Cars & Other Motor Vehicles

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.

Reducing Congestion
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.

Better Efficiency
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.

Health & Safety

by Joel Woodhull

Of late, the goals of the public health community and the Bike-Ped community have converged in promotions to increase walking and cycling. In a paper, “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from the Netherlands and Germany” (2003), John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra examined the public health consequences of unsafe and inconvenient walking and bicycling conditions in American cities and suggested improvements based on successful policies in The Netherlands and Germany. They found that, whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all trips in Germany and for half of trips in The Netherlands. American pedestrians and cyclists are much more likely to get killed than Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and per-km basis. They are also far more likely to be injured.

On the basis of Dutch and German experience, they proposed a wide range of measures to improve the safety of walking and cycling in American cities, both to reduce fatalities and injuries and to encourage more walking and cycling, thus providing much needed physical exercise for increasingly overweight Americans.
Safety in numbers. Another recent paper from the public health field answers the question of whether the public health goal of more walking and bicycling conflicts with another public health goal, reducing injuries. According to research by Peter L. Jacobsen, there isn’t a conflict, because as more people cycle and walk, the rate of injuries per participant goes down.

Motivations for change
In a paper presented in 2003 at the International Pedestrian Conference, Daniel Sauter builds on the platform constructed by Whitelegg for a discussion of a course of action which could overcome the obstacles facing the pedestrian. He would anchor the actions on three basic desires that people have – longings for freedom, for time and for dignity. These would be addressed respectively by encouraging accessibility for pedestrians, reversing the hierarchies in transport policies and acknowledgment of walking as a human right.

Saving Time and Losing Space

by Joel Woodhull

A number of writers have explored the effect of motorization and increased travel speed on culture, nature, and equity, and the associated denigration of self propulsion.

In his book, Transport for a Sustainable Future, John Whitelegg has a chapter on “time pollution”, containing a discourse on “the conquest of distance by the destruction of time”. Whitelegg points out that the acquisition of higher speed comes at the increasing destruction of useful space, because higher speed facilities create a safety conflict with low speed travelers, which must somehow be addressed: longer lengths between people for the safety of the users, and wider rights of way for devices to protect the bystanders, slower travelers and others that may wish to cross the facility or travel with its traffic.

The saving of time, which has been used extensively to justify construction of road projects, is an illusion, because in large measure the gain of time is traded by the individual to travel greater distances. Although this may in the short run produce some satisfaction for the individual, it leads to a scattering of many of the most important travel destinations as land uses gradually change. The scattering initially handicaps the Bike-Ped,
and eventually erases any advantage attained by motorized travelers. In Sonoma County this process gradually engulfs the natural landscape that is one of its primary attractions.

Road justifying calculations of time saving are based on time saving for the motorist, and neglect the considerable time losses of others. Increases in speed almost always steal time from the non-motorist, and the inducement to travel more even results in one motorist making the other motorists worse off.

In his thirty years of studies of how people use space and time, Torsten Hagerstrand concluded that it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Access is what we really value, but the transportation system has been giving us mobility. Not mobility for all. Mobility in proportion to wealth, and reduced access for almost all.