Friday, January 30, 2009

Where Do Cars Belong in 21st C America?

Right now the transportation world seems polarized into two camps. Depending on where you live, what your past is, and who your patrons are, the vast majority of experts seem to place themselves into one of the two sides. And it does feel like a polarity. Trying to avoid characterizing these as 1 vs 2, A vs B, loaded names vs loaded labels – how about columns? Darn, there is still left to right. It seems impossible to be balanced.

Because of America’s past -- cheap fuel; government spending priorities (the interstate highway system and federal funding for highways) and tax incentives (home mortgage interest deductions fueling sprawl); lots of land; and lack of foresight about adverse effects (in addition to climate change, see below) – we find ourselves today with this reality:

Ninety-two percent of American households have access to a car and 87% of trips are taken by car.

The benefits of cars: fastest, most convenient, cheapest and often only alternative to get from A to B for the current built environment in the US.

The costs of cars:
- high cost of participation in the system (middle income Americans spend about 22% of their annual incomes on cars and the lowest 20 percent income bracket spend 42 %);
- escalating number of hours, number of affected roads, and parking lots classified as congested;
- 46k traffic deaths and much larger number of injuries,
- high rates of asthma, obesity, and other adverse health affects;
- loss of farmlands, wetlands, water resources and other negative land use impacts;
- 50% of the population unable to participate directly because they do not have a license or own a car;
- 20% of CO2 emissions.

As we move toward the future, in which we are both an active player – infrastructure can be destiny – and passive recipient of unfolding demographics, we can make some confidant predictions about some aspects of 2025. And 2025 is where we will fully feel the results of decisions made over the next four years around government infrastructure spending priorities, tax incentives, and regulations.

In 2025:

• 80% of our population will live in metro-areas
• 18.1% will be older than 65 (up from 12.4% in 2000)
• Fossil fuels will be more expensive (increased world demand & reduced supply)
• Carbon taxes (whatever form they take) will shape energy demand & type

If we turn this into Tom-Friedman-speak, and try to describe America in 2025, it will be urban, older, fossil-fuel efficient. Therefore, the bulk of our transportation investment dollars should go to meet the needs and desires of this population shape.

Urban means less car dependent because there is no space on the roads or in parking garages to accommodate the 1 driver to 1.1 cars ratio we find in America today. We see this reality in the more free-flowing cities of New York City (50% car ownership) and Boston (75% car ownership) and its opposite in the most congestion cities like Atlanta.

Older means less car dependent if we don’t want to spend increasing portions of local budgets on transporting the aging around to meet their routine food, medical, and social needs.

Fossil-fuel efficient means that yes, all motorized transport will prefer fuel efficient and alternative fuel sources.

But government and planners cannot forget or neglect significant minority groups, poorly defined here as “non-urban,” nor dismiss the occasional need of even the most committed urban environmentalists for a car sometimes. So, we shouldn’t be talking in terms of being pro-car or anti-car, or thinking about solutions that will only work in rural America, or only work in urban America (hmm, I feel like I’m echoing a certain President).

But we do need to move from our increasingly broken status quo that is almost entirely car-dependent to one that reduces both the burdens of today’s car-dependent costs (remember that list above) and looks ahead to meet the needs of our future. Moving this country and the world toward cleaner transportation fuel and better vehicles is absolutely critical, but low carbon cars alone will not solve today’s problems nor meet tomorrow’s needs. President Obama, legislators across the US and around the world, I repeat: low carbon cars alone will not solve today’s problems nor meet tomorrow’s needs. For that, we need to improve the balance, and enable more Americans to lead car-independent routine lives. Not no cars and highways, just fewer and better ones.


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