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The Personal Becomes Political

Yet futurists who project declining automobile travel as a result of telecommuting fail to reckon how small a number of telecommuters now exists (3 percent of the population), how small a percentage of miles is racked up by the commute, and how large a percentage is needed for errands in sprawling suburbs. The stay-at-homes still pass their days performing the personal trips that run annual mileage into five digits. Only if we solve the land-use issue-designing and preserving compact neighborhoods-can we make telecommuting really count.

Some car-free citizens have worked to such an end by trying to make their communities more walkable, in the process turning the personal into the political. For Chris Bradshaw, president of OttaWalk, a pedestrian advocacy group in Ottawa, staying car-free means fighting to preserve the community center or the blockfronts of small stores, and battling for a public “bare-pavement” policy to keep sidewalks free of snow. Such services and institutions make “trip-chaining”-the traffic engineer’s word for performing serial errands-feasible on foot. To Bradshaw, too, staying car-free means coaxing a neighborhood shop to stock a missing item instead of driving to a Big Box store on the periphery.

For others, enhancing a car-free existence may mean stopping a road widening or extension that would bring traffic and threaten the pedestrian. Simple tactics such as widening sidewalks, building speed bumps, and planting trees to slow motorists can reduce the danger to walkers. Providing a safe route for a youngster to walk to school can eliminate two car trips per family per day. Approaching school committees or politicians raises the likelihood of success. Again, the personal becomes political when those who value walkable and bikable neighborhoods participate in zoning decisions to allow mixed commercial and residential development; when they fight to retain or add a streetcar route; when they lobby for more and better buses.

Efforts like these are multiplying as car-free advocacy groups grow in number and solidarity. The months-old WalkAmerica alliance already embraces more than 10 organizations. Advocates for greenways and bike routes, such as Transportation Alternatives, ally with environmental associations such as the 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the Sierra Club. Across the political spectrum, trolley and train fans are uniting with opponents of highway boondoggles. Many activists are engaged in the fight to retain the nation’s six-year-old Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The act, which directs 50 percent of federal transportation funds to nonhighway uses, comes up for renewal this fall.

Perhaps the broadest front on which to combat car dependency is economic policy. Automobile travel is heavily subsidized by local governments’ underwriting of streets and roads, federal funding of oil wars (Desert Storm), and the hidden costs of the car-generated infrastructure that breeds sprawl. Hence there are many opportunities to curtail car use through the cash register. Our artificially low gas price of $1.25 or so is a quarter of Japan’s or Europe’s $4 to $5, which includes taxes to cover social and environmental costs. By paying the true cost of petroleum, other countries spend half the 20 percent of GDP that Americans spend on the private car (according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York City) and can thus afford decent public transportation.

Stop subsidizing cars, and solo driving will go down while carpooling, cycling, and mass transit will rise, enhancing the car-free life. We can pay at the pump or pay in excise taxes or registration fees. Congestion pricing-charging more on roads and bridges during peak periods, as is done in Norway and Singapore-works well. So would a carbon, horsepower, or gas-guzzling tax: a nickel-a-mile surcharge would cut car travel (and hence automotive smog) 10 percent while reducing congestion 30 percent, according to research by economist Komanoff.

These are the choices our society must make collectively. If our culture rejects automobility, or hypermobility, as its Manifest Destiny, the car will be a servant, not a master. We have alternatives to a car-bound existence. People can live in places not encrusted with asphalt, improve their daily existence, establish a stronger sense of community, and know that they are advancing global well-being. For me, the long journey began with the footsteps toward a car-free life.

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