alissawalker

Hosted By:

Alissa Walker

Writer

Oct 18

2010

In some large U.S. metropolitan areas like New York City, public transit is the norm and bike-riding is on the rise thanks to proactive efforts by city agencies. But in most of the country, public and alternative transportation options either don't exist, or, if they do, there is often a stigma attached to using them.

With goals of relieving traffic congestion, making our citizens healthier, and preventing ecological disaster, how can we encourage municipalities and individuals to commit to buses, trains and bikes? What would make you give up your car?


Tom gave the final word

I think most of the solutions have already been expressed by the previous commenters. But just to reiterate that I think it will take a careful balance of incentives and disincentives. Places like Copenhagen didn’t just become cycling meccas — in the 1970s the city was on an American-style path toward autodom. It was made gradually more difficult to drive a car, and gradually more easy to ride a bike. And what happened? You’ve got a nearly 40% daily cycling commuting rate. As I write, the Brooklyn borough president is making the charge that cycling advocates want the city to become like Amsterdam, that we want to ’stigmatize’ the car. It’s not about stigmatizing the car, it’s about restoring the balance of livability and transportation in increasingly crowded 21st century cities where the secret to moving people around is not going to be solo drivers in massive SUVs. I liked the comment made by a writer recently in the magazine Monocle; he didn’t want to see cities turned over to entirely pedestrianized streets, but that the car needed to be made to feel a guest in the city — not the owner. So gradually reducing the space allotted to cars, balancing it with other options; changing the design of the streets to make them feel less like traffic channels than viable public space ‘between the buildings’; accurately charging drivers for their use of public space and the congestion and other externalities instead of our Soviet-style system of controls and subsidies; changing the design (and size) of cars that are found in cities; and of course offering plenty of carrots (good transit, bike parking, et al) on the other side. My city is far more important to me than my car.

Friday, October 22 at 3:55pm

drepucci

Demian Repucci

Creative consultant, innovator, designer

How about take away government subsidies given to oil companies? If the price of gas were raised to reflected its actual production costs I bet a lot of people would be forced financially to switch to something cheaper such as public transportation. Unfortunately, cities such as Chicago, Houston, etc. have grown to rely on the American car culture. Chicago’s ‘L’ and bus system is woefully anemic, underserves vast portions of the city and would not be able to handle the influx of a large number of new daily riders. My guess is that American cities such as this don’t have the money to upgrade their public transportation systems so are happy to maintain the driving status quo. And I bet that the parking meter and parking ticket revenues don’t hurt either.
Another issue preventing greater public transportation efficacy in the US might be city zoning laws. Many cities have allowed growth in the form of sprawl. Instead of building up it has historically been much easier to build out. The result being that many cities have large metro areas and populations but low population densities. Something that makes building a public transportation system big enough to serve that large area a big, costly problem. One of the reasons the New York City Subway system works is because of the high population density in a relatively small area. This due, as luck and nature would have it, to the obvious restrictions of building a city on a small island.
One other factor that comes to mind when thinking about all of this is that artificially cheap gas has made the car companies lazy. No need to develop new fuel sources or make engines more efficient when gas prices are so cheap. A statistic I just saw lists the average MPG for US passenger cars in 1980 at 16.0. The average MPG in 2008 was 22.6. So does this mean that in 28 years our cars have only increased in fuel efficiency by 6.6MPG? Pretty pathetic. In that time we have managed to make computers fairly ubiquitous and fit in a pocket. So why aren’t we all now driving cars that get 100MPG? I know the reasons are many and varied but I think it is a question that should be asked.
Of course, I know that I have drifted a bit from offering an answer your question so I apologize. It is a good question and one that should be considered as our cities continue to develop into the future. Not to mention, as you stated, the ramifications on our society’s collective health that sedentary car culture has contributed to.
Good question to start a conversation! I will definitely keep an eye on it. Thanks!

