10 Steps to Seriously Reducing Traffic

When investigations are completed for the collapse of the I35W bridge in Minneapolis, will they have any idea that the same factors which underlie a host of environmental problems could be related to the August 1 disaster?  Will they even ask if the bridge was designed for the stress of the huge increase of cars and trucks on the road?  Or will it be beyond their wildest imaginations to suggest a decrease in car and truck traffic?

The immediate reason for the collapse of the I35W bridge was the combination of a fanatical dedication to not rebuilding America‘s deteriorating infrastructure and the war in Iraq which drains available funds to do so.  But root causes are deeper.  A vast number of environmental and health problems are related to addiction to cars.  And cars are also directly or indirectly related to one infrastructure problem after another.

It is clear that big business, politicians and big enviro groups do not believe that infrastructure collapse, global warming, world oil depletion, and interaction between multiple toxins are serious problems.  If they did, they would be proposing something more than ineffective voluntary changes in consumer habits. 

Reasons that people use cars instead of buses are obvious.  The cost of using mass transportation has been steadily rising.  At the same time, the cost of operating cars (even with gas price increases) has become a smaller part of household expenses.  It is silly to think that isolated personal decisions to spend two hours riding the bus to work could reverse the trend of more cars being manufactured each year.  It is even sillier to fantasize that individual choices could reduce the number of trucks in use. 

Protecting the environment and preventing the deterioration of US roads and bridges requires a massive decrease – not an increase – in the number of vehicles on the road.  Here’s a 10-step plan that would lead to a 90% drop in cars in most US cities:

1. Reduce the workweek to 35 hours (or much lower) and guarantee jobs to workers who manufacture and operate vehicles.  Reduction in the number of hours worked is probably the most important environmental demand there is.

2. Expand mass transportation, especially by having new bridges dedicated to trains and buses.  The goal should be to expand mass transit so much that people are confident that they can get to where they need to go without owning a car.

3. Require new homes to be multi-family.  This not only saves enormous energy in construction and use of homes — it also increases urban density, which is the basis for an efficient mass transit system.

4. Require new workplaces to be adjacent to residential areas, with workers and communities having the power to halt toxic production.  Being able to walk or ride a bike to work is a very old pattern of urban design.  A major reason that workers wanted to live far away was not wanting their families to be poisoned.

5. Require every company with more than 10 employees to give an hour off work each week to everyone who does not drive a car to work.  The “reward” for socially responsible behavior should be less work (meaning less production) rather than an increase in money and purchased objects.

6. As steps 1 to 5 take effect, increase the frequency of trains and buses.  If people do not have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for the next bus, mass transit will be much more popular. 

7. Make it quicker to get to work without a car than with one.  Connect buses and stop lights via radio waves so that lights turn green as buses approach.  Designate at least one lane restricted to buses on each highway, without expanding the number of highway lanes.  Sitting in a car on a highway while watching a bus go by at 40 to 70 mph would be a great motivator to take a bus.

8. Require new multi-family homes (apartments, condos, co-ops, co-housing) to be constructed without parking spaces for private automobiles.  Only allow parking spaces for a “motor pool” of no more than 1 car per 10 families that could be reserved for the rare times that a motor vehicle is truly needed.

9. Require every company with more than 10 employees to give two hours off work each week to everyone who lives in a home without any cars.  But give the same two hours per week off to those who live in multi-family homes where there is a “motor pool.”

10. After cities are redesigned so people can move around go without cars, abolish parking spaces and parking garages (except for emergency, service, handicapped and motor pool vehicles).  Nothing will be more effective at reducing the number of cars driven than having no place to park them.

Could these 10 steps each win a plebiscite, somewhat similar to popular debates that have happened in Venezuela?  With equal time for and against, they might well win.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for democratic decisions.  Not in a country that won’t allow Ralph Nader in presidential debates and hands over elections to George W. Bush, whatever the vote might be.

The barrier to a livable alternative to cars is three-fold.  The automobile is the driving force of the contemporary corporate economy, which has absolutely no intention of reducing the overall mass of production, especially the production of cars.  They are solidly backed by corporate politicians who will only debate the conditions of endless wars for oil – not whether or not they should occur.  And, of course, the third corner of the triangle is big enviro that serves corporate donors by dishing out endless illusions of biofuels, hybrid cars and eco-gadgets.

Trucks, which vibrate bridges worse and pollute more than cars, are rooted even deeper in corporate gluttony.  The enormous increase in their use is directly tied to NAFTA and other “free” trade agreements that encourage transporting goods long distances.  This could be halted by legislation creating tariffs equal to the amount of wage and environmental differentials embodied in products imported into the US
Increased trucking is also due to planned obsolescence, requiring everything we purchase to be replaced at shorter and shorter intervals.  This also could be reversed by laws specifying minimum durability of all consumer goods.  Greater durability would mean less production and less trucking.

But fewer trucks is no more likely to happen than fewer cars.  The problem is not that corporations, politicians and big enviro don’t know that there are alternatives.  The problem is the lack of a movement large enough and strong enough to ignore big enviro, create its own political party and usher in new economics based on a sane way of living.

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA.  He can be contacted at fitzdon@aol.com

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