Worser and Worser Gridlock

The Future of Transportation by Henry Grabar of Slate.

“Even here (the U.S.), in a nation of unprecedented personal wealth and plentiful land, the car-centric system has pushed up against the limitations of space, proving expensive to maintain and impossible to scale. In the fast-growing cities of the developing world, the situation is more extreme, as commutes consume a greater and greater portion of the world’s energy, time, and cash.”

Graber’s answer? Busses, bikes, and elevators. A bus, quite possibly if “. . . given its own lane, its own route, its own authority over signals.” A bike, hell yes. Elevators?

On bicycles:

“. . . no technology holds as much promise as the humble bicycle—especially when we include its newfangled, electrified cousins—to solve the geometry problem that is getting people short distances around a big city. Even in the United States, where everything is fairly far apart by global standards, 48 percent of automobile trips in the biggest U.S. cities travel less than 3 miles—a distance that, with the right infrastructure, could be easily covered by a smaller vehicle.”

One problem. Most Americans are too soft to cycle even 5 miles to/from the grocery store, work, dentist office. “It’s not safe, poor weather makes it impractical especially in my work clothes, and I don’t have the time!” Never mind that bicycles are often as fast as cars in dense urban environments.

The more pressing hurdle writers like Grabar never seem to address is the intense individualism that curses through the U.S. Individual car ownership does not make financial sense, but it is so deeply ingrained in American life because cars provide unrivaled privacy and freedom. We aren’t rational, so we each buy our own cars that quickly depreciate. And the costs to insure, maintain, register, and keep them gassed up require us to work longer hours than we’d otherwise have to. And nearly every car owner chooses their car over busses 100 times out of 100. Even if driving fewer than 3 miles 48% of the time.

Note to the transpo engineers, city planners, and pragmatic social scientists thinking most deeply about the future of transporation. It’s not primarily an infrastructure problem, it’s a psychological one deeply rooted in U.S. history. How do we get self-regarding U.S. car drivers to even consider more other-regarding approaches to travel? To care even a little bit about the common good, including our health and the state of our natural environment?

I don’t know, but this I do know, slight our history and irrational individualism and watch gridlock grow worser and worser.

Sierra Killer Climbs 5-2012 148

Internal dialogue, “Maybe I shoulda taken the car. Yeah, I def shoulda taken the car.”

Weekend Assorted Links

1. Radical Survival Strategies for Struggling Colleges.

“Moody’s projects that the pace of closings will soon reach 15 per year.”

Sobering. How will my employer, Pacific Lutheran University fare? If it was a stock, I would not buy it because of the larger context, but I am cautiously optimistic about our future because our brand new president is as smart an entrepreneur as I’ve known. He’s quickly learned about the never ending peculiarities of academic culture and faculty-based governance. But the Warriors may not have much success this year even with Steve Kerr as coach.

2. Payne Stewart’s daughter writes him a letter twenty years after his tragic death.

“People say time heals all wounds, but I don’t believe that. Sure, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned how to manage my sadness in losing you. But the pain never really goes away. I think about you every day, miss you every day.”

3. It turns out there are (really) bad questions.

4. How to Travel Like a Local. Thorough.

5. Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working?

“Are the wealthy addicted to money, competition, or just feeling important? Yes.”

6. Song of the week. So effortless.

A War on Oil Dependence

Photo credit: Ray Maker, DCRainmaker blog

We’ve had “wars” on poverty, drugs, and terrorism, why not oil dependence? Imagine a bold president challenging and inspiring us to reduce our use of oil by 20% in ten years. Why wait for that type of leadership? Let’s just commit to driving two percent fewer miles, per year, for ten years.

Dare we learn some things from other people in other places, like this Amsterdam family? Note the obvious: the fenders and racks; the large kid/cargo holder; the simplicity of the bikes and bike riders; no lycra, helmets, or cleated shoes; the utter normalness of it. With dedicated lanes and slowish bikes, helmets aren’t as critical. And the less obvious: the slower pace, the reduction in greenhouse gasses, the health benefits and reduced health care costs, the vitality of the sights, sounds, and elements.

City planners need to incentive bicycle commuting by integrating dedicated bike lanes, and safe, well-lit bicycle parking lots into their designs. Cities need to provide employers with incentives for bike lockers, air compressors, showers.

Car insurance should be based upon mileage traveled. Find the national average and set rates so that people who drive the national average pay existing rates. Make people self-report and audit a small percentage each year. People that drive 10% more than the national average, pay 10% more; 10% fewer miles, pay 10% less.

A nod to Friedman, raise the gas tax to $1/gallon.

I would love for someone to point me to counter examples, but our public bus systems are painfully inconvenient and slow. And unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a handful of our largest cities, subways and trains are rarely a viable option.

In the U.S. we like to pat ourselves on our collective back for being creative and hardworking, but we’ve shown no imagination or gumption when it comes to developing genuine alternatives to car travel.

Time to change that.