The stubborn culture of the automobile

July 07, 1996|By ELISE ARMACOST

I MAY AS WELL confess before this column goes any further that I drove to work alone today. I could have taken the Metro from Owings Mills to Charles Street, but my trusty '88 Honda Civic gets me where I need to go faster than the train. I plead guilty to doing any small part in making Baltimore's ground-level ozone levels among the nation's worst.

So I regret not being perched on higher ground when I say Baltimore County Council members did a silly thing last week when they turned away $95,750 in federal grant money to continue the "Ridesharing" program, which promotes car-pooling and mass transit and helps the county inch toward compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, which requires every jurisdiction in the country to meet tough air-quality standards by 2005.

Sometimes local governments are justifiably leery of accepting grants because they require a county to match or commit taxpayers to a program after the grant has expired.

But this grant, which paid salary and benefits for two employees to match citizens with car-pool or mass-transit services and help private businesses devise commuting plans, involved neither a match nor commitment.

A costly economy

Indeed, it will cost local taxpayers to get rid of the program. The same night the council killed the ride-sharing grant it approved another grant used to subsidize van pools and mass transit for county workers. The two ride-share coordinators used to manage this as well, now the county will have to use its own money to pay somebody to run it.

And guess what? It might end up with ride-sharing anyway. The MTA says it might use the grant money to run the program itself, in which case the council will have accomplished nothing except costing two people theirjobs.

Even that might make some sense if the council had some philosophical objections. But the charge against the grant was led by Catonsville Democrat Stephen G. Sam Moxley, who said he was voting it down to show the Mass Transit Administration, through which the grant is funneled, how mad he is about bus-route changes.

Let's see. He wants his constituents to be able to use the bus, so he kills money earmarked to help them find out how to use the bus. Seems to me he could have vented his spleen more productively simply by dialing up the MTA director and giving him a piece of his mind.

Anyway, four other council members followed his lead, two because they thought the brochures ride-sharing employees showed them were too fancy, one -- Dundalk's Lou DePazzo -- because he thinks the program is foolish and ineffectual. Actually, his was the only rational argument, and still I think he's wrong.

Encouraging people to car-pool or use mass transit may sound )) frivolous, but government has a responsibility to do it for three reasons.

Three reasons

One, because there simply isn't enough state revenue to improve and construct enough highways to handle the burgeoning traffic volume. Two, because unless some of us can be pried out from behind our steering wheels our children may have to wear gas masks when they grow up. And three, to make sure the money we're investing in mass transit to relieve congestion and smog isn't wasted.

There's no question that selling car-pooling or mass transit is hard to do. Take me, for instance. I don't love driving for its own sake.

You don't get excited getting behind the wheel of a power steeringless '88 Civic that is starting to look the worse for wear. I'd enjoy riding to work with somebody else, or reading the paper on the train. But I'm always in a hurry and do not work a job where the clock is punched at a set hour every day So short-term expediency outweighs long-term concerns about future highway needs or poisoned air.

Disincentives workbest

J. Craig Forrest, Baltimore County's chief of the Division of Transportation Planning, says he's happy if ride-share coordinators end up convincing one in 10 people who inquire about carpooling actually to do it. So far, he says, "The only thing that ensures ride-sharing is disincentives" - high parking rates, roads so inadequate you can travel faster by train or bus.

The truth is, moving our culture away from the automobile is a glacial process that will occur as these disincentives become more prevalent and ride-sharing becomes an ethic-something people finally start doing because they've heard so often that it's the right thing to do, rather like recycling or eating five fruits a day. Any small increase in the percentage of commuters car-pooling or using the bus or train is a step in the right direction.

And, believe it or not, some promotional efforts are making headway. The BWI Business Partnership, which coordinates transportation issues for the 150,000-employee BWI area, has moved about 15 percent of commuters out of their cars.

Remember, a decade ago a lot of us never thought we'd separate the cans from the paper. But the government kept after us. And now we do it.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub date 7/07/96

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