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How Transportation Choices Are Made

2011 May 19
by dan bertolet

Last weekend I was chaperoning three elementary-school-age kids and needed to do some shopping in downtown Seattle, two miles from home base in the Central District. What was our travel mode of choice? The automobile.

Yes, by car, even though there’s a bus stop two blocks from my house with a line that would have taken me to within two blocks of my downtown destination. What gives?

My first thought was to take the bus, mainly because parking downtown is known to be an expensive hassle. But then a vague memory bubbled up about low rates at the city-owned parking garage at Pacific Place, and I found out it would cost $7 to park for two hours. Not much more than the $4.50 bus fare for my crew. Factoring in the time and convenience, along with the negligible gasoline expense, the car was the easy winner.

So it goes. We Americans are incessantly trained pretty much from toddlerhood on to be skilled consumers, that is, to make purely rational, cost-benefit-based decisions. And not surprisingly, that’s how most people typically make their transportation choices.

The problem is, because a significant portion of the costs of driving are either subsidized, or externalized and borne by society as a whole, the deck is stacked in favor of driving. It’s a market failure that leads to lots of people making choices that seem to be in their best interest, but in the end are not, because the whole society suffers—and eventually the planet calls the bluff.

One simple way to help counteract that market failure is higher gasoline and parking taxes, the revenue from which can then be used to promote transportation alternatives that don’t come with all the detrimental side-effects of cars. Call it reverse social engineering. Because engineering society is exactly what our auto-biased system has been doing for decades.

If I had to pay twice the parking rate, maybe I would have taken the bus. (Of course we’d also have to make sure the  “free” commercial parking is taxed so I wouldn’t be tempted by the malls.) Or maybe I’d try to find what we needed at a neighborhood store closer to home. Or maybe I’d go another time by myself on bike.

But here’s a point that bears repeating: Requiring people to pay the true cost of their driving is not an ideological conspiracy to force the innocents out of their cars and into spandex bike shorts. It is, rather, a strategy for establishing fairness and enhancing choice, while at the same time steering the societal ocean liner away from the iceberg and toward a more sustainable path.


A Pictorial Epilogue:

At Pike and Broadway on the way downtown, a blatant reminder of how deeply entrenched in car culture we still are, even in liberal, green Seattle. Because apparently it is still possible to successfully market a product with a Hummer, the stupidest, most offensive car ever made:

No matter how clean and well lit, underground parking garages are creepy, claustrophobic, and disorienting. They are very expensive things to build, yet they not places fit for people:

Up from the garage and into the mall—such a family friendly place! See those pretty people in the picture kids? By the time you are 12 you better look just like them or you are worthless:

It was a nice day last Saturday in Seattle, and the downtown retail core was packed—I wasn’t the only one willing to pay the cost of parking. It was inspiring to see so many people out walking on the big wide sidewalks—yes, Seattle does have some real urbanism. And the energy that real urbanism creates is a big advantage downtown will always have over the malls. For example, you would never come across the scene below in a mall parking lot. My kids wanted to know what marijuana is. They learned something about real life:

At Pacific Place, you pay for your parking in style. No fumbling around for your money in the front seat while the bored gatekeeper waits in a dingy booth. In fact, the Pacific Place pay area has actually become a well known meat market for singles on the hunt. Alas, but then you still have to drag yourself back down into the concrete bunker and find your way out of the labyrinth: