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A dialogue shifts up: cars, roads, the future

By Christopher Uhl
Sunday, March 14, 1999

In a recent Centre Daily Times article (My View, Feb. 28) I suggested that the plan to invest $1 billion in Centre County's roads is a mistake. A week later, Ken Riznyk (My View, March 7) expressed enthusiasm for new roads and suggested that much of what I had written was unfounded. Let's look again.

"Transportation takes one-fifth of a family's income."

An exaggeration? No, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consume Expenditure Survey (1994), 19 percent (about one-fifth) of our household budget goes to transportation; the lion's share is for car travel. But even this grossly underestimates the true cost of car-based transportation.

The recent study by economists at the World Resources Institute, "The Going Rate: What it Really Costs to Drive," concluded that if the many hidden costs of our car-dominated transportation system (for example, the cost of chronic health problems resulting from car-generated pollution and the huge military expenditures in the Middle East to keep petroleum shipping lanes open) were passed on to the public at the gas pump - instead of as hidden costs that we pay in many other ways - it would raise the price of gasoline by several dollars a gallon. Public transportation would begin to look very attractive, indeed, if we were paying the true cost of driving ($4 to $5 per gallon of gas) at the pump.

"Car use is unsafe - if jets were killing as many people as cars, one would be falling from the sky every day in the United States."

Could this really be true? Take United Airlines. In 1998 a typical jet in its fleet of 571 planes had 127 seats occupied (calculations available upon request). If one jet fell per day, 46,000 people would die each year. Sadly, this is about the same number of people who die in car accidents each year.

"Build roads and the cars will come."

Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but true. The U.S. General Accounting Office predicts that U.S. road congestion will triple in 15 years even if capacity is increased by 20 percent.

Yes, we zip along on our new roads, but after a decade or two these same roads usually become clogged with traffic. Penn State transportation specialist Peter Everett sums it up: "Expanding car facilities attracts more and more cars and leads to the rejection of other travel options."

The 21st Century Environmental Report (submitted to Gov. Ridge in September 1998) highlights sprawl.

Incorrect? No, correct. The report's executive summary is unequivocal in singling out "sprawl" as Pennsylvania's most worrisome land-use problem, stating: "Sprawl threatens our environmental and economic health and our sense of community. ... Sprawl converts crop and pasture land to intensive development. ... Sprawl feeds air pollution by forcing more and more Pennsylvanians into their cars for longer and longer periods."

The report goes on to propose a plan that "will help put an end to sprawl" in Pennsylvania. An increased emphasis on public transportation is needed to solve our transportation problems.

Nonsense? No, this is good sense. We do need clean, efficient public transportation options. In tandem with this, we need to figure out how to reduce our need for cars in the first place. This means taking steps to change our land settlement patterns by: establishing effective growth boundaries around our cities and towns to contain sprawl and protect our farm land; encouraging "in-fill" in these same cities and towns to increase settlement density; investing in safe networks of bike paths that offer a pleasant alternative to auto travel for commuting around town; and creating pedestrian-friendly, diverse downtowns where people want to spend time and live free of car congestion.

Getting off the car-road treadmill is tough, and so it is no surprise that we Americans are, for the most part, still in denial, wanting to be left alone in our "metal cocoons." But strip away the subsidies to car-based transport and do an honest accounting, and it becomes clear that our present course is not sustainable.

Now, at last, a conversation has begun. Citizens are walking the Interstate 99 land. They are taking the time to think about what we are losing and taking the first steps to imagine a different future. The next I-99 walk will begin at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 21, at the East Parking Lot of Penn State.