Monday, October 18 at 10:24am

I currently live in a city that prefers the car and I take transit. One of the biggest challenges for bus transit, in particular, is the conveyance of a sound system. If you close your eyes and imagine a bus stop, chances are this is what you’ll remember seeing: a couple of people standing, maybe if they’re lucky there is a glass shelter to protect from the weather, but there is no indication that a bus is on its way to pick them up. In my city, the bus stops consist of a plaque with each bus number, and a phone number to call to see when the next bus is expected. There are no maps, no schedules, not even a listing of stops.
I think there is a great design opportunity here. The routes may be well-engineered, but the communication of how a transit system will take one from ‘a’ to ‘b’ is begging for improvement. It is my belief that if bus stops were to include a live indication of when the next bus is coming, an interactive trip planner and maps to help people realize where they are, I think a lot more people would trade their cars for transit. Asking individuals to rely on their personal phones and google maps to self-navigate is one thing. Inviting people to ride because you’ve simplified their travel is quite another.

Monday, October 18 at 12:43pm

I agree with Amery. Most people don’t take public transportation because there are so many paths of “least resistance”, one where they didn’t have to rely on the system’s reliability.

I’d love to see the day when bus stops:
1) Can protect people from the weather. Provide shade and seats, not just poles on the road
2) Provide updates on the bus route’s status.
3) Design an user-friendly interface for people to figure out how to get from A to B. I know I have to do a lot of Google Mapping to understand how to get from one spot to another. It leaves no room for spontaneity, which perhaps is one of the perceived advantages of having cars in the first place.

Monday, October 18 at 1:36pm

    Carren is on target. I agree. The most challenging things I have dealt with and heard related to mass transport are issues like this.

    Tuesday, October 19 at 11:30am

carlyhagins

Carly Hagins

designer, adjunct professor

As someone who has lived with and without a car in cities on the west and east coast (and some in-between), I think a big factor is safety. I feel extremely (maybe too) safe when I drive home, alone, late at night in my car. I like to ride my bike, but there are issues of visibility at night, and public transportation can be intimidating (particularly when you’re unfamiliar with your surroundings.)

I really believe that dedicated bike lanes would help encourage people to ride bicycles. European-style lanes would be ideal- safely separate from both the road and the sidewalk.

Better, more reliable bus schedules and stops would make riding the bus much more inviting. I agree with everyone who has already posted that riding the bus needs to be more intuitive. It would be nice to be able to figure out how to get from A to B, on the bus, without having to sit down at your computer first.

Monday, October 18 at 1:57pm

alissawalker

Alissa Walker

Writer

Thanks everyone for your awesome comments! It seems there are two main areas of improvement to focus on: 1) infrastructural: fewer parking lots, safer bike lanes, better control of sprawl and 2) technological: smarter bus stops, better interfaces to figure out where to go and when. I think we can probably find some pretty solid infrastructural examples of great transit solutions throughout the U.S., even if they’re not found everywhere. But what about the technology? Has anyone seen really effective examples of “smart bus stops” or other transit apps that really break down those communication barriers? Is there a way to bring mapping and trip planning technology to people who don’t have constant access to iPhones? Or a way to encourage that “spontaneity” that people think they’re giving up by having to plan their trip in advance?

Monday, October 18 at 3:52pm

    I recently visited Sweden where bus culture is the norm and cars are rather rare. Even in smaller cities such as Karlstad, the city revolves around the bus schedule. Their bus maps look more like subway maps, and at each major transfer stop they have a large live LED screen (the same you’d expect in an airport) showcasing the next bus expected arrival time countdown by the minute, destination, and side of the platform. If you have a smart phone, there is even an app created by the bus company that helps you map your point A to B route. It also alerts you when the bus is late. You can also use your smart phone as your ticket, simply by flashing your SMS paid ticket to the bus driver. At all other stops, there is at least a pole showcasing the entire route map, along with a time-table of pick-up times at each hour.

    Another thing that surprised me was the amount of pro-bus advertising. They even had a large quote (in Swedish) on the sides of each bus that said something like “Taking the bus rather driving a car for a year saves the same amount of carbon emissions as 14 flights from Stockholm to New York.” They even had posters inside the bus that showed a man with a devil persona and an angel persona on either side of his head. The dark side holding car keys while the title said “Bus or Car?” This public display of a smarter choice provides citizens with the “feel good” mentality of riding the bus. As more people take the bus, the more and more the culture is influenced.

    One more thing that astonished me was the two lane highways, built on purpose. They discovered that by having only one lane, car accidents dropped dramatically, in addition to a significant drop in traffic. It probably helps that a gallon of gas is roughly $8. Filling up a tank would cost anywhere from $70-$90 – four times the cost of a two-week bus pass.

