Monday, December 5, 2016

We still need more car-free weekenders

Some years ago, I wound up arguing about congestion pricing in my local cafe with a woman I’d never met before. I said that as someone who didn’t own a car I didn’t want to pay to maintain infrastructure for people who did. She responded with the usual, “Well, some of us have to have cars,” and then put a new spin on it. “I need one to get to my farm upstate.”

She clearly felt she had won the argument with that one, and I let her think that, because it was clear there was no getting through to her that evening. I grew up surrounded by farms, summer houses and weekend houses, and I can tell the difference between them. If you’re spending Sunday night in your apartment in Sunnyside, either you have a weekend house with a garden, or you own a farm but you’re paying other people to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Either way, you can leave your poseur pickup truck at the New Paltz park-and ride, and you are not entitled to my tax money subsidizing a free ride for you across the Queensboro Bridge.

Since then I’ve had similar encounters with other people, and read about many more, where someone who identified as a city resident argued in favor of maintaining free bridges, free parking, wide streets or minimum parking requirements, or opposing bus lanes or bike lanes, because they also identified as a driver. This person usually complained about owning a car in the city, either having to pay for parking or to move their car twice a week for alternate side sweeping. It seemed like they hated everything about car ownership.

The people in question didn’t use the car to commute to work, and rarely used it for shopping or to go out at night. So why did they have a car? To go to their country house (or sometimes “farm”) in the Catskills, in Vermont, in Connecticut. Sometimes they didn’t even own a country house, and just used the car to drive to short-term rentals or hotels.

It made me wonder, what if they didn’t need a car to have a weekend away from the city? What if, like me and my family, they took trains and buses to get to hotels? They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station.

I wrote about this back in 2009, and Alon thought we should concentrate our attention instead on getting suburbanites to move to the city. We see how well that worked out! But the reason I think it would be effective to provide more alternatives for car-free weekends is not based on absolute numbers. It’s based on the fact that so many people who are obstacles in the fight for safe streets, efficient movement, reducing pollution, bringing us closer together and providing access for everyone are people who own cars primarily to get to their country houses and weekend hotels.

If we can give those people an alternative to parking their cars in Manhattan, would they stop identifying as drivers and be more supportive of transit and walking? We can’t know until we try it. And as Bruce pointed out in the comments to my old post, the worst is that we can make it easier for a bunch of non-drivers to have a relaxing weekend away from the city. I’ll talk about some specific idea in future posts.


whitemice said...

"""They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station."""

1.) An immediate counter-response will be "What about all my stuff?". People don't believe moving stuff on transit is possible; in much the same way they don't believe taking children on transit is easier [when that is, in fact, MUCH easier]. There is luggage designed for transit - but even I had to learn that the hard way when as a went from the hotel to the bus stop in Savannah Georgia my Airport-Style luggage self-destructed. Fortunately I got educated about luggage at the Sears next to the bus stop. But "stuff" always comes up.

2.) Maybe someday you can write a post about best techniques for getting people to think about transportation as a consequence of place-choice. Because most people, in my experience, don't think about it that way. They choose the place and then adopt the transportation choice dictated by the place - without connecting the upside/downside of that transportation choice as a consequence of the place. Other than Magic Math this is the biggest hurdle I encounter in talking to people about Transit. "It doesn't work for me [because of where I am or where I go]" with no ownership of the where at both ends as - to some degree - a choice. I have gotten pretty good at breaching the Magic Math arguments provided people are open minded... the place-as-choice seems even more intractable.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Whitemice! I covered this a bit in my series on types of mode choices. It's a bit scattered and hard to read, so I really should rewrite it as a longread, but here's the main post:

Kevin Love said...

100 years ago many, many people took the train to country hotels and resorts. It is truly amusing to hear people say "it can't be done" about things that were commonly done by large numbers of people 100 years ago.

jarod213 said...

Hi Cap'n Transit, a few of us in the Haverstraw-Nyack area are pushing for weekend ferry service for this exact reason. We need to activate our downtowns with car free Weekenders. We have a petition on Obviously, we prefer a reactivation of the West Shore Railroad, but this is the second best option.

Please let me know your thoughts. Cold Spring, Beacon and Hudson have thriving car free tourism. We need some of that on the west side of the Hudson. Also, UBER is an important component of this as a last-5 mile connector.

