The last month has brought an awareness to many people about what essential is. I doubt if you asked people in January who the essential workers are, you would have gotten an answer that matched who turned out to be essential. I probably would have missed most of them. It is not the rich, or the techies, or the entertainers, or the politicians. It is the lower paid workers, the people who pick, harvest and prepare food, the people who staff grocery stores and pharmacies, teachers, and of course the medical profession. I am not in any of those categories, and the fact that I am not, and am still working and getting paid, means our society has been valuing the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

With our new understanding of essential, I am wondering how we apply this to driving. What is essential driving? Streetlight VMT Monitor indicates that driving in Sacramento County is down 66% (2020-04-14). What were those trips that were formerly being made? Well, some of them were commuting to work trips, but those would account for no more than 2 one-way trips per day, for some people. Nationally, commute trips are down below 25% of total trips. So that can’t explain a 66% decline, even if no one were going to work, which we know is not true. I suspect people who are doing what could be considered essential trips – to essential jobs, and to the grocery store and medical services – are about the same rate as before, so that doesn’t account for the decline either. The only conclusion I can come to is that a significant portion of those trips not now being made were non-essential.

I know that when I am out walking and bicycling for physical activity, I see a lot of people who are probably just driving for pleasure. Obviously those speeding egregiously, which is at least 20%, are driving for the pleasure of doing what they want on the mostly empty roads, other people be damned. And a lot of the other people do not seem to be heading towards or away from work, or the grocery store. A lot of people are just out driving around. If we eliminated these non-essential trips, I suspect VMT would be down at least 80%.

Even the grocery store is problematic. I see people coming out of grocery stores with a small purchase, an amount that could easily be carried on a bike, or even walking. Of course I don’t know how far these people are going, and what their specific situation is. It true that many, many people have chosen to live in places where the distance to a grocery store is not walkable or bikeable, the sprawling suburbs. Conversely, some people don’t have much choice about where they live, and end up in food deserts, because they can’t afford to live in places with grocery stores. And there are a few people whose only reasonable transportation mode is a car, due to physical disability, but those are very few in number. I am going to say that many trips to the grocery store also fall into the non-essential driving category. (Note: this was going on long before the pandemic, with Trader Joe’s being the poster child for people who drive to the store and leave with small amounts of groceries not requiring a multi-ton motorized vehicle to transport.)

Let me say up front that I have no data to back up what I’m going to say. But it does fit the data about VMT reduction, and what we know about travel modes, and what I observe on the street.

At least half the car trips formerly being made were non-essential. Probably much more.

So what? Well, we know, unless we are ideologically opposed to knowing, that motor vehicle travel is 40% of all carbon emissions in California, and it is the portion of our emissions that we have made no progress in reducing. So, every non-essential car trip is a crime against the climate, a crime against people’s health, a crime against livability of cities.

I am not sure how to best eliminate all these non-essential trips. Pricing fuel, or travel, or parking, is part of the solution. This is often called congestion pricing, but the point is not to reduce congestion but to eliminate unnecessary travel. We need to stop subsidizing non-essential travel, we need to make it hard for people to make this choice. Obviously the controls cannot be primarily economic, as that would hurt the people the most, who have the least choice. But it must be in part economic, because middle and upper income people make choices based on money.

Some suggestions:

  • Convert areas of the city that are and look urban (downtown, primarily, but other areas as well) into superblock areas, a la Barcelona, where many of the streets become car-free or car-light. This is easiest to do where there is a grid street network, harder but not impossible to do other places.
  • Reduce street parking significantly, starting with streets where the right-of-way is needed for other purposes, such as sidewalks, sidewalk buffers, and bicycle facilities. I am not against street parking, as it does serve somewhat to slow traffic, but where the space has a higher use, it should be eliminated and reallocated. At the same time, we should never build another structured parking deck (parking garage). These structures NEVER pay for themselves in parking revenue, and so they are a subsidy from everyone to drivers (whether they are public or private, makes no difference, they are an inefficient use of capital). I would suggest we eliminate 10% of all parking in the central city, within one year, and then evaluate the impact on non-essential travel. If it has not decreased significantly, then eliminate another 10%, and on until non-essential travel becomes rare.
  • Charge the real cost of parking, on street and decks. The city only charges enough, roughly, to cover the cost of the program, meaning enforcement and administration. The land used by parking comes free, as a subsidy to those parking. The cost of repaving the parking lane (which we should not be doing anyway) comes free, another subsidy. The difficulty the city has in converting parking space to other uses, such as bike corrals, parklets, delivery zones, and drop-off/pick-up areas, which are often higher uses than parking, is another give-away to drivers, and residents and businesses who think they own the parking spaces.
  • Shift transportation expenditures away from private vehicle transportation, in favor of necessary freight, transit, walking and bicycling. That means #NoNewRoads and #NoNewLaneMiles. We maintain what we have but we don’t build any more. We stop paving parking lanes to the same standards as streets, and let them deteriorate. And we let low-traffic streets that serve very few people (cul-de-sacs, primarily, though some semi-rural roads, as well) go back to a natural surface, unless the users of that street want to pay the full, unsubsidized, cost of paving.

There are a lot of reforms that must happen at the state and federal level, and I’m not addressing those here. These are ideas that can be implemented locally, at the city and county level.

About Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

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