I recently read an article (this is how most of these blog posts begin whether implicitly stated or not…) from the New York Times about how many European cities are discouraging vehicle traffic. Essentially, they are working to “annoy” drivers enough that they just give up their cars altogether in favor of other options like public transportation, bike riding or walking. Speed limits have been reduced, entire blocks have been closed to vehicle traffic, and pedestrians have been given power over traffic signals and flow. These steps, combined with extremely high gasoline prices (about $8/gallon) throughout Europe have been enough to increase the number of carless households. In Zurich, for example, the number of carless households has increased by 5% over the past decade. It is hoped that these anti-vehicle practices will bring the European Union closer to meeting its Kyoto emissions targets and will naturally improve air quality standards within crowded cities.
All of this got me thinking. Particularly about the United States and how, in most cases, the transportation goal continues to be focused on making driving more convenient. Enormous highways, parking garages, pedestrian foot bridges, etc. all make it easier for vehicles to enter already crowded cities where traffic congestion, poor air quality and high levels of emissions are prevalent. Realistically, though, we are dealing with some pretty serious obstacles:
1. Urban Sprawl: Urban sprawl, as defined by our trusty Wikipedia sources is: “a multifaceted concept, which includes the spreading outwards of a city and its suburbs to its outskirts to low-density and auto-dependent development on rural land, high segregation of uses (e.g. stores and residential), and various design features that encourage car dependency.”
A 2010 Gallup Healthways poll found that the average American spends 46 minutes commuting to work each day. More and more of us are located further and further away from commercial centers where work, shopping, schooling, etc. happens. I fear that this is something inherent to our fabric as Americans – the vast open spaces of our country and our desire to “get away” from the hustle and bustle make us apt to welcome the sprawl. Additionally, the planning that goes in to urban (and suburban) development is not something that is easily changed, and is a requirement if we are to move away from auto-dependency.
2. Public Transportation: It’s no secret that most of the public transportation available here in the States leaves something to be desired. Our national train service, now maintained by Amtrak, has seen vast reductions in ridership since the 1960s when air travel became more prevalent. Today, service is fairly limited, rates are relatively high, and travel times seem inordinately long.
Bigger cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle have mass transit options that have, happily, experienced increased ridership over the past years. Ultimately, though, the range, reliability and schedules of these options are not where they could be. In smaller cities, the options remain limited to buses and cabs. Biking and walking are naturally options as well, but the infrastructure (bike lanes, crossings, bike stands, etc…) can make it dangerous and/or inconvenient.
How do you get to work? Do you have the option to leave your car at home? Do you own a car? How would you react if suddenly driving became more “annoying”?