by Joel Woodhull
Cars have many obvious virtues. They are the mainstay of our transportation system. They are deeply imbedded in the ways we live and will likely remain so for a very long time.
Being associated with the idea of freedom came early in the 1900’s. Privately owned traction companies and railroads were viewed as rapacious monopolies. The automobile became the symbol of democracy and freedom. It enabled the common man to get out from under the domination of the transport barons.
But an interesting reversal has taken place over the last 50 years. The automobile was so successful, in accumulating hidden subsidies to bolster its virtues, that its numbers overwhelmed its facilities.
Today there is widespread agreement that there are far too many of them. Even their advertisers recognize how much people dislike being inundated by car traffic, and therefore often depict cars on roads all by themselves. Lonely cars have become the dream, while real cars become ever more gregarious.
How much driving is there in Sonoma County? The recent Footprint project found that the per capita annual VMT in the county is about the same as in the U.S. as a whole. But it varies quite a bit within the county – with residents of rural areas imposing the greatest VMT burden on the County. We used the data used earlier in the Footprint project to map the averages in different zones of the county.
Patterns of travel
Sonoma County is unusual in having a high percentage of people who both live and work within the county. Tables based on data from MTC show intercounty commutes for seven decades, between Sonoma and Marin and other counties of the Bay Area. To print the tables, download PDF file.
There isn’t much data collected on auto travel, except for the journey to work, which is typically the longest daily trip for workers. But we can get a partial picture of County travel from published data. From the U.S. Census we can see whether people that live in the cities and other named places drive or use other means to get to work . You can compare your town with towns elsewhere in the U.S. with an easy-to-use database provided by the Iowa-based organization, Bikes-At-Work.
One of the bright spots in the efficient use of automobiles is car-sharing. By getting away from the personal relationship we have with cars, we not only free ourselves from that co-dependency, we ameliorate one of the major faults of a system based on personal cars — it is a huge waste of space. Since most cars spend their time idly taking up valuable space, any form of sharing will reduce that inefficiency.
A number of car-sharing organizations have come about within the last decade. In November 2002 there were 18 of them in the United States, serving more than 12,000 members, according to an article in the L.A. Times.
For a detailed background on the niche of car-sharing, see “Carsharing; Vehicle Rental Services That Substitute for Private Vehicle Ownership” in the TDM Encyclopedia of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI).
A view of the rapid development of car-sharing worldwide can be seen at the website of the Car Sharing Network. For Bay Area developments, see City CarShare.
Certainly the most interesting recent action to reduce congestion took place in London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone, assisted by Robert Kiley, a former C.I.A. official, business leader and transit expert from New York City, drew a cordon around central London and began charging car drivers a hefty fee to enter.
By most accounts in the last year, this program has been a success, and other cities are looking at emulation. It may be unlikely to ever happen in Sonoma County, but it is at least instructive as to the possibility of taming the automobile. See New York Times article of April 20, 2003.
In the very near term, one of the simplest steps people can take to help reduce the pressure on resources is to step up to higher fuel efficiency. This is particularly important for owners of SUVs that by now have realized they don’t really need their special capabilities. Those who wait until world events get ahead of them may have to give those things away. Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda in Japan have been on the market long enough now to see a developing market.