Durable Growth, Transportation

Making car non-ownership seamless

Streetcar in Padua, Italy

Streetcar in Padua, Italy

Convincing people to make lifestyle-changing commitments to transit is a multi-faceted challenge.  There are some bright folks who are offering creative solutions.  But there may also be transit agencies which are failing to address the problem.

One can make two types of decision regarding transit use.  Let’s call them “daily use” and “everyday use”.  Both are based on rational assessments of the cost and convenience of transit versus car.  Both are good for traffic congestion, air quality, etc.  But the everyday use decision is far more important to urbanism and to the world.

Daily use is the decision to take transit for a particular trip, without a commitment beyond the current day.

For the first five years of my career, I rode BART from Walnut Creek to San Francisco nearly every workday.  I didn’t make that decision because of any grand philosophical justification or government dictate.  I rode BART because it was cheaper than paying for gasoline, bridge tolls, and parking.  Plus I preferred spending my morning commute reading the San Francisco Chronicle instead of watching brake lights.   My morning memories of those years are mostly Herb Caen and Armistead Maupin.

But despite riding BART to work nearly every day, I still had a car.  I had to live in a home at which parking was available.  And I continued to paying for insurance, maintenance, etc.  On any particular morning, I could have chosen to drive to work instead of riding BART.  And sometimes I did so because of post-work commitments.  I was a car-owner who happened to use transit regularly.

Today, I still make daily use calculations several times a month.  When considering a meeting or athletic event in the Bay Area, I think about transit options versus driving, considering cost and convenience.  And I still have a car in the driveway.

But there is another more profound decision that can be made.  To have one fewer car in the household and to instead rely exclusively on transit.  (I’m using “transit” as shorthand for a comprehensive car non-ownership strategy.  Transit alone is rarely sufficient for living with one fewer car in the garage.  But it can be an essential element of a strategy that might also include a personal bicycle, bike share, taxis, CityShare Cars, etc.)

Historically, the “one fewer car” strategy was usually conceived as a family finding a way to make do with one vehicle instead of two.  But the millennial generation is beginning to show us that a car reduction from one to zero is also a possibility.

The cost savings of making an everyday transit decision and pruning a car can be large.  Not only are the car purchase, maintenance, and insurances costs eliminated, but if one lives in a cutting-edge setting where housing and parking have been decoupled, the cost of a parking space can also be dropped.  If the parking is structured, the savings can be $20,000 or more.

But the decision to do with one fewer car is more complex that deciding to walk to a bus stop Monday through Friday.  It’s about assembling a cost-effective strategy for all the needs of living, from weekly grocery shopping to the delivery of a large screen television to taking a weekend in the wine country.  If the obstacles to any of those tasks become overly burdensome, it’s easy to buy a car, secure parking, rejoin the masses, and resume adding traffic congestion to the streets and greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

So providing ways to facilitate the everyday transit decision is good public policy.  Some folks take the charge seriously.

Hacienda, a mixed-use project in Pleasanton that will someday host almost 20,000 on-site workers and nearly 4,000 residents, has taken a step in the right direction.  In partnership with City CarShare and Schneider Electric, and under the review of UC Berkeley, a fleet of electric vehicles has been made available to the residents and workers.

Need to make a business trip to San Francisco, go to lunch with co-workers, or visit a hardware store during a break?  An electric car is available.

It’s still a trial effort.  The long-term implementation is still uncertain, including details such who covers the cost.  But it’s a creative idea that makes living without a personal vehicle one step easier.

Contrast that to some of the North Bay thinking.  Now that it’s commonly understood that the widening of Highway 101 remains at least seven years away, there is additional regional hope that the coming SMART train can be part of a comprehensive strategy to do with fewer personal vehicles.

Early on, SMART seemed to embrace the challenge.  Management talked of shuttles that would deliver passengers from stations to places of employment.  And SMART was an active participant in land planning efforts to add transit-oriented development near the stations.

More recently, both initiatives seem to have faded.  I recently heard a rumor that no funding would be available for shuttles.  And despite the Petaluma Station Area Plan having been adopted nearly a year ago, the SMART parcel adjoining the downtown Petaluma train station hasn’t been made available to developers.

I don’t sit at the SMART management table, but I think a train can be a good regional addition.  And I sympathize with SMART’s problem.  The long-range planning assumed a continued robust economy that would generate solid sales tax revenues.  The economy hasn’t been robust and may still be years from being as strong as hoped during the planning.

Nonetheless, the SMART goal should be to facilitate non-car lifestyles.  At present, SMART seems to believe that delivering a working train that may encourage daily use will be adequate.  It’s not.  We need a system that will encourage everyday use.  Shuttles, transit-oriented development, and a big picture strategy are required.  And they’re required now.

The Hacienda electric car program isn’t a complete solution, but it can be part of a complete solution.  Which seems to be more than SMART is currently offering.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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