Getting around without a car

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I know a few people who are convinced that we are experiencing a “war on cars.” Whether that is true or not, cars have not been here forever, and cars will certainly NOT be here forever.

They are the standard, if not essential,  form of transportation for close to all of us, but even then, they can sometimes let us down and make us think twice about our personal (if not social) dependence on a single form of transportation.

Our freeways tend to be clogged day and night. Adding more lanes is not always possible or practical (or affordable). The bus is a possible, though not very palatable, plan “B.” But in rural areas, mass transit is rarely available on suitable schedules or routes.

Besides, what is more nerdy and old school than riding the bus?

Your average city bus may not get much respect but recent technological developments may change the public attitude toward buses (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/five-breakthroughs-that-could-make-you-love-the-bus/559832/).

I don’t ride the bus as often as I’d like to. I’d ride it more if it matched my schedule and my destinations. Here’s an overview of what makes a good bus system work, and what gets in the way – https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/the-stark-and-hopeful-facts-about-bus-ridership/559400/.

Some transportation advocates insist that busses may in fact save our cities (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/love-the-bus-save-your-city/559262/). Seattle is almost certainly one of them – https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/seattle-the-city-that-respects-the-power-of-the-bus/559697.

The biggest problem with cars is not so much cars themselves, but that everyone seems to have one – and so many cities have dedicated so much space to them (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/07/a-visual-inventory-of-parking-lots/532677/ or https://www.vox.com/a/new-economy-future/cars-cities-technologies).

One study showed that for every individual car, eight parking spaces had been established. Houston supposedly has 30 per resident.

Other studies show that a car consumes about 10% of the average family’s budget (approximately $10,000 per year). You might need a car, but just be sure you get one you can afford. Here are some good guidelines on how much you should spend for your next vehicle: https://www.cargurus.com/Cars/articles/how_to_avoid_spending_too_much_on_a_car.

Cars are also the primary justification if not direct cause for suburbs, extended commutes, traffic and urban sprawl (https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/04/08/how-not-to-create-traffic-jams-pollution-and-urban-sprawl).

Some cities (not always by choice) are exploring alternative uses for public spaces dedicated to cars (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/arts/design/taking-parking-lots-seriously-as-public-spaces.html).

It is a challenge to even begin to catalog the ways in which our city (or any city) would be a healthier, quieter and more productive place if it held fewer cars.

Many retailers and residents complain about bike lanes taking up parking spaces. Here’s a study of what happened in one community – https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/5/31/how-bike-lanes-benefit-businesses.

Other cities (even Tacoma!) are exploring ways to integrate cars into an all-season, multi-layered transportation system that includes all possible moving parts from ride-hailing services to bicycles to busses or light rail systems.  (1*)

It is not that cars are the problem, though they are certainly not the one-size-fits-all solution. A flexible system that integrates pedestrians into mass transit across varying jurisdictions and communities would be a durable solution to a constantly shifting challenge.

Tacoma/Pierce County had an extensive street car system until the popularity of cars (at least among those who could afford them). Our local infatuation with rail-based mass transit ended  June 11, 1938, with a celebratory last ride that ended with a dance at the Winthrop Hotel. One of Tacoma’s many mysteries was why the tracks were not kept to allow cars and transit to coexist. Many cities had (or still have) complementary coexisting transportation systems. Tacoma’s commuter rail tracks were torn up and sold as scrap metal to Japan in 1939.

The ragged and unsettling transition between forms of transportation is nothing new. Here’s a portrayal of how cars, rather clumsily and with much resistance, came to dominate our transportational landscape – https://crosscut.com/2018/04/chaos-car-seattles-early-days.

We love our cars, and the government will need to pry our cold, dead hands off our steering wheels – at least until it (or the free market) can offer something even better.

Some cities are offering a few more, perhaps irresistible, options. Oslo, like several European cities, is planning on banning cars altogether in its city center (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/05/oslos-race-to-become-a-major-bike-haven/559358/).

Some are car-free almost entirely already (https://www.curbed.com/2017/5/17/15649210/car-free-places-city-island), others are taking major steps toward less dependence on private cars (https://www.fastcompany.com/3040634/7-cities-that-are-starting-to-go-car-free). These include major European cities like Paris, London, Madrid and of course, Copenhagen.  (2*)

This bike "highway" in Copenhagen has directional lanes for bikes and a separate lane for non-bicycle pedestrian use - walkers, skaters, baby-strollers or wheelchairs.       Photo: Morf Morford

This bike “highway” in Copenhagen has directional lanes for bikes and a separate lane for non-bicycle pedestrian use – walkers, skaters, baby-strollers or wheelchairs. Photo: Morf Morford

When it comes to dedicated bike lanes, the cliche’ is true – if you build it, they will come (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/10/bike-commuting-still-on-the-rise/408679/).

The same principle holds true for busses – More routes and better schedules equals more riders – https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/06/more-routes-more-riders/561806/.

And the more safe, affordable and convenient it is, the more likely people are to use it.

Many cities have bikeshare programs in place. You can look up any city’s participation here – https://www.bikeshare.com/.  Some have been more successful than others and some are more affordable than others.

Some cities are relatively recent converts to bicycles, while some places like The Netherlands actually had more bikes per capita than any other European country since 1911, with 99% of its current citizens avid, if not obligated, cyclists.

If your intent is not profit, but getting people out of cars and onto bikes, you can’t beat free. Check out this Australian free bike program here – https://www.bikesa.asn.au/adelaidefreebikesinfo.

The questions to ask of any change, especially those of urban design that will affect us all – and future generations are – what is gained? And what is lost?

These cities have found that much has been lost by dedicating so much space, time and budget to cars, parking and traffic, that the social, if not financial cost of the status quo is far too great.

Integrating a cohesive bikeway system on a pre-existing car-based urban infrastructure can be a journey of unexpected  and many times unwelcome surprises, but some cities have risen to the challenge.

Here is a website that explores the intricacies of urban design with a focus on people more than cars – http://www.urbandesign.org/carfree.html.

The irony of visiting a city with an integrated bus, bicycle and rail system is that, while it might look like the past, it feels like the future (https://www.wired.com/story/vehicle-future-bike/?).

For those who like to bike primarily on a recreational basis, Canada has an almost 13,000 mile long bike trail (suitable for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter). Details here – https://www.mtlblog.com/news/canada-opening-22000-km-car-free-bike-path-across-the-country-in-2017.

In Washington, the newly renamed Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail runs 285 miles from North Bend to the Idaho border.

To Mt Rainier by bike? 

With our local access to extended trail systems, like the Foothills Trail  (https://www.piercecountywa.org/1384/Foothills-Trail) or Mt Rainier National Park, wouldn’t some kind of shuttle system (that could carry bikes) be a wonderful way to get to trailheads or parks?

A bike bus/shuttle from Tacoma to Mt. Rainier would certainly be a popular destination. Another great idea would be a shuttle from the park entrance near Ashford to Longmire or Paradise so bike riders could coast downhill the whole way.

Whatever our transportation looks like in the future, it is perhaps the ultimate reflection of who we are – one way or another, we just keep moving.

 

 

(1*)     My personal ideal pedestrian transportation system in and out of downtown Tacoma would be a gondola with stops at the Port of Tacoma linked to park & ride lots or bike parking stations..

(2*)    Copenhagen is the most deliberately bike-friendly city, with about nine times as many bike commuters as Portland, Oregon, the most bike friendly city in the USA. About 80% of Denmark citizens own a bike. You can see guidelines on seeing Copenhagen by bike here – https://www.visitcopenhagen.com/copenhagen/bike-city-gdk804424.