| Time for another post on transportation policy. Today I'll go over reasons to give Americans more alternatives to driving, as well as ways individuals can reduce their own vehicle-miles traveled.
One way of looking at the issue is to assess the cost of not changing our transportation policy. James Howard Kunstler sounds the alarm in a Washington Post editorial published on Sunday. His piece, called "Driving Toward Disaster," addresses
the desperate wish to keep our "Happy Motoring" utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future. We have to make other arrangements.
And that's the worst part of our quandary: the American public's narrow focus on keeping all our cars running at any cost. Even the environmental community is hung up on this. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been pushing for the development of a "Hypercar" for years -- inadvertently promoting the idea that we really don't need to change.
Years ago, U.S. negotiators at a U.N. environmental conference told their interlocutors that the American lifestyle is "not up for negotiation." This stance is, unfortunately, related to two pernicious beliefs that have become common in the United States in recent decades. The first is the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. (Oprah Winfrey advanced this notion last year with her promotion of a pop book called "The Secret," which said, in effect, that if you wish hard enough for something, it will come to you.) One of the basic differences between a child and an adult is the ability to know the difference between wishing for things and actually making them happen through earnest effort.
Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country's oil consumption. The fact that we're not talking about it -- especially in the presidential campaign -- shows how confused we are. The airline industry is disintegrating under the enormous pressure of fuel costs. Airlines cannot fire any more employees and have already offloaded their pension obligations and outsourced their repairs. At least five small airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past two months. If we don't get the passenger trains running again, Americans will be going nowhere five years from now.
Though many Americans may still be in denial about the need to improve other modes of travel, the message is becoming more mainstream every day.
A case in point is this long column by Rox Laird on the front page of the Sunday Des Moines Register's opinion section: Mapping our future: Look to past for city life without cars. Laird made an excellent case for developing better alternatives to driving in the Des Moines metropolitan area. I recommend reading the whole column.
As a companion piece, the Des Moines Register's editorial board published a call to change our transportation agenda:
The Des Moines MPO is beginning work on a plan that will set the transportation agenda for the next 30 years. The process - which begins with a public hearing this week (see accompanying box for details) - is an opportunity for local leaders to reconsider the traditional focus on accommodating automobiles and to focus more on better accommodating alternatives, such as buses, ride-sharing, vanpooling, bicycling and walking.
The reality is that in a Midwestern city like Des Moines, the automobile for at least the foreseeable future will remain the dominant mode of transportation. For better or worse, we have designed our cities around cars, and driving our own personal vehicle is the preferred means of transportation for most.
Still, it is time for transportation planning to include more opportunities for people to park the car and walk, cycle, roller-skate or catch a bus or a trolley for many short trips. That could be possible even with modest changes in the plans for residential and commercial districts. These small changes could have a significant impact on fuel consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions and personal fitness.
It will take time to rebuild our passenger rail system and improve public transit, walking and bicycling options within cities.
If you want to take immediate action to reduce the vehicle miles you travel by car, a fast and effective way is to start carpooling. This feature article from Cityview profiles Ann Pashek, who estimates that she saves about $4,500 on gas alone by using the Des Moines Area Regional Transit's rideshare program to commute to her downtown Des Moines job from her home in Winterset. She also saves money on parking and vehicle maintenance.
My brother-in-law carpools to work most days in Washington, DC, and saves a lot of money as well. An added incentive in the Washington area is the high-occupancy vehicle lane on the beltway. Making one of the lanes on I-235 a high-occupancy vehicle lane would quickly increase the number of commuters carpooling to work.
Click on that feature article from Cityview to read about four other ways you can get around while dramatically reducing your gas usage.
On a related note, Markos put up a post this weekend about Walk Score, a site that evaluates your home's location in terms of the ability to reach various kinds of amenities on foot. Markos noted that his home in the Bay Area scored an 88 (out of a possible 100), while George W. Bush's Prairie Chapel ranch scored a zero.
My house in Windsor Heights (an inner-ring suburb of Des Moines) scored 48, although I noticed that the list of walkable amenities the site drew up did not include the Windsor Heights Hy-Vee under the grocery section. So your Walk Score might not be completely accurate. Still, it should give you an idea of how good your neighborhood is for pedestrians.
Another very useful web-based tool is the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Center for Transit Oriented Development.
The concept is simple:
Planners, lenders, and most consumers traditionally measure housing affordability as 30 percent or less of income. The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, in contrast, takes into account not just the cost of housing, but also the intrinsic value of place, as quantified through transportation costs.
By clicking this link, you can check statistics for 52 different metro areas in the U.S. (unfortunately, no Iowa cities made the cut). It's easy to see how certain parts of a big metropolitan area look more affordable if you are only considering housing costs, but are relatively more expensive once you factor in transportation costs as well.
But what if you don't like walking, carpooling, bicycling or taking the bus, and you're wealthy enough that you don't feel the pinch when you fill up your tank?
Remember that a smart transportation policy, which reduces vehicle-miles traveled, is an essential part of any comprehensive strategy to combat global warming.
Smart Growth America has tons of information on this at their website, including a link to the report "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change."
The number of vehicle miles traveled per capita in the U.S. has increased at three times the rate of population growth in recent decades. Continued increases in vehicle miles traveled threaten to wipe out any reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions we could achieve by improving mileage or using cleaner fuels.
Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Tom Carper (D-DE) have introduced the Complete Streets Act of 2008 in the Senate. Norm Coleman (R-MN) is also a co-sponsor. Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) has introduced a companion bill in the House called the Safe and Complete Streets Act of 2008. Please urge your representatives in Congress to co-sponsor this important legislation.
Final note: I read in March that George W. Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2009 would cover a projected shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund by taking money away from public transportation projects.
I have to ask, is there any policy this president doesn't get wrong?
We already devote way too little funding to public transit compared to road-building. Here's hoping that rising gas prices will prompt the Democratic-controlled Congress to put more money, not less, into public transportation projects.