    Sweden’s mature approach to transportation demonstrates that the design of the transportation system – including technology and infrastructure – is vital, however a stronger social thread propels the system forward. It’s always focused on making their journey easy and convenient, while leaving them feeling good.

    Monday, October 18 at 4:55pm

    Funny enough, the only place that I’ve been in so far that had a tech component with bus stop waiting was in Pittsburgh. You text a certain number at a specific bus stop and you get a message when the next buses will be arriving. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen in it on the main bus stops in Pittsburgh. I don’t think they rolled it out. I did use it a couple of times and it helped alleviate my anxiousness.

    Here’s the link: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_610298.html

    Monday, October 18 at 6:57pm

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    Thanks Jenn and Carren! Sweden’s program shows how it’s a combination of services and branding that has to work together to provide a positive experience. I’d be curious to know if it increased ridership. Here in LA we have a great branding campaign for Metro, but what I wouldn’t give for Pittsburgh’s text-alert system, just to know how long I have to wait on a quiet corner at night.

    I’d love to hear more examples of great technology solutions that help keep passengers safe, happy and on-time, but I’d also love to know about branding or rewards that make riders feel good about taking transit.

    Tuesday, October 19 at 6:01pm

    Hi Alissa,

    Speaking of rewards for mass transit, LA Metro has a rather under-promoted program :) Did you know we get discounts for taking the metro? I only found out by checking their blog. Metro riders get discounts on food, tours and even theater: http://thesource.metro.net/2010/10/18/destination-discounts-weekly-picks-25/#leap.

    I actually do love their blog too. It’s written in a very approachable way without the politics that comes with government. (Not too much anyway). Steve Hymon, a former LA Times Metro Section reporter, is one of the writers.

    Wednesday, October 20 at 2:06pm

Option #1
I think the key is density and a strong transportation infrastructure. By positioning people closer to the things they need (schools, food, entertainment) and installing reliable transportation options (bike lanes, subways, bus lines, etc.) people will travel in a more ecologically healthy manner. If people don’t need to travel far for the things they need and there is a reliable alternative, they will naturally use a car less (this is optimistic, but I believe in it).

Municipalities can help out by reducing sprawl, designing city centers with affordable housing for multiple levels of income, and creating a system of reliable transportation options.

Option #2
Make cars really really ugly and expensive.

Monday, October 18 at 4:05pm

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    Okay, I love the idea about making cars ugly and expensive. But here’s a interesting alternative, passed along to me yesterday, making them *beautiful* and expensive: http://jalopnik.com/5392547/

    Basically, eradicate “boring,” utilitarian cars, and position the car as a purely enjoyable experience. So no more Honda Accords made for sitting in traffic, instead, we ride public transit most of the time and save our cars—our Porsches, our classic Mustangs—for the times when we can enjoy them, like on fun weekend drives. Everyone’s driving less, and people save their money to buy only the cars that they really love.

    Tuesday, October 19 at 5:54pm

For me it pretty much comes down to time and readiness. I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve stopped to ask myself, before taking my car somewhere, is it really necessary to drive there? By doing this I’ve cut down on much of my driving. When I do drive it’s usually because I’m in a rush, am taking other people with me or carrying a bunch of stuff, which is really all about what’s easiest or most convenient. I’ve found navigating the Metro system pretty easy so for me it’s not really about the availability of public transportation, though I’m in favor of improvements. I’ve actually found it pretty easy to get around most places I’d want to go by biking and taking the bus.

So for me it’s more about my thinking and being more intentional. I catch myself reflexively thinking in terms of car traffic time rather than by another way. Also, it’s important for me to feel like I can get somewhere quickly if I need to … if my mom gets sick or a friend needs me I want to be able to get there right away and I haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without driving.

I’m pretty sure I could give up my car…I think what it would take for me is the availability of a neighborhood car sharing initiative or friends who would be game for car sharing. Maybe also a mentor situation where someone who has given up their car agrees to help someone else figure out how to do it. My goal is to get to a point where car travel is my transportation alternative.

I’m really interested in what others think. Thanks for asking the question.

