The commons: the case of cars and public transportation

Someone from France told me she found it incredible that many American streets lack sidewalks.

Here many communities are built for cars, not people.  This is especially true of suburbs, where pedestrian traffic is at risk from speeding vehicles.




In much of Europe people promenade through the streets in the evening, and people shop at local grocery stores. I recall observing that phenomenon in Spain: in the evening the streets were full of people, not cars.  It was refreshing to watch.

Here in America few people walk.  You sometimes see people drive across the street to go to a store or to mail a letter.

Automobiles are central to so much of what’s wrong with our economy, our way of life, our health, our environment, our foreign policy, our politics, and our isolation from others.

With slight exaggeration, one can say: Cars are filthy. Driving them is anti-social and selfish.

I haven’t driven my car in about three weeks. I take the bike and bus.  But this hasn’t always been so for me.

I spoke with a coworker who drives into work everyday. He lives in Issaquah and drives into downtown Bellevue. The commute takes him about 20 minutes by car. He says that if he takes the bus the commute would require closer to an hour. The buses don’t come often enough, he says. He used to live in St. Petersburg and in Prague, and in both cities the buses and trams came often enough that you could actually use them.

If taking public transportation costs an hour in lost time, I can’t blame people for driving.  But I’m sure many people drive not because it saves them much time, but just for the convenience.   I’m soliciting hard data about this:  for people who drive to work, what’s the distribution of the amount of time saved?

Americans, and Washingtonians in particular, so starve the government of taxes that the commons suffer.  Transportation is  a great example of this. The Puget Sound is inherently gorgeous. But due to the heavy traffic, the beauty is obscured by congestion, pollution, and noise. If you live in suburbs you can enjoy some green, but then you’re dependent on cars to drive into the city and to big-box stores.

It’s a shame that in most suburbs residential areas have no small, local shops.  Instead, people drive to big-box stores.   The lack of small, local shops is due partly to the economies of scale that large stores enjoy. It’s also due to perverse zoning laws and to subsidized roads.  In Washington State, the state constitution requires all gas tax revenue to be applied to road construction and maintenance.

If you live in cities, there are typically sidewalks, good public transportation, and high concentration of housing. But the streets are still generally crowded with auto traffic, and there are often lots of homeless people and poorer people.  It seems to me that everyone would be better off if homeless people and street people lived in the suburbs, where there is more land (for camping). It would be even better if there were no homeless people.

Cars are convenient, but they make our communities ugly, dirty, and unsustainable.


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