As an urban planning student and environmentalist, I often find myself thinking about cars — why we have them, why we subsidize them, what makes us give them up in favor of other modes of transportation.
Most recently, it was my mother who reminded me just how deep our car culture runs.
About two years ago, my brother got in an accident on the New Jersey turnpike and totaled his car (no injuries, luckily). Knowing that he was about to start student teaching in Delaware and wouldn’t be able to get around easily without a car, my mom helped him out in buying a new one. Always wanting to be fair, she told me she’d give me the same amount towards replacing my car, which she thought was way overdue for an upgrade. Granted, I had been driving the same ‘98 Ford Contour since I was 16. It’s been to Florida and back, and driven many miles in between. The gas gauge, speedometer, and odometer rarely work. The trunk leaks. It had definitely seen better days.
But here’s the thing. Over a year ago I moved to Brooklyn, NY. I don’t need a car, and I really don’t want one. In fact, I don’t ever really see myself needing my own car again. Yet despite my protesting, my mom kept that old Ford Contour parked in her driveway for month after month, just in case I came to my senses and decided that life without a car was too much to bear. After telling her for the bazillionth time that walking, biking, and public transit were all I needed, she finally gave the car away to a mechanic down the block.
So remember that extra money she set aside for me for a new car? Well, it’s just sitting in an account somewhere. I could use it tomorrow if I were to change my mind and decide to buy a car. My mom just can’t let go of the idea that in order to have a perfectly fulfilled life, I need 4 wheels under me. Meanwhile, there are a ton of other things I could use a little extra monetary help with (ahem, NYU tuition). It’s one thing to decide you’re the type of person who can live a carfee life, but it takes a bit more discipline to have money for a new car staring you in the face and still declining. (Don’t worry - I’m holding strong!) I’ve just been caught off-guard by how insistent my mom has been, as she’s generally not so insistent about anything. It’s a reminder that it really is still a tough battle to convince folks that as a society, we are all too reliant on cars when there are so many other options available.
On the heels of a recently released report in Injury Prevention Journal, the Department of Public Safety at NYU just sent out a Community Safety Alert about the dangers of walking while wearing headphones or earbuds. In fact, this report has been widely circulated by local and national media all week. In NYU’s statement, they cited the fact that “accidents involving people hit by vehicles while wearing earbuds have tripled since 2004.”
Now that does sound pretty alarming, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe it will sound less alarming when you consider that these 116 incidents only make up about 0.3% of all pedestrian fatalities during that time period.
Transportation for America does a great job of illuminating one of the major reasons why pedestrians continue to fall victim to the streets (hint: it has to do with the car-centric design of our towns and cities).
It’s always worthwhile to be aware of your surroundings, and I personally try not to walk or bike with earbuds in, but the coverage of this report has just been ridiculous and a distraction from the real problem: The prevalence of unsafe walking conditions throughout our country.
This post originally appeared on This Big City for Urban Asia Week, 10/17-10/23.
by Lyndsey Scofield
With over 1 million of Delhi’s residents displaced through the mass demolition of slum neighborhoods over the last 10 years, Bela Bhatia and Jean Drèze ask, “Is India evicting the wrong squatters?”
In Delhi, India’s 2nd most populous city, slum development accounts for a mere 1% of its land area, while automobiles are an unquestionably dominant feature of the cityscape. The sheer volume of cars added to Indian roads is staggering – the Centre for Science and Environment reports that 1,000 new cars enter Delhi’s roads every single day. It is no surprise that workers in New Delhi suffer some of the world’s worst commutes and experience the most trouble finding adequate parking.
The rise of the automobile also comes with an environmental cost. With millions of idling vehicles spewing fumes each day, a majority of the city’s air pollution comes from tailpipes. Unsurprisingly, New Delhi has been ranked by ECA International as having the worst air quality in the world, a price that exacts a huge toll on public health.
