My home island of Maui recently had the dubious honor of reaching the price of $6 for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline this week. Granted, that's in the remote town of Hana, where prices for everything are high, even by Hawai`i standards. But even in the island's more urbanized areas we're close to $5. This picture was taken in Wailuku, Maui, Hawai`i on April 29, 2011:
Maui's nearly 730 square miles include several non-contiguous residential and employment centers. We haven't had transit infrastructure since the demise of the plantation-railway system, which connected the island's towns for many years starting in 1879 (though the decade-old Maui Bus system is improving). So, in the most oil-dependent state in the nation, we are a car-dependent island. As a result, working families, already squeezed by Maui's high cost of living and comparatively low salaries and wages, are suffering. Parents and guardians often work two or three jobs, usually driving solo to each of them. Children need to get to school, practices and rehearsals - usually driven by parents or other family members. Transportation costs have been a topic of conversation almost everywhere I've gone the past few weeks. The collective sentiment: We've got to do something different.
So, it's clear that a car-based society on Maui (or anywhere, over the long term) is no longer sustainable. Skyrocketing gas prices force us to recognize that reality. Most of the world already knows this. But oil companies' influence and our own habits are so ingrained in America that we are reluctant to make necessary changes in our laws, business practices and individual lifestyles. The record-high gas prices - as unfortunate as they are in our daily lives - provide the sense of urgency needed to make long-warranted changes.
The good news is that we got into this situation by choice and, therefore, can get to a better situation by making better decisions. We've had many years of federal, state and local laws, programs and subsidies directly or indirectly establishing the car as the preferred (sometimes effectively the only) mode of transportation. Tax laws, zoning codes, personnel practices, business plans and personal habits have all favored transportation by single-passenger vehicle. All of those things can be changed.
Car culture and oil companies' influence
I've sometimes heard decision makers say that it's impossible to get people out of their cars. But people are actually highly adaptable and can condition themselves to enjoy other modes of transportation, if the public and private sectors don't put up physical or financial obstacles.
Oil companies and other enterprises that benefit from a car-dominated lifestyle are reaping record profits. And they're using their money to influence the political process. This has artificially skewed market factors and government policy in favor of single-passenger-vehicle transportation. This undue political influence slows progress in promoting alternate modes of transportation. But there are still many ways we can pursue positive change in the ways we get around - and the ways we live.
Impacts of single-passenger-vehicle transportation
Driving is one of the most physically dangerous human activities that has ever existed. It's tragic how many people we lose on our roads and highways every year.
Traffic congestion causes another form of harm: economic and social waste. Time spent idling on the road simply isn't productive or healthy, either for individuals or society as a whole.
Driving is also expensive, even without taking gas prices into account. The purchase of an automobile is typically the second-largest investment a person will make (and of course the "investment" starts losing money the moment it's driven off the car dealer's lot). Insurance, repair and maintenance costs are not insignificant.
Fossil-fuel-burning internal-combustion engines cause smog and other forms of air pollution - which isn't green in any sense of the word. And oil production can lead to disaster and tragedy, as we learned (again) one year ago.
In addition, as noted above, automobile use is a major contributor to global warming. Perhaps only the meat industry ranks as high as the transportation sector among the components of the economy that cause climate change.
In the short term, carpooling might be the easiest and quickest way to minimize the impact of high gas prices and lessen other negative impacts from single-passenger-vehicle transportation. No new infrastructure or programs are required. It's largely just a matter of will, among employers and employees alike. There are several websites designed to facilitate the creation of carpools, including two that are specifically for Hawai`i:
Car Pool Maui
Van Pool Hawai`i
But these sites rely on individual initiative - a hit-and-miss proposition. Employer-organized and -supported carpools are likely to be more effective. Ask our employers to organize and support carpools as a cost-free employee benefit might be more effective.
