By Dom Nozzi
There is a common tactical mistake made by communities which seek to achieve the worthy and increasingly essential objective of increasing the amount of travel by bicycle, transit, or walking. Most all elected officials and their transportation staff will operate under the assumption that transportation is a “win-win” game. That is, that it is possible to encourage more travel by bicycle, transit or walking, and at the same time be able to improve (or at least not make more difficult) travel by car.
But this is utterly naïve. It shows that the community is not serious about effectively promoting transportation choices.
Meaningfully increasing bicycling, transit or walking is not a matter of adding bike lanes, bike paths or bike parking. It is not a matter of adding more bus stops or increasing the frequency or quality of buses. It is not a matter of building more sidewalks or adding sidewalk benches and landscaping.
Each of these additions are certainly a pleasant enhancement for the community (primarily because it sends a visible message that these forms of travel are acknowledged and respected), but they have almost no ability to increase the levels of bicycling, walking, or transit use in the community. They are, in other words, necessary but NOT sufficient.
Because accommodations for easy, low-cost car travel is entirely incompatible with bicycling, transit, and walking (because of the danger and inconvenience that car-friendly roads and parking creates), providing bike lanes or bus shelters or sidewalk landscaping does nothing to convince a person to drive a car less often.
The car is so dominating and has been overwhelmingly catered to and subsidized for so many decades that the only effective way to increase bicycling, transit use, or walking is to TAKE AWAY FROM THE CAR.
That is, communities MUST put roads on a “diet” (typically, by converting a road from 4 lanes to 3 lanes). Communities MUST reduce the amount of free car parking that consumes the majority of most city town centers by removing parking and properly pricing what remains (by installing, for example, user fees such as parking meters). Communities MUST structure a more fair way of having users pay for their travel, rather than having the entire community subsidize car travel (by increasing the gas tax, installing electronic tolls on roads, etc.).
Nearly all American communities fail to take steps to take away from the car. And this is, by far, the primary reason why Americans drive cars more than anywhere else in the world. Why hardly anyone bicycles, uses transit, or walks, despite bike paths, bus shelters, or new sidewalks.
Even in “progressive” communities, it is fervently believed that reducing traffic congestion (or at least not worsening it) is beneficial for the community and its citizens. “We must reduce congestion to reduce air pollution and reduce gas consumption!”
They say these things in part because it seems to be irrefutably true. But it has been clearly demonstrated (by researchers such as Newman and Kenworthy) that easing traffic flow INCREASES air pollution and gas consumption on a regional basis, because people drive more often and drive greater distances when car travel is made more pleasant.
It is counterproductive for a community to strive to reduce traffic congestion.
Why do Americans so rarely use the effective tool of taking away from the car? Because most all of us drive a car for nearly all of our trips, and both elected officials and their transportation staff are scared to death to use tactics that are widely known to increase bicycling, transit use, and walking. Because doing so, it is thought, will elicit the wrath of motorists.
So we continue to install bike lanes, bus shelters, and sidewalks. And nearly all of us continue to drive a car.
Inevitably, Americans will drive cars quite a bit less, because it is inevitable that gas prices will continue rising substantially, and the national and world economy will continue to be anemic. Tragically, however, being passive and waiting for such inevitabilities to substantially revise American car travel behavior will not occur soon enough. Passively waiting will lead to much more pain and anguish, as Americans have not been able to more incrementally transition to a world where car travel is not so much an essential part of our daily lives.
Instead, the transition will be much more abrupt (and our communities much less well-designed for bicycling, transit use or walking) if we sit back and let higher gas prices reduce our car travel. And the abruptness will lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I therefore believe it is imperative that we actively and aggressively opt for actions which take away from the car. We need the courage to use road diets and having motorists pay their way. Not install more bike lanes. Failing to find the courage will result in a very painful future.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: email@example.com