Sunday, May 25, 2008

Is our love affair with the car headed for the rocks?

By John Timpane

-McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Across the nation, the price of gasoline is sending more and more Americans to public transit.

This ridership surge points up three things: (1) These millions of new riders can do it. Most of them always could have. They just didn't. (2): We're not at the end of car culture yet ... that's a few generations off ... but (3) it's clear, in not-quite-hindsight, that the U.S. car culture does not work.

Meanwhile, more people are parking the car and hopping on the train or bus. Just ask the people at SEPTA, Philadelphia's mass-transit system. Director of public affairs Richard Maloney says: "It's been a steady upward curve for the last 18 months, 14 percent growth in that time and 24 percent in the last three years, driven primarily by gasoline prices." Growth is greatest, he says, in regional rail, among suburban communities, and among people with long car commutes.

On the eastern side of the Delaware River, New Jersey Transit's Trenton-to-Camden River Line had its best-ever quarter ended in September, averaging a record 7,900 riders a day, and followed that with another record quarter through December. And the Delaware River Port Authority says ridership on the PATCO High-Speed Line is up 7 percent from a year ago.

All of which fits a big national pattern. According to a May 10 New York Times survey, metro Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco all are seeing ridership spikes, with big gains both where public transit is long-established (New York, Boston) and where it is comparatively new (Houston, Charlotte, N.C.).

Clarence W. Marsella, chief executive of the Denver Regional Transportation District, told the Times that gasoline prices had brought on a "tipping point" regarding ridership. Maybe so. Or is this just momentary, and once we get used to higher prices, we'll backslide into former habits? I can imagine a reasonable objection: "The car culture doesn't work? The car has made our lives possible! It has made this country great, made contemporary life what it is today. Life without cars - without the unquestioned right to personal mobility at will - is unimaginable. You couldn't have the suburbs without the auto. Didn't Frank Lloyd Wright design his modern suburbs based on the car? And Levittown ..."

Agreed. All true. Car culture got us where we wanted when we wanted - for five generations. Much has been spectacular, beyond what could have been dreamed 100 years ago.

How, then, can I say that car culture doesn't work? Because the cost to individual and communal life, and to the environment, has been too high. And the bill is just now coming due.

It's not evil, just heedless. People take the opportunities they're given. They have the right. The car symbolizes freedom, rights of passage, career, sexuality. We've created the national road system, bought hundreds of millions of cars, based hundreds of millions of lives on the assumption that Hey, we can just drive. But all that time, we've been burning resources, replacing none. (How much steel have we put back in the ground? How much oil?)

We've basically laid the environment to waste, millions of acres never to return, all because there was no plan B. Roads are good things - but where you build a road, you outrage an environment, and no one ever rectifies it. The sad sprawl of the 1980s and 1990s, when people let towns metastasize into hastily planned and built exurban strips - that worked well, didn't it?

And does anyone think the morning and evening rush is good for us? Individually and as a society? Single drivers (70 percent and more in many metro area traffic jams) in single cars, edging ahead, until sometimes it seems as if the ambient blood pressure is about to blow? (Studies show traffic jams do contribute to stress and high blood pressure. But you knew that.)

And wasteful: The car commute amounts to a willing sacrifice of billions of hours of precious, productive time. U.S. Census figures suggest the average U.S. driver spends 100 hours commuting a year (the standard vacation, 10 work days of eight hours apiece, is only 80 hours). Philadelphia ranks fifth among cities with a long one-way commute (29.4 minutes); New Jersey ranks third among states (28.5 minutes). Traffic jams waste time, and therefore bucks: A 2007 Texas Traffic Institute study said that in 2005, folks wasted an average of 38 hours a year stalled, for grand totals of 4.2 billion hours, 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and a loss to the economy of $78.2 billion. That's what I call not working. (At least you can work on a train or bus.)

This has wrecked family life for many who live farther and farther from work - and so work farther and farther from home. It has created the commuter suburb, whose residents have little to do with their towns except, just about, the bed where they happen to sleep between commutes. How great is that?

We will all put up with it, as long as we can get where we're going.

I sure did. It's with us for the foreseeable. But no one has to love it. Many are now finding there are other ways. As oil gets scarcer and pricier, people may start to work closer to home, based on resources. They're starting to, it seems. That may benefit cities, with people increasingly opting for "elegant density" and closeness to work and amenities. We should have been doing this all along. We just weren't paying attention.

So, no, we haven't reached the tipping point - we've reached a pocketbook point. When things really tip, we'll discover - gasp - we don't have enough trains and buses for those who need them. (Already, says Maloney, SEPTA "has every available car in service" and is "searching internationally" for more train cars.)

Life will change. The roads will start getting lonely. It's a while off - but worth thinking about. Maybe then we'll make a plan B.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stranded in Suburbia

Published: May 19, 2008
New York Times

I have seen the future, and it works.

O.K., I know that these days you’re supposed to see the future in China or India, not in the heart of “old Europe.”

But we’re living in a world in which oil prices keep setting records, in which the idea that global oil production will soon peak is rapidly moving from fringe belief to mainstream assumption. And Europeans who have achieved a high standard of living in spite of very high energy prices — gas in Germany costs more than $8 a gallon — have a lot to teach us about how to deal with that world.

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient — not that people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be multiple-car owners).

But the average German car uses about a quarter less gas per mile than the average American car. By and large, the Germans don’t drive itsy-bitsy toy cars, but they do drive modest-sized passenger vehicles rather than S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks.

