Sunday, April 12, 2009

Limited Transportation Choices

Few things strike more dread in the American heart than being told that our choices are going to be limited. We are an “in the Pursuit of Happiness” kind of people. The day after President Obama was elected many gun owners feared that their right to bear arms was going to be compromised and acted accordingly.

"Everybody was scared he was going to take the ammo away or he was going to tax it out of sight on the prices," Dury says. "So people started stocking up, buying half a lifetime to a lifetime supply of ammo all at one time." Apr-07-2009, “All Things Considered

But, delaying important transportation decisions will accomplished what the British in 1775 never could: Force limited options on our future choices.

At a recent lecture, a local transportation expert ended his talk on our area’s future transportation options with his prediction that if we don’t address our transportation issues now, our choices in the future will be limited. I’ve been pondering this eerie prognostication trying to get a feel for what he meant.

I think he meant this: Had we seriously addressed our transportation options presented to us back in the 1970’s when the oil cartel pushed oil prices beyond our comfort zone, where cars lined up on odd/even days to get fuel according to their license plates, today would be different. Today, there might have been a thriving auto industry with a line of electric car and hybrids to choose from. There might have been well-designed communities where most jobs and stores were within safe walking and bicycling distances. Instead, ignoring the world-wide automobile market that was moving towards leaner and more efficient vehicles, and smart growth community designs, Americans in the 1980’s and 90’s continued to buy and make larger gas-guzzling behemoths. We just love to drive faster and further packed with more stuff inside.

Then, last spring, we were confronted with the specter of limited choices. We might have to move closer to our jobs to afford the fuel, forfeiting that suburban McMansion we had dreamed about. We might have to give up buying a lot of other things to pay for transportation costs. Food prices rose, because transportation costs rose; public transportation costs rose (though here in Rochester the price of bus travel did not go up); and, large vehicle purchases dropped. Suddenly, many of the things we desired seemed to disappear as an option.

As the economic crisis deepened, we realized that the American automobile industry itself was failing—despite a precipitous drop in gasoline prices. Now large personal vehicles are vanishing because not only can’t we pay for them, but the manufacturers themselves may be going bankrupt—years of ignoring the signs of change. And, people were starting to care about how our transportation choices affected our environment.

If we don’t develop a comprehensive transportation policy, we are going to be left to the mercy of the repercussions. Though, we already have limited our options. You can forget about ordering any vehicle you want, in any style that pleases you because car shows won’t include them. You can forget about cheap, accommodating public transportation because we are in crisis mode. Many of the new city designs to attract business and tourists and many transportation options (like high-speed rail) are going to be limited because our public officials will be addressing our weakening infrastructure with a limited tax base.

As our children graduate this spring, the world will still be their ‘oyster.’ But it will be a smaller oyster.

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