Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dependence on Cars

As part of my membership in the Public Participation Committee for the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, I came upon an article written my Margy Waller of the Brookings Institute on Auto-Mobility: Subsidizing America's Commute? I found the article fascinating and educational, opening my eyes to the extent that our society is dependent upon automobiles, not just as a preference.

The article begins with something we are probably all aware of.  When hurricane Katrina hit, those with cars evacuated, those without could not and did not. The part I didn't realize is that now that those people are in trailer-park camps, their prospects are dim as they have no transportation to where the jobs are.  They are physically isolated from any economic prospects. This situation isn't just applied to major catastrophes, but the general prospects and access to employment, education, health care, etc. "There is reason to believe that not having a car isn't just a consequence of poverty - it's a barrier to escaping it."  Other studies mentioned in the article highlight this fact.

The article goes on to present a solution to the problem which would enable easier and subsidized access to cars for the poor.  The economic development resulting would have a positive impact on the economy.

There are aspects to the proposal I like, but some aspects which I don't - more cars, more congestion, higher demand for gasoline, higher green house gases released into the atmosphere, and lower national security to name a few.   It is essentially trying to treat a symptom of the problem and basically shifts the issues elsewhere.

The issue is where we are developing our country. The article points out that - Two thirds of people in metropolitan areas live in the suburbs. Two-thirds of new jobs are there as well, causing a whopping 88% of people to drive to their work.

This trend is playing out in Idaho right now. Since both the jobs and the homes are being built outside the city, and not in the same place, traffic congestion is ever increasing.  This sprawl continues to decrease the chances that public transportation can be used to address the issue. Building more and widening roads also has its limitations. The hot development approach right now are planned communities. These planned communities have a multiplicative effect as people must commute to these communities to work in the service industries that are required to be located there (as no one that can afford to live there would be willing to work there) and the people that live there all commute into the city. 

Just three months ago, Ada and Canyon counties (and the other entities included within), after three years of development, approved the Compass Community Choices 25 year plan for the valley.  This plan called for greater density of employment and housing along major corridors which could more effectively be served by public transportation. This community choices plan was contrasted with the "trend" plan.  What has happened since then, is the further sprawl through highly distributed planned communities. If the currently planned "planned communities" are approved, our traffic and congestion will be far worse than the trend scenario, making the community choices scenario unachievable. 

The trend scenario had a number of implications - a doubling of the current commute times, much more expensive road system, few transit choices at a higher cost, 80,000 more acres consumed, 1.1 million miles per day of additional commute traffic, etc. What about the new trend? Its even worse!


Hydra said...

Maybe the reason that two thirds of people live in the sururbs and two thirds of jobs are there as well is because it is cheaper and more cost effective and offers more choices and opportunities.

The situation with Katrina shows why we need more cars and not less.
Public transportation, despite claims to the contrary is more expensive more limited and serves fewer people.

Do cars have problems? Absolutely. But let's workon the problems and not try to eliminate the one thing that has worked best for the most.

Example. In 1965 I owned a volkswagen Beetle that got 25-30 mpg. Despite its endearing qualities, not the least of which it was emeninently rebuildable and recyclable, it was a terrible car.

Today, my wife owns a Jetta, also a four passenger car, that is far superior in every respect. It undoubtedly pollutes less than my beetle. But it gets no better mileage, and it has nearly six times as much HP.

Why? Lord knows we have little use for the ability to drive at 160 MPH.

Also, I wouldn't dare try to work on this contraption, although I rebuilt and recycled and rebuilt my Beetle over and over until 1980. When I sold it, I got the same price I paid for it, but there wasn't a single part in the entire vehicle that was original. Not he cahssis, the body, the engine, not even the wiring harness.

It still ran like a watch.

I hate to think where the Jetta will be 25 years from now.

Cars do not have to be the demon pesonified. We can do much better. They can be more recyclable, more eco friendly, operate on less power, more repairable, smaller, more efficient, operate on better fuels and so on. We can share them as with FlexCars, and even convert the whole system to PRT (personal rapid transit) eventually.

There is no reason to kill them off, waht we need to do is play up to their potential, and stop wasting it. We can start by not beating up on cars for ideological reasons, and face up to their utility.

wolf21m said...

Ray, thanks for your comments.

First, in our area, most of the suburbs are not less expensive than the city.

I hope my message did not come across as all cars should be eliminated immediately. I own one and don't plan on getting rid of it, although I drive it less than half of what I previsouly did. I was arguing against the unneccessary growth of the miles driven per citizen in our society.

Here in Boise we have many yellow and red alert air quality days. The number one contributers to this condition are cars. If 100% of the population switched to Toyota Prius', we would still have air hazard days, although fewer. In the next 25 years, as our population doubles, the air quality is expected to very quickly deteriorate. As a technologist, I hope we can make some great breakthroughs in addressing this issue. Even so, we can make some planning decisions today that can eliminate 1 million miles a day in our valley alone, with everyone driving a car that wants to.

I have to comment on the topic of public transportation. Transportation has many costs associated with it. If we just factor the budget, the Boise transit system costs (not my personal cost) twice what it costs me to drive to work ($12 versus $6 for my round trip, I only pay $2 on the bus). If we reach the producitivty of Reno or Spokane, it will match my personal costs ($6). If we reach Portland productivity, it would cost half of what it would currently cost me to drive ($3 versus $6). The indirect costs must also be evaluated. Last year the Boise transit system took 900,000 vehicle trips off the road. That is a significant savings in air quality, reduced traffic, etc.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading several articles on the pros and cons of providing cars for the poor, including this one. I can see why someone would object on the basis of increased gas consumption, pollution, etc. However, there is a real need for poor people out there who need transportation. What happened during Katrina is proof of that.

So is my situation. I am a disabled woman in her mid-forties and am on the verge of having to give up my car because I can't afford to repair it. It's a '97 Taurus, and the repairs have been estimated at about $1100, which I just don't have. I've been unable to find a dealer who would take it in for a fair trade, and a relative offered me a loan to buy another car.

However, I can't afford her loan. I'm in a catch-22 situation. I need a car so I can run errands, including medical appointments. I have several physicians I have to see on a regular basis, including my oncologist in Syracuse, New York. I live in Pulaski, which is about 35 miles north of Syracuse. This area is rural and public transportation is extremely limited.

It's imperative that I find a car, and I came across your website because I was trying to find a charity that provides cars for the poor. Apparently there are none. I'm at the end of my rope and I don't know what to do. I started a blog on Bravenet, but so far nothing has come up.

I may have to junk this car, give up on getting another one and depend on transportation and begging for rides to get around. I can't afford to go without my car, but I can't afford to replace or repair it, and I can't afford my aunt's offer of a loan.

Something has to be done. I wish that it wasn't as difficult for people like me to afford transportation. This is one way the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer. They take people like me, and make it impossible to live or get around w/o transportation. Once I am able to return to work, I won't be able to go far w/o a vehicle.

As someone else said, having to depend on public transit severely limits one's choices when looking for a job.

I could provide proof about what I am going through if need be. I can provide doctors statements, etc, to prove that I am in this bind. I wish there was someone out there who could help.

This reminds me of that show on Oprah (about a year ago, I think), where she gave a car away to each member in her audience. What I would give to have been there! Sadly, I was not.