cleaner autos that is at best five to ten years out and only addresses a portion of the problems with auto dependency, but behavior and system changes that decrease use of the auto in favor of other options for mobility and accessibility. It is time to out compete the auto with other means of achieving access and mobility as the auto once out competed the trolley. Our attention needs to be riveted on increasing auto free mobility. Out competing the auto to increase auto free mobility will not be easy. The number of miles driven over the past 20 years has increased 4 times the rates of population growth. As auto use increases, the landscape of sprawl and malls makes us more auto dependent. Americans love their cars (it has been called "an extension of your psycho-motor system") and studies have shown that many consider their cars a member of their family. A quarter of car owners humanize their car by giving it a name. The odds at the moment are stacked in favor of the auto. Countervailing forces to auto dependence haven't had the traction to make a difference even with a growing frustration with auto dependence as evidenced by a recent piece in the New York Times titled "Overcoming a Taboo, Buses Will Now Serve Suburban Atlanta". Congestion experienced by commuters is becoming severe enough to create a real demand by suburbanites for transit. A mostly unstated dissatisfaction with the declining social cohesion or lack of community that is caused in part by auto dependence also can be found across the nation. Yet, the auto remains king of the hill. Let me suggest that it is possible to move beyond auto dominance for basic transportation by establishing a goal oriented mobility partnership to design and implement a strategy of diverse alternatives to out compete the auto with a range of life style and transportation options. A mobility partnership needs the participation of Washington but it will really depend on leadership at the state and community level where the critical decisions shaping the land use pattern are made and some good things are already happening. Step one is to establish national goals identifying a certain percentage decrease in auto miles traveled per year and goals for indicators of non auto mobility like numbers of people walking to work and using transit between home and work. These are non binding measures that will offer feedback on success and failures to what should be seen and felt as a national common effort. Image the annual report for the State Department of Transportation defining its success on how many fewer miles were driven than the previous year. The message is not that the auto is being denied to anyone by government taxes or regulation, but attractive mobility alternatives are being created that make them the transport of choice for increasing numbers of people. The fun and creativity will come in what could be thousands of local and state initiatives dovetailing to improve mobility without having to use an auto. The examples are many and varied. Already in cities like Boston, Seattle and Washington, DC private businesses are finding a market for shared cars. Members can access from a pool of cars as they need whether for shopping or a drive in the country. It is estimated that each car in a shared car pool removes from 8 to 10 autos from the road. High tech enters the picture with developments like the two wheel Segwey Human Transporter, popularly known as "Ginger", now being used by the Atlanta police for personal transport, fixed guideway systems and technologies now being implemented that, for example, display through global positioning the time the next bus will arrive at bus stops taking away the frustration of not knowing when the next bus will arrive. There is a lot of room for existing transportation to be upgraded. Bus rapid transit systems are a cross between the traditional bus and trolley offering the flexibility of one and the comfort of the other. Passenger rail can be upgraded as Amtrak has done with the Acela in the Northeast corridor. Pedestrian and bicycle amenities are known upgrades to any community and > manuals like “Improving Bicycling and Pedestrian Safety” produced by the New York Bicycling Coalition, if followed by the engineers, would make our communities more friendly and safer for people on foot or bicycle.

Finally, public policies can facilitate preference for the alternatives to the auto. The Federal transportation funding program has been moving in the right direction in the 1990s as it has increased funding for modes of transportation other that highways. New York’s Department of Transportation is talking the talk about being more environmentally sensitive. Sometimes they have done the right thing but other times like the Route 9 and 20 corridor project approaching Albany they are still the road hogs of old. Too often DOT goes to the environmental planners to dress up a project after the die is cast in service of the auto.

Incentives for living near work are a great way to reduce auto dependency and they are offered as part of the Smart Growth strategy in Maryland. Requiring that senior housing be developed near transit lines serves the seniors who shouldn’t be driving and increases the market for transit operators. Peripheral parking would be much more attractive to commuters if served by comfortable shuttle buses offering coffee. Zoning and planning laws that allow mixed use and transit oriented development are leading to land use patterns that significantly lessen auto dependency.

State government in Albany is a good place to start the ball rolling for a mobility partnership or systematic effort to out compete the auto for the sake of our environment, health, safety and community cohesion. As Governor Rockefeller did in the 1960s when he turned around a culture of polluting our waterways like the Hudson River and created the pure waters program in the Empire State, Governor Pataki could ignite the mobility partnership and start a sea change in mobility that would free many of us from the auto only choice and society from all the environmental, health and safety costs that come with to much dependence on the auto. Once the mobility goal is set then procedures like environmental impact analysis can be used to see that it get addressed in reviewing projects that affect mobility options.

We have the technological potential and abilities as a society to move beyond the auto as the primary means of mobility, it is just a question of whether we have the leadership and will.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is