In the short term... in the long term
I’m sure I’m not the first to say it: We have to do morelong term thinking when it comes to sustainable transportation. Especially in Metro Detroit.
Right now, gas prices are exceedingly high. McCain and Clinton are talking about cutting the gas tax. Everyone is feeling the pinch.
And people are actually starting to change their behavior. The other day, I was talking with Michelle Romano Rockwood, who works for MichiVan. MichiVan runs the vanpool program for the State of Michigan. Currently, the University of Michigan has over 80 vanpools. And Michelle is completely swamped. When gas prices start to reach a certain level, people start looking for alternatives. And the funny part is, Michelle says that once someone gets into a vanpool they find they really enjoy it.
So, I guess what I am saying is this is not the time to encourage people to drive their cars more. This is a golden opportunity to get people to think about alternatives,and to push for new ones.
Every day, tens of thousands of people commute from Wayne County to Washtenaw County. The only option they currently have is to drive. And cutting the gas tax will not create a rail system from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
This is the time when Ann Arbor,Washtenaw County and Metro Detroit need to seriously think about a long range vision for sustainable transportation. Because, at the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem with our most popular mode of transportation: it is bad for the environment.
What we are doing today will certainly impact future generations. Now is the time to decide to no longer depend on gas guzzling vehicles to get us around. Our community is extremely talented and I believe we all want to live in a place where we can get around with ease. Building more highways is not going to bring about true change. Building a system with express buses, bike lanes, sidewalks, and a rail system and more can do just that.
In the short term, we may be negatively impacted by high gas prices. But if we decide on a short term fix, and just keep driving along, we might just run our planet (and our community) into the ground.
I know this is a bit extreme, but our environmental situation is extreme. And if we knew that we had the power to preserve the earth for future generations but decided not to for the sake of personal convenience, wouldn’t that seem a little short sighted?
And what is interesting about all of this is that curbingour cars is not about personal sacrifice. It’s quite the opposite.
Imagine a future where you can walk to work and on the way home you grab a loaf of bread from the local bakery for dinner. Imagine a future where you can hop on a train and eat at a really good bbq restaurant in Detroit and not have to worry about that second beer. Imagine a future where our children can walk and bike to school and learn about nature along the way. Imagine a prosperous economy buoyed by a clean, safe environment where everyone can move around with ease. Isn’t this the future we want for Metro Detroit?
What I’ve learned so far since I started working for getDowntown:
-Young professionals want to walk, bike and take transit to work. Older people don’t seem to get this (I know that is a gross generalization). But it’s investing in public transit that is going to keep our young talent here.
-Downtown density is good. Good for the environment (people are closer to shops, grocery stores,work, etc.); good for the economy (encourages development); good for people who want to hang out in a fun happening place. Now if we could only get the City to make it easier to develop and get people to stop being afraid of development. And if all developments could be designed with some green spaces and with pleasant features. Then we’d be okay.
-What makes a downtown great is the people. Whatever we can do to get people here (and not their cars) is a good strategy. Let’s focus on that as a goal.
-People don’t want to drive to work everyday, but the reality is there are places even 10 miles outside Ann Arbor (think Scio Township) that don’t even have bus service. This is not cool. What can’t we work together so that people can get around this whole county (and beyond) without a car? If we don’t build it, people will never understand just how valuable it is.
-People love the idea of Zipcars. It’s like this incredible idea to people. And the fact that Zipcars actually get people to share something that we once thought of as “mine” (our cars) is even better.
-People are still not living close to where they work. And this is a huge problem for them, for the environment and for our communities. How can we get people to live closer to where they work? And how can we create communities that reward people for living close to where they work?
-It’s often easier to work with local businesses than with chains (I don’t have to wait to for the manager to get approval from corporate before she can do something). But at the same time, chains can often provide gifts for prizes and when they do get involved, they can put a lot of resources into the effort.
-Bike lanes matter. Period. It makes bikes feel welcome and cars understand that bikes belong on the road.
-There are not enough business leaders (with lots of resources) stepping forward to promote public transportation. Where are you? We need you!
-We need to continue to talk about the new reality. A reality where cars don’t rule, pedestrians,cyclists and transit riders do. What would that new reality look like?
Why Curb Your Car Month Matters
So here I am in a state known by its cars asking you to drive less. The nerve I have,right? Well, there are plenty of reasonsto celebrate Curb Your Car Month (more info at www.getdowntown.org) whether you are in Ann Arbor or anywhereelse for that matter.
But I think we all know those reasons, right? We know driving less helps theenvironment. We know driving less is better for our health. We know thatdriving less saves us money. We know driving less will make us less stressed. We know it, we know it, we know it.
So why don’t we change?
This is one of the biggest challenges I face at the getDowntown Program. Everyone knows they should be driving less, but not enough people make the choice to change theirbehavior. I see both individual and regional reasons why we still drive so much.
On an individual level, people simply want to do what ismost convenient for them. And rolling out of bed, jumping in your car, parking, and stepping into your office is convenient. And I think many of us are taught to believethat our lives should be as convenient as possible. We don’t have time to figure out a busschedule. We don’t have time to spend anextra 30 minutes walking to work. Iwould go as far as to say that we are too lazy, but I know that is not thecase. We all do what works best for us,and for most of us, that means driving.