Alon said...

To be fair, what I said is "The most important thing is by far to either move people from the suburbs back to the city, or to create walkable, car-free zones in large swaths of Westchester and Long Island, on the model of Arlington but on a larger scale."

Leaving aside that I said Arlington and not just about any Paris or Stockholm inner suburb, or even Metrotown, what I meant is that because suburban car use is so much higher than city car use in New York, it's more important to go after the suburbs. Building actual town centers in the suburbs would help; making sure those town centers look like 2016 (in countries with good suburban transit, i.e. not the US) and not like 1928 would help even more.

Also, re weekend and summer houses: apparently, 10% of Stockholmers own one of those. I presume those tend to live in the suburbs and have higher incomes than the people I socialized with (my advisor had pretty high income, but academia has different consumption patterns from Standard Average Suburban Pretend-Normal Middle Class). This is consistent with high transit usage and not very high car ownership; after all, 90% of the population doesn't have second homes.

In New York, where commuter rail reaches more potential vacation destinations than in Stockholm, it's possible to make a dent in the weekend vacation mode share. But it depends on what's at the other end. Pretend-rural houses are too difficult - if you cluster them near a train station, they lose the appeal. It's not the luggage; how much luggage do people bring on a weekend trip? Intercity trips, to places like New Haven or Poughkeepsie, are the easiest. Hiking on trails accessible by commuter rail is also a reasonable target.

Unknown said...

In America, shouldn't we have a choice of what transportation mode that we want to use and have the finances to pay for? If weekenders want to have a car to drive to their weekend house, they should be able to as long as they pay for the consequences of their actions (i.e. parking, gas, tolls, etc.) And yes, everyone pays a subsidy for roads that they drive on, because... EVERYONE PAYS. Just as drivers pay a subsidy for transit, transit riders pay a subsidy for roads, people who are too young or too old to use transportation pay into our transportation system every time they use something that had sales tax applied, etc... transportation, including transit, roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks, are a SOCIETAL enterprise that EVERYONE PAYS into. The transportation system isn't a zero-sum game where everyone exactly what it costs to get from place A to place B; it's a common good that society constructs, pays for, and uses so that all members of society can get to where they need to go. And for American society, the additional caveat is that the transportation system is for all members of society can get to where they need to go however they choose to go.

Topher said...

My experience with weekend travels outside of the city is pretty much limited to taking Metro-North to Poughkeepsie or Amtrak up to Fort Edward.

What I've noticed is that there seem to be no car rental agencies within walking distance from any of the stops along these two routes. I don't understand why that is; even at the "Albany" stop, you're really in Rensselaer and you have to take a 20-30 minute taxi ride to the Albany airport to get to a rental car agency.

Do other train stations on different routes have this same problem?

If you can easily rent a car right by a train station, you don't need to have a car in the city to drive upstate.

Maybe Zipcar could start leasing spaces in the train station parking lots, compared to opening up a rental car lot, that's a much less asset intensive solution that would help.

whitemice said...

Absence of ZipCar and other like services at train stations baffles me. As someone who takes Amtrak from Grand Rapids, MI to Chicago, IL and then uses the CTA/Metra to go out as far into the blight as that permits - there are only a few stations with car share (ZipCar), and often time sit is blocks away. I don't understand; it is an obvious solution but very limited.

VincentP said...

Here in Ontario, we have the Blue Mountains; a Ski area which is only a few hours north of Toronto and many vacationers tend to stay in nearby Collingwood. Collingwood has a reasonably pedestrian friendly downtown and even an extensive local transit system and yet.....most Torontonians drive there. Why? Because intercity transit is simply not provided! Our intercity rail system has not served this major tourist area in decades. (and any new routes are highly unlikely as it struggles to maintain it's existing ridership) Greyhound used to provide multiple daily trips but the services were cut to once a day back in 2009 or so and in any case, the company has an image problem. We need transit advocates like Cap'n who understand cities can't be car free bubbles unto themselves. My advocacy organization is creating an intercity bus map of the province to at least kick start the conversation. The fact none existed prior to this will tell you about the state of the discussion!

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks guys! Sydney, since you recognized that everyone pays a part of their transportation mode, and the government also pays a part out of our income taxes, maybe you could also recognize that we can't afford to provide all the choices.