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a modest earth day proposal

While Earth Day is in its waning moments, I’d like to reflect on a dangerous and misguided addiction in the United States: we’re too in love with our cars.

Face it: most of you reading this blog use a car more often than you should. You take it a mile down the road to buy a small load of groceries, or you drive to work on the same route that a municipal bus or train takes. And your car is usually a solo-occupant machine, regardless of the size.

If you lived in Europe, chances are you wouldn’t drive as much – in fact, you may not even own a car. You use mass transit, a bike, or walk for most of your needs. And this is no surprise: heavy rail, light rail and bus networks are well-developed and well-maintained; bike lanes and parking are plentiful and available nearly everywhere; and it’s far more affordable to use the public transit or bike to get from point A to point B.

So here’s my modest proposal to all jurisdictions in the United States:

Over a three-week period:

  • Raise gas (petrol) prices to a minimum of $6 per gallon for the duration of the trial period.
  • Charge access tolls for major inner city areas like they do in central London.
  • Increase numbers and frequency of trains on subway and light rail systems.
  • Do the same for buses.
  • Make transfers between mass transit systems more seamless (or free).
  • On roads with two or more lanes, dedicate one lane to bicycles and buses (and enforce the rule).

Basically, it’s time that Americans got real about reshaping transportation philosophy and habits. And one of the most effective ways to do this would be to have all people who drive get a taste of how “the other half” lives. A three-week trial balloon will force most regular drivers to fill up at least once at rates that are comparable to those in Europe.

The United States fell victim to post-war gluttony – in the form of cheap gasoline, which led to sprawl, inefficient and overly-large cars, and the destruction of legacy rail lines. From the 1960s to the 1980s, entire neighborhoods were designed without sidewalks, so pervasive was the car culture. And bikes – at one time a legitimate form of transit, a utility tool – were relegated to the role of either a child’s toy or an adult’s fitness fetish item, meant to be hauled on a car to a place of recreation.

As Joni Mitchell once wrote, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

And my guess is that people will gain a new appreciation for public transit, railways, and bicycles. And for those who find such systems inadequate for their needs, perhaps they’ll get motivated and do something to improve the situation. Local leaders in Fairfax, VA, did just that recently, and the basic fact is: local leaders can, and will, listen.

All that’s needed is for people to speak up and think outside of the petroleum-powered box.

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