Getting Around By Other Means

Ask 18 urban volunteers to forgo using their cars for one week and what will you learn?

Nothing very surprising. From The City Fix:

The study found that autonomy was more important for commuters than the status or comfort associated with car ownership. “More than two-thirds of participants cited convenience, control, and flexibility—not comfort or status, as the chief benefits of car ownership,” the report says. Especially in the presence of ride-sharing services, study participants agreed that car ownership was not essential to their lifestyle.

The study also cites the idea of improving perceptions of alternative transit as a means of encouraging individuals to choose sustainable transit options, especially when it comes to real-time, geographically aware and mobile-accessible information sharing.

The participants cited three main benefits of switching away from automobile commuting: improving the environment, lowering their budget for travel, and improving their health.

For some of the participants, one of the most rewarding aspects of a car-free week was rediscovering the community. After the study period, participants felt more integrated into their communities and felt that discovering new transportation routes exposed them to new experiences, like local events, public art projects, shops and local businesses.

You can read the same list of benefits on many weblogs like this one. I’m 100 percent in favor of sending this message to the public both on Carbon Trace and in person (re: my scheduled talk on the 1-Mile Solution at Ecopalooza at MSU this Friday — talk time tentatively scheduled for 2:00 p.m. — details soon).

My problem with this study is the low number of participants and the fact that at least some of them were self-selected. While the advocate in me enjoys the positive message, the academic in me is scratching his head. The metrics don’t appear to add up to a statistically-significant conclusion.

As a set of anecdotes, it’s fine. As reporting, it’s fine. Calling it a “study” is a bit grandiose.

The fact of the matter is that millions of Americans are hopelessly stuck using automobiles. Even if they wanted to use some other form of transportation, circumstances make it difficult to impossible to do so. This is why I push the 1MS idea. A large number of people who are stuck using cars can find some destination within a mile of home suitable for a trip by foot or bicycle — even if it’s just to a friend’s house a few blocks away.

Part of the problem with the U.S., however, is that there are still a sizable number of people who cannot even do the 1MS because our built environment has automobile dependence.

Wan another set of data and a different (equally important) message? Conduct this same study in a typical exurban development rather than a large city.

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Comments 1

  1. Khal Spencer wrote:

    The one mile solution is a good one but even that is hitting resistance because you have to re-engineer some of the built environment to convince people it is “safe”. Admittedly some of our roads have been built to get cars outa town fast but not all roads are that intimidating.

    I think the assertions by some bicycling advocates that only a separated bikeway ensures safety is making our lives worse rather than better. It brainwashes potential cyclists into staying off their bikes, encourages motorists to see us as intruders on “their” roads (see a recent essay by John Cassidy in the New Yorker **), and thus weakens our political power.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/johncassidy/2011/03/battle-of-the-bike-lanes-im-with-mrs-schumer.html

    There is a good essay below on the mythology of safety but I am afraid it is preaching to the converted.

    http://thelazyrando.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-safety-myth/

    Another issue that rarely comes up is comparing the incremental vs. total costs of car ownership. Unless you can completely jettison a car, you are already paying for a lot of the costs whether you use it or not, i.e., initial cost, depreciation, insurance, storage, registration, and periodic maintenance. So one has to compare the incremental costs of driving that car to the costs of alternatives. Those include gasoline, replacing worn parts, parking costs, and mileage-based depreciation. These are different numbers. The result however is clear–if you already own a car, the convenience and incremental costs must be offset.

    The one mile solution will also depend on a few social changes which currently reward driving and damn bicycling. Eliminating “free” auto parking and let auto parking be market-driven. Make shopping more decentralized. Bicycling is not encouraged by having single, superstores in very few places.

    Sadly, for a variety of economic and infrastructure reasons, we build our new food co-op on the outskirts of BombTown rather than in the town center. Its a fifteen mile round trip from our house. That makes riding to it a bit of a bitch but we can count it as a bike ride as well as a shopping trip. We plan on buying a small trailer for our tandem bike, but admittedly we are weird around these parts. Even for Los Alamos.

    Posted 30 Mar 2011 at 10:53 am