Monday, October 18 at 6:55pm

It seems that there exists consensus about the color and shape of the preferred urban transportation future. The common desire is for more extensive and accessible rail and bus systems, infrastructural changes amenable to cyclists and pedestrians, and perhaps most importantly the evolution of population dense, efficient, and highly livable urban spaces.
If sprawl and poorly planned and badly aged public transit infrastructure are the most likely causes of the urban cancers associated with car travel, (environmental damage represented by falling air quality, the ugly inefficiency of automobile gridlock, and the socio-economic inequalities bred at least in part by the car facilitated growth of the low density suburbs), what then are the solutions. These are old ideas. There is a somewhat common vision for a car free(er) future. I want to know how we go about the transformation. I am persuaded that this will be, if it is to be, a “top down” transformation driven by municipal and larger government innovation. I will leave it to the better informed to offer some idea of what these innovations will be, or a different model for the desired changes, perhaps one placing more emphasis on cultural metamorphosis and a “bottom up” dismantling of car culture.

Tuesday, October 19 at 6:36pm

I gave up my car some years ago. It’s easy to do in Chicago. Transit is frequent and plentiful. Parking is expensive. Driving is slow during rush hours. And you can live close to work. I’ve never felt that I was making a sacrifice to ditch the car. It just sense.

If we can make it make sense in other cities, people will change transportation modes.

Compact, mixed use neighborhoods with plentiful transit, safe biking, and paid parking is a good formula to follow.

Tuesday, October 19 at 10:29pm

jeremymelling

Jeremy Melling

Building Conservation Consultant

Nothing would make me give up my car, or van in this case. Having said that, seven years ago a deliberate and concious lifestyle change reduced my annual mileage from more than 40,000 to about 8000. And that 8000 is pretty much essential, it’s how I do my trade, conservation of historic buildings, hence the van.

When the congestion charge was introduced into London it removed heavy traffic in central areas overnight. And the money raised from charging the remaining drivers has gone towards improving public transport infrastructure. Now nearly all bus stops have shelters and real-time information displays. So those who insist on driving, pay to improve the journey of those who chose not to. It might not be entirely fair, I had to pay to drive to my own home in central London but clearly I was part of the problem. What it did, was change the car users into a minority and the majority of new public transport users have a louder voice. Those who don’t want to drive or use public transport use taxis. However these are heavy polluters so it’s not a perfect solution.

Now I live out of the city and the nearest large town is 9 miles away. The nearest bus stop is about a mile away, and that is just a post at the roadside. How do you use a service like this for groceries shopping? I don’t and nor does anyone else. The car has changed society so much that shopping, business and recreation have been centralised. You can’t find these services in most local areas any more, either urban or rural. It would take a return to pre-war society to recreate those lost local services. In some places, small groups of people are trying to change this and encouraging local trade but these are generally amateurs, maybe sometimes small producers not wanting to sell through superstores, but the schemes are amateur and often short lived or ineffective.

London also has a large network of cycle lanes but these often follow the easiest route to construct, not the most direct. And frequently they end at a major intersection. You have to be aggressive and fast to get round Hyde Park Corner, south along Park Lane and through the Wellington roundabout. Most cyclists wouldn’t take such a risk. The final problem for the cyclist is the attitude of the commercial cyclist. The dispatch rider has to be aggressive to survive, but that aggression is taken onto pavements, through stop lights, over pedestrian crossings. Most Londoners hate them and that hate is extended to ordinary commuter cyclists. So a logistical problem becomes a social problem. Out of the major cities there are few cycle paths except leisure routes on disused railway lines.

I don’t think that we can do much to change our modern habits. It took about 60 years for the car to dominate British society and it will take that long to remove it from society. And in doing so we may have to give up, or loose entirely some of the great improvements of the last few decades. You can’t make people buy into that. Sometimes, as with London’s congestion charge, you just have to force people to do things differently. I am certain it will happen eventually, I don’t think my son will have the chance to own the type of cars and motorcycles that I have owned, but it might be his children who come up with the proper solution.

Wednesday, October 20 at 1:29am

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    Jeremy I think your point is a really good one. We’ve moved far away from things like walking to local stores or using delivery services in favor of the convenience and freedom of being able to drive where we want, when we want. Most people will never give that up.