Many of us get to work and sit down, log on to a network and, after lunch and a couple of other breaks, head back home after eight hours or so of computer work. One might wonder: Why did I need to go to an office or a cubicle to do that? Indeed, this question has been asked for years, even when the Internet era was in its infancy, as seen in this 1994 paper describing the virtues of telecommuting:
Ten Advantages to Telecommuting
. . . the actual necessity to physically change location in order to accomplish such tasks has recently been challenged on the basis of concerns for energy conservation, the impact on our environment, a refocusing on family values, and other issues.
With so much work being done online these days, the advantages of telecommuting have only increased. Yet, there is still resistance in some management circles, often based on the fear that customers or constituents will offer criticism based on a perceived lack of supervision. But human resources professionals for years have been refining means of effective supervision of telecommuting employers. With economic recovery moving at a slow pace and office space therefore relatively affordable, the benefits of telecommuting still might not outweigh the perceived P.R. risks for some employers (though one large employer - the U.S. government - is moving forward with an aggressive pro-telecommuting campaign). But employers might be well advised to realize that office-space costs will rise again and, therefore, pro-telecommuting policies should be developed now.
Commuting by transit
Riding a bus, train or ferry to work is just not possible for many people, particularly those who live outside of large urban areas. For instance, on Maui, the limited public bus routes are not designed to connect residential centers with employment centers at convenient times. Though the County government funds and supervises the bus system and is one of the island's largest employers, there are few (if any) County employees who are able to commute by bus. Thus, though ridership continues to rise as new buses are purchased with stimulus funds and gas prices go up, commuting by bus isn't a viable option for most workers here or in many rural areas.
Even in metropolitan areas with mature bus and rail systems, transit can always be improved. Transportation officials need to hear suggestions from actual and potential transit users on service improvements. In some places, transit users have started formal or ad hoc organizations to increase their political presence:
Transit Riders Union
Silicon Valley Transit Users
Bus Riders Union
With or without an organized group, constituents can ask local transportation officials to establish routes and schedules for bus and rail that are more convenient for commuting, shopping and other day-to-day tasks.
The current majority in the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to divert transit funding and other funding that would facilitate non-automobile commuting to roadway funding. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure plays a key role in transit funding and transit-related policies.
Commuting by foot, bicycle or wheelchair
As Atrios frequently notes, "walkable urbanism is illegal to build in most places," and zoning codes frequently require "too much parking."
Most local laws that have been enacted over at least the last 50 years reflexively favor cars over other modes of transportation. The biggest impediments to living and working environments that are walkable, bike-friendly and accessible are the policies that we have imposed on ourselves through our elected officials.
It seems counterintuitive to some, but allowing (or even mandating) increased urban densities is the best thing for the environment - and for taxpayers.
Every community faces the same basic choices when it comes to its planning and zoning laws:
- Do we favor sprawl or infill urban development?
- Do we build out (sprawl), necessitating the use of cars, paving over open space and sticking future generations with the financial burden of providing infrastructure in non-urbanized areas? Or do we build where infrastructure already exists - i.e., build up and, more important, build in?
- Why do we allow - or even require - developers to build in non-urbanized areas that will be accessible only by car and that will require major public investments of infrastructure?
- Do we want to continue to physically separate the necessary human experiences of living, working, playing, shopping and learning? That's the traditional model of single-use zoning (sometimes called Euclidean zoning, in recognition of the Supreme Court case involving the Village of Euclid in which zoning was upheld against a constitutional challenge). Or do we want to establish or accelerate the incidence of mixed-use zoning? This allows the development and preservation of communities in which people can live, work, play, shop and learn in the same locality.
Aside from land-use planning and zoning, other laws that tend to favor cars are parking requirements for new developments and street-design standards that don't adequately consider use by bicyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users.
Mixed-used development is sometimes regarded as neo-traditional. That's because many of our towns and villages were originally developed under that model. A Western building with a shop or tavern on the first floor and a residence or lodging on the second floor was a mixed-use development.
Similarly, Maui's sugar plantations of the mid- and late 1800s and early 1900s were mixed-use developments. Workers walked to the sugarcane fields, while their kids walked to school. Everyone returned home to the plantation village at night. Plantation towns had grocery stores, hospitals and play fields. Plantations across the island were connected by train.
