In the early twentieth century, education was believed to be the best way to ensure a democratic society. Protecting a democratic society, even one controlled by the majority, requires an education policy that ensures access to the information and critical thinking skills sufficient to understand how to participate intelligently in local and national government and civic affairs. The freedom to choose is limited by the ability to understand.
Similarly, we need a democratic transportation policy. One that ensures equal access to essential services and opportunities.
Freedom and Equality Depend on Access
The need for a democratic transportation policy is less obvious than a democratic education policy but not less fundamental. A means of transportation other than walking is necessary in order to work, receive medical care, be educated, and obtain goods and services at competitive prices. Economic and social viability depends on access.
The legacy of suburban design and the single family home is dependence on private cars. While this has provided greater freedoms than at any time in history, it also brought pollution, depletion of natural resources, and dependence on an expensive asset. The cost of owning a car — purchase, maintenance and repair, insurance, and gas — is often the second most expensive item in a household budget. Support of car use and storage is a also major cost for cities and states and thus an added burden for taxpayers. There are severe environmental costs as well. The construction of roads and parking lots has sealed fertile land under millions of square miles of concrete and asphalt disrupting the ecosystems that naturally cleaning our water and air. The costs are enormous and the negative effects pervasive.
The Effects of Undependable Public Transportation
While privately owned cars and other vehicles will remain necessary in some areas and everywhere for some purposes, to create and maintain a healthy environment for everyone, we need independence from private car use. Public transportation provides equal access at a much lower cost not only to work, education, and medical care but also to parks, beaches, sporting events, recreation centers, and family and friends on holidays.
Unless public transportation is available 24/7, it is not dependable. Many people work weekends and evenings, particularly those in the service industries. Children need access to museums and sports activities on weekends. To stop service during the night and limit service on weekends affects the use of public transportation at all times, not just on nights and weekends.
Using public transportation requires the same educational process as learning how to drive and understanding traffic regulations. Unless it used regularly it will remain unfamiliar and difficult to use, even when available. Undependable service reinforces the belief that public transportation inconvenient and thus only tolerable for commuting. Public transportation needs to become as convenient, habitual, and familiar as using a car or its use won’t replace cars and transportation will remain expensive.
Equal Access to Car Storage
Car storage is very likely the last topic you would expect to be discussed as an example of creating a more democratic society. It is an excellent example of the ways in which habitual thinking contributes to our social, economic, and environmental problems.
Just as personal cars being a major drain in a household budget, car storage is also a major drain in the economies of cities and towns. It almost doubles the width of streets and thus cost of building and maintaining them. Shopping centers have parking lots equal to the footprint of the buildings doubling their environmental impact by diverting water into sewer systems instead of the ground. It has been estimated that for every car on the road, we all maintain 5 storage spaces.
To maintain and restore our the land so it contributes to our health and food supply, we need to develop excellent shared transportation alternatives and reduce the need for car storage. We need trains of all sizes and capacities, buses, and shared car services like Zipcar, GetAround, RelayRides, and Car2Go.
So why do cities like DC charge car-sharing programs like ZipCar more to store their cars than they charge for personal exclusive use?
In my neighborhood, a private car receives a permit to park 24/7 for $30 a year while car sharing cars may pay hundreds of dollars a month. In part, charging car sharing companies considerably more is evidence of our bias against businesses and our assumption that if someone is in business they are rich and should pay more. Aside from the fact that we don’t use the same logic when it comes to taxing individuals, charging a car sharing company more is short sighted because a shared car reduces costs associated with car storage.
Each shared car meets the personal transportation needs of dozens of people while also being more environmentally responsible. The cost of an on-street parking spot is moved along to the shared-car users requiring them to pay proportionately more for car storage than personal car owners do. Taxing shared cars at a higher rate than personal cars is certainly not fair or equal.
While the difference in car storage costs may be relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it is an example of the logic that undermines a democratic society and permeates our public transportation policies.