Friday, December 28, 2007

What will it take to get people out of their cars?

A couple of comments on Streetsblog got me thinking:

In the comments on a video of drivers on a "Gridlock Alert day", "Paulb" points out,

I think any American who sets their goal as compelling other Americans to leave their cars parked and use public transportation should watch this film and think very very carefully about how they go about it.


And yet, watching the drivers interviewed in the film, you can see it, it's obvious, the pride and pleasure they take in the ownership and use of their personal cars.

I agree with Paulb that we should be careful, for the reasons he mentioned, but we should still work towards it. Not just "leaving their cars parked," but getting rid of them.

The thing is, Aaron's film clearly shows that what they're enjoying is not anything specific to their cars, or to cars in general. They're not going fast and they don't have any more flexibility, safety or convenience than a subway rider. They're stuck in traffic, while underneath them thousands of people are zooming by in fast, heated trains that don't have to stop for lights or traffic.

I know, someone's going to talk about how in Bay Ridge or Staten Island, their car gives them flexibility and convenience. But that's not the car, it's the infrastructure that's been built for drivers instead of walkers and transit users. With a different infrastructure they'd have just as much flexibility and convenience on the bus or trolley.

The pride and pleasure that they take is pleasure in glamour. Virginia Postrel has the clearest thinking on glamour of anyone I've read. While you're waiting for her book to come out, you can get a sense of it from her take on the glamour of air travel.

These drivers are mortgaging their houses and sitting in traffic on Fourth Avenue because it says that they've arrived, that they've got "freedom," that their lives fit this desirable category. If you can find some way to let them keep that glamour, you can take away their cars and the only thing they'll notice is how much thinner and healthier they are and how much more money and free time they have.

This is essentially the same as the question asked in the comments on a 1958 Disney futuristic video by "Steely," who I assume is Paul Steely White:

People don't want "reality" (whatever that is). what a bummer! They want a compelling aspirational narrative with a little magic and spectacle thrown in.

the existentialists have this notion of "auto projecting" (double entendre!) -- how people are constantly moving forward toward a better future. the act of shopping and the act of driving are similar in this way. probably somethign to do with our eons of hunter/gathering and nomadic living.

if cars and consumption are not it, then what is the new american dream?

Let me restate Steely's question this way: what would allow these people who were sitting in their cars on Fourth Avenue last week to take the subway or bus and not feel any less successful, powerful and free? What can you give to replace the glamour of the SUV?


Nick said...

I'm not sure if these are the people we should be worrying about.

Lots of people across the country would give transit a try, except they live in areas that have been designed only with cars in mind. For them, a better question might be "When will commuters be allowed to get out of their cars?"

Ok, I'll take a stab at actually answering your question: cars inevitably have an appeal of freedom and independence and pride of ownership that transit can't give you. What getting around by transit (or on foot!) gives you is a feeling of being part of the urban scene.

The best way to build on this is to make the urban environment something that you'd actually want to be part of. Not only should your work be a convenient walk from the nearest transit station--it should be a nice place to walk. Ideally it should be on a street with lots of pedestrian traffic, shops, etc.

For a lot of people, transit might technically work as a commute, but the last leg from station to office is broken somehow--you have dodge cars to cross a busy street, or walk under a creepy freeway overpass. These are not only time consuming and dangerous--they make the whole commute experience hostile, and destroy the feeling of community you might get from a transit commute that really works.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for writing, 295. In New York we've got a bit of a different perspective on this, because such a large percentage of the population uses transit to get to work, even from the suburbs. In other words, we're already where you're trying to get to.

The problem is that our city is currently being held hostage by a small elite of drivers. Despite being a tiny minority they make up almost the entire city council, the area's delegations to the state legislatures, and the community boards. In these positions of power they regularly block increases in transit funding and improvements for pedestrians and cyclists, while fighting to maintain subsidies and street configurations that benefit their own driving.

These are the people that Aaron is interviewing in the video I linked to at the beginning of the post: people who probably have much more convenient transit than you do, yet insist on driving through the city on one of the most crowded days of the year.

I sympathize with your problems, and I hope that by the time you get to where we are, we'll be in an even better place, transit-wise, so that we keep setting an example for you.

Nick said...

I have noticed that as a rule, transit riders just don't get respect!

You might think that it's just a reflection of the fact that transit riders tend to be poor, or ethnic minorities, or just in the minority relative to people who drive, in most of the US.

But I think there's also just a basic bias against, or at least disinterest towards, transit riders as a group.

How else can you explain the trouble transit has getting adequate funding in a city like New York, where the majority of people use it?

In my neck of the woods, I notice that even where transit service is good per se, there just isn't any attention to the actual experience of users. So even if there's a convenient train going where you need to, the last mile of your trip may involve a dangerous intersection, or a poorly timed bus connection, or even jumping a fence. And this is even true for suburban trains like CalTrain, that have fairly affluent passengers (judging by the laptops and $2000 bikes in the bike car).

I think we just need to organize and get politicians to start "pandering to the transit riding constituency" like they do to other groups.

SeattleBrad said...

It's the last mile that makes cars way more convenient. You need transit that's frequent and convenient (no transfers) for people to use it instead of cars.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for writing, Brad! You're absolutely right that the last mile is critical. However, almost all the people in the video have that already: frequent, convenient transit within a quarter mile of their homes.

Transfers can be a pain when you're dealing with infrequent bus service, but they're not that big a deal with a frequent subway system. Millions of people make millions of transfers every day here in New York. Many people have regular trips that require two or even three transfers.

Yury said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Yury said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Yury said...

Censure is what ruined countries with dictator regimes ...
Delete this one too, go ahead.
You are funny but I understand your point in some way.

Cap'n Transit said...

Censorship is evil when it's practiced by the state. Blogs on Blogger are free; if I delete your comment you can just set up a blog that's out of my control.

Yury said...

No. Just like you have better things to spend you money on rather than buying a car and gasoline, I have better things to do in my life rather than setting up my own blog and socialize too much virtually. I just registered yesterday and I will abandon my sing-on as soon as our few conversations will be over :-)