In the near future I expect we’ll see Americans moving down the same path. We’ve already done it once: over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the average mileage of U.S. passenger vehicles rose about 50 percent, as Americans switched to smaller, lighter cars.

This improvement stalled with the rise of S.U.V.’s during the cheap-gas 1990s. But now that gas costs more than ever before, even after adjusting for inflation, we can expect to see mileage rise again.

Admittedly, the next few years will be rough for families who bought big vehicles when gas was cheap, and now find themselves the owners of white elephants with little trade-in value. But raising fuel efficiency is something we can and will do.

Can we also drive less? Yes — but getting there will be a lot harder.

There have been many news stories in recent weeks about Americans who are changing their behavior in response to expensive gasoline — they’re trying to shop locally, they’re canceling vacations that involve a lot of driving, and they’re switching to public transit.

But none of it amounts to much. For example, some major public transit systems are excited about ridership gains of 5 or 10 percent. But fewer than 5 percent of Americans take public transit to work, so this surge of riders takes only a relative handful of drivers off the road.

Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard. For one thing, houses last a lot longer than cars. Long after today’s S.U.V.’s have become antique collectors’ items, millions of people will still be living in subdivisions built when gas was $1.50 or less a gallon.

Infrastructure is another problem. Public transit, in particular, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to justify transit systems unless there’s sufficient population density, yet it’s hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access.

And there are, as always in America, the issues of race and class. Despite the gentrification that has taken place in some inner cities, and the plunge in national crime rates to levels not seen in decades, it will be hard to shake the longstanding American association of higher-density living with poverty and personal danger.

Still, if we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil, Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Promoting pedal power

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another month, another "bottom of the heap" ranking for Memphis by a national magazine.

This time, it's Bicycling magazine that has rated Memphis as one of its three "worst cities for cycling," along with Dallas and Miami.

As always, the usual caveat applies to this type of ranking. "Best of" and "worst of" lists are extremely subjective.

That said, Memphis could and should be doing a lot more to make local roads safer for bicyclists.

Bicycle lanes would be an obvious place to start. So would a few more bike racks in public places. And some signs urging motorists to share the road and reminding them to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of room. (Despite what some drivers might think, they aren't within their constitutional rights to run slow-moving bicyclists off the road.)

The timing couldn't be better: With gas prices climbing, people are looking for alternative forms of transportation.

And who knows? If more people in Memphis rode bikes, maybe we wouldn't fare as poorly on some of those "unhealthy city" rankings. - Commercial Appeal

Monday, May 19, 2008

Then I'm biking in Memphis. Biking with my wheels ten feet off of Beale.

Biking in Memphis? Yes there are people who actually ride bicycles here. Memphians ride for fun, fitness, transportation, and competition. These cycling Memphians span the spectrum from the DUI afflicted to the CEO's of large corporations, with a huge sprinkling of everybody else in the middle. They are our neighbors, friends, and the people who are part of our community at large. The commonality of these people is the bicycle. What they or we all lack are designated bicycle lanes. Why is that? There are probably a lot of reasons that I do not currently have the time to entertain now, but perhaps later. Some of you may have read or heard about the recent press from Bicycling Magazine regarding Memphis as one of the bottom three cities for the worst cycling cities. " Where cars rule, bike lanes don't exist and things are worse than in the 60's" - Christine Mattheis (Bicycling Magazine). Great! We made another worst something list. Men’s Health ranked Memphis as the fifth most unhealthy city for men in its ranking of 101 cities and only five points from the bottom. Memphis received a grade of D in fitness, F in environment and F in health. But there’s more. Men’s Fitness, in its 2005 rankings, said Memphis is the fourth fattest city in the U.S. and gave the region a grade of D for parks and recreation, and Medical News Today wrote that Memphis is in the bottom 10 cities for utilitarian walking or biking. Meanwhile, the rate of obesity in the eight-county metro area is higher than both state and national rates – 27.5 percent compared to 24.5 for Tennessee and 22.2 for the U.S. Swell huh? What are the solutions to our woes? Bike Lanes? Green Spaces? Safe routes to schools? Check out the five reasons for bicycling...


  1. Promotes healthier lifestyles
  2. Lowers health care costs
  3. Strengthens family bonds
  4. Provides recreation outlet for youth
  5. Builds closer-knit communities

Bicycling is fun for everyone. Men and women, young and old-Americans all across the country enjoy this safe and healthy activity. Anyone can pedal at any pace. Bicycling is gentle and low-impact, making it an enjoyable, pain-free activity for everyone.

- A bike ride a day… Just three hours of bicycling per week can reduce a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke by 50%. League of American Bicyclist

- “Bicycling is a great way to be active and stay healthy. It’s an ideal low-impact activity that’s fun for people of all ages in communities across America” Melissa Johnson, Executive Director of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports

- 87 million Americans ride bicycles

- There are more bicyclists in the U.S. than skiers, golfers and tennis players combined.

- Bike paths boost property values.

- Bicycling is an inexpensive, convenient way to stay fit and healthy. A bike is 30 times less expensive to buy and maintain than a car

- Bicycling improves quality of life. It gets you outside, relieves stress, makes you feel better, and creates a way to spend time with family and friends. Best of all, it’s convenient, flexible and free. Whether for recreation, transportation, or competition bicycling offers a lifetime of health and fun.

So, why doesn't Memphis have bike lanes?