We use our cars so much because governments make it so easy for us


April 01, 1992|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult to cut down on your driving?

Here's the answer: It's not your fault. Society makes you do it.

Over the past 50 years, our society has invested a gargantuan amount of money in making driving our primary form of transportation -- building roads, keeping gas cheap, creating parking spaces and developing housing and services farther outside of town so that you can drive around faster on less congested roads and park more easily.

No wonder we all drive everywhere. If we'd invested all that effort in swimming, we'd be doing the backstroke to work.

I won't bore you with all those gloomy statistics showing the automobile's real cost to society. You've no doubt heard them before, and getting hammered over the head with the bad news doesn't help us change our driving habits one bit.

Why doesn't it? Because while we were investing so heavily in driving, we weren't, as a society, spending any money on, or, as individuals, devoting any thought to, developing more efficient alternatives. Therefore, our alternatives, for the most part, aren't very good. And although driving as transportation isn't so hot for society, on an individual basis it works pretty well.

What can we do? There isn't any easy answer, of course. But one way you can begin to make a difference is to get involved in local transportation planning issues.

Transportation is one of the most important environmental issues we face. Yet most transportation policies are made by a small group of planners who don't integrate transportation into the broader picture. Historically, they see things this way: transportation means driving, the problem is congestion, and the solution is new and wider roads.

So why isn't the solution working? Because it turns out that congestion is the only thing keeping people from driving even more. Widening roads, it turns out, just leads to more traffic.

This is becoming painfully obvious to almost everyone. And it is leading planners to look at transportation in a different light. Instead of trying to improve capacity, planners are starting to focus on efficiency: moving more people on the existing roads. This newer transportation policy is called Transportation Demand Management (TDM), and you want your local planners to be doing it. Don't assume that they are, however. Some communities are far more progressive than others.

Which brings me back to the point: Get involved in the process.

Call your city council member or county commissioner's office, and ask a friendly staff person to tell you how your area's transportation planning process works. What opportunities are there for someone like you to get involved? Is there a citizens' council you can join? Hearings you can attend?

Here are some of the kinds of questions you want to be asking:

* Does your community have TDM goals? That is, are they emphasizing efficiency over capacity? Are they encouraging car-pooling, bus ridership, biking, walking, telecommuting and other alternatives to one-person, one-car?

* Are businesses and employers encouraged to participate in transportation planning? Are employers allowed to reduce the number of parking spaces they provide and use the savings to subsidize alternative commuting options?

* Does your community have a good bicycling and pedestrian planning program? Pedestrians include transit riders walking to and from their stop. Bike paths or lanes make riding to work much more attractive, not to mention safe. And curb cuts on every street corner make a big difference to people pushing strollers or maneuvering wheelchairs.

If you are interested in learning more about transportation, a paper published by Worldwatch Institute, "Alternatives to the Automobile: Transport for Livable Cities," by Marcia Lowe, is a good place to start. Send a check for $5 to Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-1904, and ask for paper No. 98. There is a discount for multiple orders.

And stay tuned for next week's column, where I'll use math to try to talk you onto a bicycle.

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