People are also still making the decision to live far awayfrom where they work. I have heard many employees tell me that they choose to live out in the country and drive towork. They want to live out in thecountry because it’s pretty, but that’s not where the jobs are. So they live in Chelseaor Dexter or Grass Lake or wherever and drive to Ann Arbor. And trust me, it’s not always because housing is not affordable in Ann Arbor. My husband and I bought a house here. Granted, it’s a small house, but it allows usto only have one car and bike, walk, or bus to work. Now, I know that there is an affordablehousing issue, I just don’t think that’s the main reason people are choosingnot to live here.
But I believe there are also larger regional (and societal) reasons behind why we don’t change. As a region, Washtenaw County has not developeda regional funding mechanism for a transportation system that includes somesort of rail, express buses, county-wide bike lanes, etc. I can’t tell you how many times people haveasked me why we don’t have an express bus from Ypsi to Ann Arbor or why there isn’t a bus from Saline. And the answer is always that wejust don’t have the plan and the money in place to make it happen. But I don’t think that’s a good enoughanswer. We have to do better, because I am getting sick of telling people that we don’t have the money to create a wayto get people around without their cars.
As long as we continue to expand roads instead of build bikelanes. As long as we think about cuttingbus service instead of creating better service. As long as we build subdivisions out in the middle of nowhere, we are sending the message that cars and driving matters more than anything else. If we don’t create a region that supports public transportation in all forms, people are not going to be as interested in using it.
At the same time, I have been amazed at all of the wonderfulpeople who have signed on as Curb Your Car Month Ambassadors for May. For the most part, these are young,college-educated workers who have made the conscious decision to use sustainable transportation.
There’s Joe over at JJR,who bikes to work and takes his 2 and 4 year old kids on rides in their bike trailer.
There’s Jeff, a middle schoolteacher, who is recently car free.
There’s Dunrie from Pure Visibility, who moved to a house that was closeenough so she could walk to work.
Checkout all of the wonderful Curb Your Car Ambassadors (all 30+ of them!) byclicking here: http://www.getdowntown.org/programs/commuter/2008_Ambassadors.html
These are the kind of people we need inAnn Arbor. I believe we could attract more of them if weput more effort into funding a regional transportation system. That’s what these knowledge workers want. So let’s build it.
I suppose the first post I write should explain a little about me and how I got here.
But before I do, remember that it’s Curb Your CarMonth! Check out all of the events and other fun here: www.getdowntown.org
So now to my story. Like many Ann Arborites, I am not actually from Ann Arbor. I’m from suburban Maryland. Montgomery Village to be exact. And oddly enough, my High School mascot was the Wolverine. So maybe it was fate that brought me here.
When I graduated from High School I was ready to get out. And so I went to Grinnell Collegein Iowa. And it was there that I met my husband,Chuck. We later moved to Madison, WI for a summer, then to Washington D.C.and then to Ann Arbor. A lot of people told me that Ann Arbor was a lot like Madison (and it is . . . sort of).
My husband and I knew absolutely no one when we moved here. And I got a job at Zingerman’s Deli, where I worked for a year. But one of the reasons we moved to Ann Arbor was because I wanted to get my graduate degree in Social Work. And the University of Michigan has the top school in the country for Social Work. So I applied and was accepted and thought I would become a therapist of some sort, kind of like my mom and dad.
But after talking to a professor during an open house I realized that what I was really interested in was community. Or rather, bringing different people in the community together to bring about positive change.
And I think Ann Arbor really influenced my decision to changedirections. You see, I grew up in the suburbs. We hung out at the mall and shopped at chain stores. We drove everywhere because it was a "planned community"; meaning that houses and stores shall not mix.
Ann Arbor was one of the first places I’ve lived where I ever felt a real sense of community. Ann Arbor has its own character, its own culture and vibe. There are so many things that make this place unique. And to me, there is something very important about that, because it makes you care aboutwhere you live. And when you care, you actually want to make the community even better. And I would extend my sense of community tomore than just Ann Arbor. I’ve worked and hung out in Ypsi. I’ve biked to get Cider and Donuts in Dexter. I’ve worked in Chelsea and eaten at the Common Grill.
As you will read in my future posts, I think a major part of a good community is the ability to use sustainable transportation to get youwhere you want to go. Ann Arbor is so great because you can walk,bike and bus to work, or to downtown. Ann Arbor is great because it has bike lanes and an excellent bus system. And while all of it could get better, having all of these choices definitely makes for a better place to live.
A big reason why walking, bike and busing are important is that when you are walking around your community, or hopping on the bus, you areright up close and personal with lots of different people. Driving around in a car on a highway is noway to experience any community.
I love when I walk to work and see someone I know and canactually stop and talk to them. The other day, I randomly ran into a friend in downtown Ann Arbor. We later met up at Melange for some drinks. How cool is that? And if I had just jumped into my car and drove home, I never would have seen her and had that experience. On the bus, I’ve run into the owner of Suwannee Springs, a manager from Ten Thousand Villages, and an employee at Bennett Optometry. If I would have chosen to drive instead, I wouldn’t have interacted with any of those folks.
Can you see how important this is? If we begin to ignore the world around us, it slowly falls into disrepair out of neglect. We need to have places where we come face to face with the people in our community. We need a way for people toget around without a car so that all kinds of people can live in ourcommunity. I believe that public transportation is a public good and should be valued as much as we value ourcars and private homes.
I’ve been at the getDowntown Program since July and have enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. I live close enough to walk, bike and bus to work. I want to work to bring sustainable transportation to Ann Arbor and points beyond.
And I hope you can help me do it.