Eventually, in the mid-20th century, workers, other residents, land owners and the local government decided that a suburban lifestyle would be a step forward for the island. (Indeed, despite plantation villages' admirable design standards, plantation life was hard and often marked by labor and social injustice.) Then-renowned planner Harland Bartholomew was commissioned in 1947 to design a master-planned community in the town of Kahului (near the island's main commercial harbor), to be called "Dream City." Mimicking prestigious Mainland developments of the time, Kahului became a patchwork of big houses, big streets, big cars and big shopping centers. Dream City fulfilled vital social goals of increasing the independence and wealth of plantation workers (many of whom were first- and second-generation Americans), as thousands became homeowners for the first time.
In that regard, it's an "American success story." But from a land-use perspective, the project is widely regarded as a flawed experiment. Today, Kahului is filled with big-box retail stores and, frequently, traffic jams - just like many Mainland cities and towns. Old plantation towns, like Pa`ia, are tourist attractions, appealing for their walkability. Meanwhile, the well-meaning Bartholomew is sadly not well remembered by many professional planners.
Some of the actions that have recently been taken to combat sprawl and encourage non-car transportation in Hawai`i are the following:
- Adoption of "Complete Streets" policy for Kaua`i County.
- Adoption of policy statement in Maui Countywide Policy Plan: "Reduce the reliance on the automobile and fossil fuels by encouraging walking, bicycling, and other energy-efficient and safe alternative modes of transportation."
- Enactment of ordinance requiring the creation of growth boundaries in Maui Island Plan.
- Initiation of Statewide Pedestrian Master Plan.
Some of the national organizations that are fostering excellence and innovation in land-use planning are the following:
Congress for the New Urbanism
National Complete Streets Coalition
Smart Growth America
I find much of the content on these sites inspiring and would recommend taking the time to delve into them.
In addition, Local Governments for Sustainability (which has been identifying "hidden subsidies" for cars in municipal budgets for years) provides this handy guide for municipalities:
Sustainable Transportation Options
Commuter Relief Act
Today in Washington, Reps. Earl Blumenaur of Oregon, Jim Moran of Virginia and Mazie Hirono of Hawai`i, business leaders and others held a press conference to announce introduction of the Commuter Relief Act of 2011:
As reported by Grist's Sarah Goodyear, the legislation "would expand tax credits 'for individuals and employers to make it easier for commuters who wish to commute to work by bicycle, walking, carpooling, or using public transit.'"
Specifically, the bill would equalize the parking and transit benefits at $200 per month; let people claim benefits for more than one mode of transportation; and allow employees the option to take cash instead of an employer's parking benefit, "reducing the incentive to drive instead of take alternative transportation." It would also increase the current bike benefit (which Blumenauer got passed back in 2009) from $20 to $40 per month.
Blumenaur . . . acknowledges that bike commuting isn't for everyone. But he says that acknowledging bicycles as a legitimate transportation option is an important step. "Will everybody do it? No," he said. "But it's an affirmation of people's choices. And giving people choices ... These are things that slowly but surely, they don't tilt the playing field, but they level it."
. . .
"There are some people for whom the symbolism bothers them," he told me. "They try to portray it as anti-car -- or that we're trying to socially engineer. As if there's no social engineering involved if you have lavish subsidies for the single-occupant automobile commuter and little or no commensurate benefit for people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel."
Fittingly, today's news comes in the midst of National Bike Month.
* * *
The Island of Maui doesn't need to mimic the Island of Manhattan. Neither do other rural or suburban areas. Ultra-urbanization doesn't work everywhere. Every town, city or region should be able to maintain its own sense of place and its own cultural traditions. But sprawl (made possible by pro-car policies and practices) insidiously chips away at the very natural and cultural resources that engender a unique sense of place. Unchecked devotion to the car will eat up our open space and our bank accounts - and eventually allow the rising sea to swallow much of our land (especially on islands). As Hirono tweeted from D.C. today: "We need to get people out of their cars and walking, biking & onto buses and rails." The Charter of the New Urbanism states a vision for a vibrant and sustainable future:
. . . neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
As the First Lady says, let's get moving.