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about the timeline of the automobile itself. It’s not that old, really. I like your theory about the car taking 60 years to dominate society, and how it will take 60 years to erase its prevalence. Are cars already on the way out? Will we look back on this era as the time when driving was just a short-lived fad?

    Thursday, October 21 at 11:35am

I’ve thought a little more about this. More walk streets without parking and/or high cost residential parking in separate structures like what’s done in NYC and Japan would make it much less desirable to own a car. Revenue from parking structures could subsidize transit improvements. I’m sure this is not a novel idea but I haven’t seen it in LA.

Thursday, October 21 at 2:14pm

    carlyhagins

    Carly Hagins

    designer, adjunct professor

    I think Jeremy’s perspective- that we can’t do much to change modern habits- is alarmingly spot on.

    Bike lanes (some of the first in my city) were just put in on a street by my house. I was elated, but have heard more than one individual bemoan the fact that there is no longer on-street parking on that road. People are so used to transportation via car that they cannot even see the major win that a bicycle lane represents; to them it is a step backwards.

    This makes me think that shifting the norm to buses, trains, and bicycles is going to have to come about through a bit of disruptive change, most likely sparked by policy makers. Some people are going to feel put-out and uncomfortable, and put up a lot of resistance. Those who want the change need to be ready to field the complaints.

    Thursday, October 21 at 4:16pm

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    So true, Carly. I had no idea there were anti-bike people out there until I saw a video of people protesting a bike lane in Brooklyn. Many people do indeed see bikes, light-rail and buses as a nuisance.

    A question for everyone: What might that disruptive change look like? Vicki points out things like closing streets permanently, jacking up the price of parking. What else?

    Friday, October 22 at 11:23am

    The protesting of bike lanes in Brooklyn is quite an interesting phenomenon. There has been a lot of conflict around a lane along Bedford Ave that basically goes from downtown Brooklyn through Williamsburg and on to Greenpoint.

    However, there the conflict isn’t really about bikes being thought of as a nuisance, but rather tension between the traditional Satmar Hasidic community with deep roots in that section of Williamsburg and the perceived outsiders who ride through on their way to somewhere else. It’s an interesting dynamic because in a way because the Bedford lane is just about the safest lane in all of Brooklyn between sundown , which can be as early as 4 pm some parts of the year, on Friday until dark on Saturday night as no one drives on Shabbat. And this is all happening against a backdrop of rapid socio-economic change in a relatively concentrated area, which brings its own challenges.

    It’s somewhat ironic that there’s such conflict around this in a place that might be seen as a very livable community (without the religious extremism perhaps) because its members tend to walk everywhere, buy locally, typically work and socialize right within a 4-block area and set aside at least one day every week when they absolutely do not drive. Better understanding on both sides would probably go a long way.

    Friday, October 22 at 12:43pm

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    I know what you’re talking about, Vicki, that’s definitely a contentious issue. But the video I saw was this one, about Prospect Park: http://vimeo.com/13130084 Not a Hasidic vs. hipster battle, but a group of residents who were genuinely against bike lanes.

    Friday, October 22 at 4:33pm

Someone I know who lives in Montreal recently told me they have a program that encourages people to exchange their old cars for half a year of free mass transit, cash subsidy of a bike or electric scooter, and either enrollment in or a discount for a car-share program that i think is like zip car. It may also be that a participant can cash out any of it they prefer.

There’s another program somewhere in the US that offers discounted mortgage rates to homeowners who use public transportation, but I’m not sure if they require one to be car-free. Maybe write a primer describing the range of strategies that have been tried that details what’s known about their relative effectiveness?

Thursday, October 21 at 7:29pm

steveportigal

Steve Portigal

Principal, Portigal Consulting

The reason we need cars is because we have to leave our homes. For employment, for entertainment, for socializing, and to procure sustenance. But Google and its ilk are working on that. In a “The Machine Stops”-esque future, we can make our living off Mechanical Turk, stream our Netflix and watch our Google TV, FaceTime with loved ones. Google needs to escalate one of their no-doubt-it-really-exists 10% projects on the Google Fridge, because Webvan imploded a long time ago. I’m seeing a Groupon/eBay/Google Maps food-delivery consortium. Take my car, I won’t need it, I’ll be WFH.

