Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Transportation Political Agendas

There were a couple of interesting articles in the New York Times this month highlighting the difference between the political wills in the U.S. and other countries when in comes to transportation.

The first was this this article about bus rapid transit in poor countries, specifically looking at the system in Bogotá, Columbia. In case you've never heard of bus rapid transit (BRT), it works similar to a subway or light rail line, with enclosed stations and fare control gates, except the system is run with buses on dedicated lanes that are set apart from car lanes by physical barriers.

Now I'm not one to promote the use of buses over subways or other rail systems, but the use of bus rapid transit in this way is very innovative and a ton cheaper to implement. And I'm all for anything that takes lanes away from automobiles.

Think about what you could do in a lot of American cities with this system. We seem to have a lot of what they call "express" buses in the U.S. that basically just have stops farther apart but still get stuck in the same traffic with all the cars clogging the road. And a bus can sit at a stop for five minutes or more while people pay their fares as they board.

What Bogotá and other cities with BRT systems do is get the cars the hell out of the way and speed up boarding by allowing all doors on a long, articulated bus to be used for boarding. Imagine this system being used on 1st, 2nd and/or 3rd Avenues in Manhattan, Western and Ashland Avenues and Roosevelt Road in Chicago; Aurora and 15th Avenues in Chicago; or any the dozens of wide roads in L.A. It could be done cheaply and quickly. Our city leaders could decide to do it today and have their systems running next year.

There is one other factor that makes the system work in Bogotá - automobile restrictions. Once they implemented their BRT a plan was put in place to get people out of their cars and on the transit system (or at the very least more carpooling). There is a alternate-day driving restriction that uses license plate numbers to decide who can drive in the city on any given day.

Think about what that would mean in a city like New York or Chicago, taking up to half the cars off the road on any given day. Bogotá also removed about a third of their street parking to make room for the BRT, another deterrent to driving into the city.

We could do this here easily, it only takes the political guts of our elected officials to get it done.

But what do we do in the U.S? We protect our single-occupancy vehicle addiction like it is a god-given right.

The other article in the New York Times was about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's study on cell phones and driving. The report found that driving while talking on the phone, hands-free or hand-held phone made no difference, makes a driver as dangerous on the road as someone who has a blood alcohol level of .08. What did our government do with this information? They suppressed it, of course.

We have people on the road causing accidents and fatalities at the same rate as drunk drivers and our government doesn't want us to know it. Public safety be damned, people have the "right" to talk on the phone while they drive if they want. There are only a few states that have laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving, and those only prohibit using your hand-held device behind the wheel even though it is well known that a hands-free phone conversation is just as likely to cause an accident.

Anyone who is a pedestrian in any big American city probably goes through the same crap I do walking the streets of New York. I must come dangerously close to getting hit by a car driven by someone talking on their phone at least three to four times a week. A slow week. (And yes, drivers, I know that pedestrians talking or texting on their phone and not watching where they are going when they cross against a light when cars are coming up the street are a big problem as well. That should also be dealt with.)

And other things that are dangerous distractions are just as likely to cause an accident as drinking and driving, such as smoking or eating in the car. I know of no place that has laws prohibiting these behaviors while driving.

And if you even suggest writing these kind of laws people have a hissy fit. We expect our cars to be a private domain, like our homes, and that anything we do in them is our business alone, no matter how many people it kills. There was a similar resistance to the drunk driving laws back in those days, too.

(This doesn't even get into the subject of our unsafe speed limits - which are casually enforced at best to begin with and then only to raise revenue, not for public safety - or the fact that it is legal to sell cars in the U.S. that can run at speeds in excess of 150 mph despite the fact there is no place that it is legal to drive that fast. One little law on the books about the speed ability of cars sold in the U.S. and you end all those high speed chases once and for all.)

And therein lies our problem. If we don't even have the political will in this country to even pass reasonable laws that are about the immediate public safety, how will we ever develop a public policy that is about stopping global arming, improving our horrible urban air quality and the overall livability and quality of life in our cities? Are we that afraid of people's love of their precious cars?

Public officials in Columbia had the guts to majorly restrict driving to the benefit of their society. New York couldn't even get a bill passed to charge a minimal fee to drive into the city center. (And if you are wondering, it was the Democrats that killed it in the state assembly. Can't blame the Republicans for that one.)

What does it say about us that elected officials in Columbia - Columbia! - are politically braver than any leaders in the U.S?


(S)wine said...

well yes, because overall Americans will give you shit about ANYTHING that may smell of "infringing on our liberty and the pursuit of happiness." i am thoroughly convinced that in my lifetime nothing really progressive will be done in this country. and honestly, i am quite sure that my daughter won't see anything majorly different either. most Americans will take up arms if you BAN their guns or if you enact legislation for gay couples to marry infringes on their "christian lifestyle" or "breaks down the family values" whatever the fuck that means, but not do anything about programs that can actually help them AND go easy on the environment. this continues to baffle me. and i have very little faith because as i've grown up here the last 30 years (as an immigrant) i've seen a systematic dumbing down of our generations and a systematic lethargy manufactured and reinforced by television shows, video games, and social site distractions. i am hoping that when our daughter is of adult age, she will join us in whichever country with fair social systems we are residing at that time. sorry for the downer attitude, but i truly don't see anything happening in this country. it's gridlocked/deadlocked just like the traffic you mention.

Deni said...

Can't say that I disagree with you Swine.