Yet despite these ill effects, India’s government continues to prioritize automobile usage by requiring high minimum-parking standards for buildings, allowing illegal parking that clogs roads and sidewalks, and constructing new roads instead of new transit or pedestrian infrastructure. In short, the government treats automobiles and parking as a public good (like much of the developed world does).
Slums, on the other hand, are viewed as a public nuisance that “tarnish the urban environment,” as Bhatia and Drèze put it. When the government demolishes these communities, they ignore the important economic role that slums play in the city as relatively stable homes for the millions of workers who cannot afford traditional housing or the cost of commuting from farther distances. The housing market has clearly failed these vulnerable populations.
What Bhatia and Drèze make strikingly evident is that while poor residents are increasingly forced to turn to the market for housing after being evicted from slums, the same is not true of car drivers in the sense that they turn not to the market, but to government to supply additional infrastructure (such as free parking lots in the middle of the city). As we have seen in developed countries, this formula only promises more congestion, more pollution, more stress.
Delhi is in a position right now to radically rethink the way they deal with urban transportation issues, and they can do so before going so far as paving over the whole city. With smarter policy that works to shift the burden of providing parking from the government to the private sector, Delhi will see the true cost of parking surface. For further discussion of these market-based solutions, I encourage you to visit Professor Paul Barter’s blog.
So what do you think? Are the number of cars in India a necessary part of their economic growth, or are they actually “squatting” on what could be great public space?
When you think of people who use social media, you generally don’t think of traffic engineers or state DOTs, but last week’s web-based conference on social media held by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) would surely change your mind.
With panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, the conference mimicked a true bricks-and-mortar event and attracted hundreds of attendees. For an organization that usually caters to a more traditional and technical audience, I was impressed by both the innovative format and accessible content. Clearly the transportation sector is embracing social media and looking for additional ways to take advantage of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And this comes with great benefit to the public, who are increasingly using social media as a means to keep updated on news, express their opinions, and connect with others.
During an afternoon session called “Engaging Your Audience,” several panelists shared their success stories around using social media, and I’d like to share a couple of my favorites:
Starting locally, NYC DOT’s Neil Freeman talked about The Daily Pothole, a surprisingly entertaining and lighthearted Tumblr started by the agency to connect with a broader audience. They mainly use the site as a place to post pictures and impressive statistics about their efforts to repave troublesome roads, but more importantly, they’ve gotten residents to actually use the site to report potholes in their neighborhoods. As Neil put it, they’re “making potholes and asphalt fun!” Now who would have thought that was possible?
Image: Screenshot of The Daily Pothole, 9/26/11
Another successful case comes from Bobbi Greenberg in Arlington County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. With a dense population and plethora of good transportation options (including trains, buses, bike lanes, and zip cars), Arlington County Commuter Services really wanted to encourage more people to leave their cars at home.
They launched a campaign called the Car-Free Diet that relies heavily on social media to spread their message. Their website features interactive tools like the car-free diet calculator, and they routinely post informative videos on their YouTube site. But their major success comes from the Car-Free Skeptics Challenge, which follows the experiences of self-proclaimed “car-free skeptics” who agree to ditch their cars for 30 days. With regular blog posts, YouTube videos, and Facebook & Twitter updates, the contestants become ACCS’ biggest proponents of walking, biking, and taking public transit, putting real faces on their campaign.
Image: Screenshot of Car-Free Diet twitter page, 9/23/11
As can be seen from just these two examples, social media allows for a level of creativity and dialogue that just isn’t possible through traditional methods of outreach. It’s promising to see interest growing in these types of initiatives among transportation agencies and organizations, and I expect that the most effective & innovative applications are still to come as more agencies embrace the social web.
The sessions from the conference were recorded and are available on the TRB website, so if you’re interested in checking out what you missed, click the following link. Additionally, most presentations have been made available in PDF version on the same site: http://www.trb.org/conferences/socialmediaonlineworkshop2011.aspx