Thursday, October 21 at 8:47pm

    alissawalker

    Alissa Walker

    Writer

    Steve, bringing up the technology of Google reminded me of their driverless cars. Your Google Fridge will be stocked by a smart delivery service that knows when you’re low on Google Beer and uses their electric, driverless fleet to stock it. When you go out, typing a destination into Google Maps will send a shared driverless car to your home that will automatically combine trips with other people in your area and avoid areas of congestion. So maybe we’ll see the end of the single-driver car!

    Friday, October 22 at 11:13am

johnedson

John Edson

President, LUNAR

Interesting conversation, Alissa. My head immediately goes back to the assumptions: does it make sense for people, the environment and society to give up the car? I want to go back to the symptoms and assumptions in a search for solutions, but the best I can do in this space is look at my own habits. In my life, I drive, and I feel guilt. I’ve chosen to live in a 50 year old suburb of San Francisco — sprawl of the mid-century — for various quality of life reasons (kids close to grandparents, good schools, a yard). For years when I was single, I moved closer and closer to my Palo Alto office — I had a beautiful walking commute. In my business, we have responded to the desire of our diverse creative staff to be in San Francisco, so we’ve moved the epicenter of our business there. I do take some comfort in being able to work from a home office (go Google, and others), from our Palo Alto office — and when I do have to drive to the City, I know that I’m enabling 35 other people to walk, bike, bus or drive a short distance to work. And I’m getting 27MPG in a car with a catalytic converter. What I’m waiting for is either a transit commute under an hour (and under 3 transfers) or an affordable electric car that doesn’t look like the product of an unfortunate mating between a Ferrari and a delivery truck.

Friday, October 22 at 12:02pm

bryancantwell

Bryan Cantwell

landscape architect

Ultimately I believe it comes down to cost and convenience. For convenience, we need to make public transportation a more enjoyable experience. If you are unfamiliar with the transit routes, trying to figure out which bus to take and at which stop to get off becomes a nightmare. And this starts a new cycle when you have to transfer to a different line. Some cities are better at this than others, but very clear maps at each stop and on each bus, combined with well designed mobile apps can go a long way to alleviate the initial fears of navigating the system.

For cost, we need to get over the idea that public transportation should pay for itself. The public believes that the gas tax covers all costs involved in automobile infrastructure, when in fact it is heavily subsidized. Then we have politicians who balk at giving public transportation a dime of public money, which would of course benefit the most people with the least amount of investment. We need a way of reversing the perceptions of our transit options.

Of course there are many other issues, most importantly density. Many cities in the US just don’t have the density required to support building out a full transit network. This is going to be the largest obstacle to overcome, as we need to combat sprawl through updated planning codes and zoning and incentivizing infill. Many cities are now doing this, but it is going to take just as many years to reverse suburban sprawl as it has to create it.

Friday, October 22 at 1:12pm

    chrislaugsch

    Chris Laugsch

    @ Welcome Beyond

    First time I come across this site, really interesting. I think John is making a good point. As long as people do not have a good alternative to using the car, they will continue to do so. If it takes a much longer time to get somewhere or you have to change frequently, people will understandably not bother. The ‘problem’ with the car is that it has given people freedom and flexibility. And that is very difficult to give up. The only way people will start to change their behavior is to offer the alternatives that are almost as convenient as taking the car.

    That is obviously difficult to do in rural areas. As Jeremy said, there is simply not enough infrastructure in the small villages to do your shopping etc. without having to walk a mile to the bus stop or taking the car. But there is much that can be done in the cities. Here in Berlin for example you do not have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to the tram, the train, the bus or the metro. You get a good discount if you buy a yearly pass, all public transport is running regularly and frequently so you never have o worry about the schedule. And if you do need a car, there are cars parked in different areas of the city that you can rent for an hour, half a day or however long you need it. The same with bicycles. Just go online, make a reservation and off you go. We also have plenty of car-sharing agencies, which work quite well especially on longer trips. And people do use all of these services because they are easy and people don’t have to think much or plan ahead. So changing a habit becomes a bit easier.

