Friday, March 24, 2006

Where have all the 'Silver Bullets' gone?

Guest opinion by Peter Everett

Peter Everett is a new member of the Ketchum Area Rapid Transit board representing Ketchum. He is a retired professor of business from Pennsylvania State University. He has spent more than 30 years studying public transportation and has chaired numerous national committees on urban transportation and changing travel behavior to more environmentally friendly modes. He is currently working with a team to craft Pennsylvania's 25-year transportation plan.


Are there any "silver bullets" out there for our transportation problems in the Wood River Valley? This is a tough question and we're not unique. Just about every community in the country is struggling with congestion, travel delays, high energy costs, sprawl, pollution, safety, security, truck traffic, road rage and a host of other transportation-related issues. The latest and most shocking findings relate our national obesity crisis to our transportation system. Apparently, we've built a system that makes it very hard to travel by exercise-promoting modes such as walking and bike riding. Just-released findings show a strong positive correlation between the time spent commuting by car and obesity.

Maybe there are just too many people owning too many cars, driving them too much and living too far from where they work and play. Today, our car population is roughly 1,000 vehicles for every 1,000 citizens. Little wonder the roads are crowded. And we're all addicted to instant gratification by purchasing the latest products at the lowest possible price at our local big-box retailer. This low cost is dependent upon the "just in time" inventory management that requires lots of trucks making daily deliveries.

Historically, we've had "silver bullets" in transportation. Horses and stagecoaches allowed us to visit distant places and friends much more easily. The transcontinental railroad connected the East Coast to the West Coast and made our country whole. Early subways, trolley lines and buses helped us grow our cities at a gentle and well-managed pace. For example, the densely populated tenement housing of the southern end of Manhattan was distributed to open spaces on the northern end of the island by New York's subway system. Indeed, the interstate highway system and the fast-growing automobile population became a great social equalizer. Regardless of income, most citizens could make employment, residential location, friendship and vacation decisions with little regard to geographic proximity because car and highway use was reasonably inexpensive.

With accelerating travel demand, especially for motorized vehicles on our road system, what "silver bullets" are left? Contrary to past beliefs, the evidence is now pretty clear that expanding roadway and parking capacity only exacerbates the congestion problem. New roads and parking act as magnets to draw more and more vehicles into the system rather than alleviating the crowding. A new highway often promotes sprawl when it is first opened because it allows commuters to live in a distant suburb for the same or less travel time than it took to get to their previous "in-town" house.

What about mass transit? It works well where development is focused and in a linear pattern. Unfortunately, the diffuse travel patterns, in both time and place, that our "rubber tired" automobile system has promoted in many of our developed areas makes transit much less effective. A startling figure puts another "wet blanket" on transit as a sole or major solution. Because the ratio of cars to mass-transit vehicles is so disproportionate, some transportation planners calculate that a 1,000 percent increase in transit usage would yield only a 1 percent reduction in private automobile usage. Others give hope to "telecommuting" (working at home via the computer) as a possible solution to travel congestion. But experts tell us that if we save time and money by telecommuting we'll spend most of the money and time saved on leisure trips thus yielding little, if any, overall travel reduction.

How about resources? Can we continue to supply our transportation system with fossil fuels? It is now common knowledge that we'll run out of this resource. Although new sources of energy, hydrogen fuel for example, may mitigate the energy concern, its low cost and availability may encourage more travel and further exacerbate sprawl. Another resource concern is money. How can we pay for the transportation system of the future? The gas tax (our main source of funds for roads) will not suffice. Current gas tax revenues cannot even keep up with road maintenance. Furthermore, the gas tax has little relationship to how much people drive and "wear out" our road system. More fuel-efficient cars pay the same tax per gallon of gas but can often go twice as far as older models. Additionally, the fixed price of gas taxes per gallon of gas does not provide public agencies the needed additional resources to build additional transportation capacity for peak-hour congestion.

What a dilemma we've outlined here. In a nutshell, we are the problem. There are too many of us living in the too distant suburbs, owning too many vehicles and driving them too often. Government does not have a solution to this problem and if it did, it wouldn't be affordable. We are the "silver bullet," and this bullet is the sum of many of our behaviors, or in other words—many "silver bullets." We need to buy less at the large big-box retailers in order to reduce truck traffic. We need to live in smaller houses that are closer to where we work and we need to walk, use transit, share a ride with a neighbor, telecommute and use a bicycle whenever we can. Indeed, because the Wood River Valley is such a long, narrow corridor, with most people living within a short distance to the east and west of Highway 75, transit and ride-sharing have one of the best odds of any community for being successful.

Additionally, we must modify local zoning so that sprawl is not permitted, farmland and open-space is preserved, and "infill" and small lots are promoted for both residential and commercial establishments. We must pass city and county legislation that mandates high-quality and well-maintained pedestrian and bikeway systems. We must de-emphasize plentiful and inexpensive parking in our city cores and at our major attractions so that alternative modes of travel are more appealing. We must accept mixed-use zoning so that people can live, work and play in the same neighborhood rather than travel far distances to partake in these activities.

We've had single "silver bullets" for transportation in the past, but there aren't any left! Those hoping for a new technological revelation to solve our transportation problems may wait a long time, if not forever. We can each individually begin our multiple "silver bullet" strategy tomorrow. We are the problem and we are the solution.

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