    Another aspect is money, as a disruptive change. As Jeremy pointed out, congestion charges work. Many countries in Europe also charge for using the highways. That money should obviously be spent on alternative transport, which unfortunately it is not always. But people start thinking about these costs on top of the horrendous bill you get when filling up your car.

    And the last aspect is a question of lifestyle. There is a lot in the news, magazines, newspapers etc. about being and behaving ‘green’. It is very much in the public eye, you are constantly reminded that being green is a good thing.

    Friday, October 22 at 1:35pm

Tom gave the Final Word

Strangely, my car is currently in the shop — so I have given it up. And this raises the question of why any New Yorker, living in a general transit-rich, walkable environment would make the choice to own a car, with all its negative “internalities” (e.g., in the past year I’ve had my window smashed and my rear-view mirror clipped clean off). The answer is that it’s just useful enough for me to have one for the things I do/places I go where transit is not an easy option, and it’s just easy enough to find parking on my local streets. But the truth is, I really use the car quite infrequently, because it’s typically the option that makes least sense for me in my daily life. And herein lies the classic problem. The car is an incredibly wonderful tool for point to point personal transportation, one whose utility diminishes with each additional user and, importantly, each additional use. People are often wont to blame the congestion problem on an increase in population, but comparing population increases to annual Vehicle Miles Traveled rates over the past few decades, it’s the latter that has soared. Each year, we were basically spending more time in the car, driving to places and activities that were never driven to before (e.g., taking the kids to school) — the tool became a lifestyle; the romance with the car became car dependency. I’m always struck when visiting relatives in an exurban community and I see people on weekends out ‘power walking’ — this idea that walking has been made a kind of specialized recreational activity that you have to make time for, wear ‘proper’ clothes, etc. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to walk, culturally.

I think most of the solutions have already been expressed by the previous commenters. But just to reiterate that I think it will take a careful balance of incentives and disincentives. Places like Copenhagen didn’t just become cycling meccas — in the 1970s the city was on an American-style path toward autodom. It was made gradually more difficult to drive a car, and gradually more easy to ride a bike. And what happened? You’ve got a nearly 40% daily cycling commuting rate. As I write, the Brooklyn borough president is making the charge that cycling advocates want the city to become like Amsterdam, that we want to ‘stigmatize’ the car. It’s not about stigmatizing the car, it’s about restoring the balance of livability and transportation in increasingly crowded 21st century cities where the secret to moving people around is not going to be solo drivers in massive SUVs. I liked the comment made by a writer recently in the magazine Monocle; he didn’t want to see cities turned over to entirely pedestrianized streets, but that the car needed to be made to feel a guest in the city — not the owner. So gradually reducing the space allotted to cars, balancing it with other options; changing the design of the streets to make them feel less like traffic channels than viable public space ‘between the buildings’; accurately charging drivers for their use of public space and the congestion and other externalities instead of our Soviet-style system of controls and subsidies; changing the design (and size) of cars that are found in cities; and of course offering plenty of carrots (good transit, bike parking, et al) on the other side. My city is far more important to me than my car.

Friday, October 22 at 3:55pm

    Tom — so eloquently stated. I concur 100%. Alissa — thanks for facilitating this conversation :)

    Friday, October 22 at 4:48pm

(1) Frequency and scheduling — in my city there are decent bones but because of the frequency of buses and light rail what takes 12 minutes in a car can take 1hr on public transportation. One particular hang up that I cannot for the life of me figure out is that they regularly schedule buses to arrive 1 or 2 minutes after the train leaves, which add 12 to 20 minutes at every transfer.

(2) Parking needs to be much, much more expensive. There are 2 universities within 2 miles, one has very limited parking availability and provides staff, faculty, and students with public transportation passes. The other invested in parking structures and charges for student passes and makes no others available. Guess which university has more riders? Some of it is related to… safety…

(3) Safety, both on the street for biking/walking but also on public transportation. A big part is perception but is reinforcing, the more the average person avoids public transportation the less safe it is.

When I managed to commute using public transportation, I had a “last mile” problem — it was mostly a safety. I would get off of light rail and walk about 4 blocks including across a bridge on which there were 3 armed robberies in 2 months and on which I someone threatened to shoot but not rob me (I strongly suspect this gentleman was in need of psychiatric medication and do not know if he actually had a gun).

Friday, October 22 at 11:22pm