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Smart Transit By Choice

Richard Conlin: Green urban travel shouldn’t be about guilt trips or prohibition, but about making the good choices easy.

Seattle hopes to become the world's first climate-neutral city. It's no small task: The City must account for, and reduce, the carbon footprint of everything from transportation to trash for hundreds of thousands of people. City Council President and YES! Magazine board member Richard Conlin is blogging about the city's efforts.


Link Light Rail by Wings777

Making smart choices easy: In Seattle, the light rail is the cheapest option from downtown to the airport.

Photo by wings777

Increasing density is a key strategy for achieving carbon neutrality. However, it requires a significant level of effort and planning to ensure that dense neighborhoods include good schools, parks, public safety, and many other factors that make communities work.

Dense communities reduce climate impacts through energy efficiency and conservation. They also can reduce transportation emissions and automobile use by bringing jobs, housing, recreation, and shopping in closer proximity and offering the opportunity to connect urban villages and centers via efficient transit and ped/bike systems.

But, while it is important to develop the transportation infrastructure and choices that help reduce automobile use and emissions, changing people’s travel patterns and behavior requires a deeper understanding of how those choices are made as well as the social and cultural context for those decisions. Then the conditions that support change can be developed.

A strategy that relies solely on penalizing mobility risks failure.

So, why do we travel? Our home-to-work commutes mimic many traditional cultural patterns, from the pattern of daily travel in settled villages surrounded by agricultural lands to seasonal migrations from lower to higher elevations or dry to wet areas (‘transhumance’) that are characteristic of many cultures built around livestock. And even the poorest contemporary societies are linked by large numbers of overcrowded buses carrying people to and from market centers and on family visits. People like to travel, and mobility is a basic human drive. If we are going to positively affect people’s travel choices to emphasize low-carbon options, we have to work with people’s desires, not against them.

Approaches are sometimes developed with the intent to restructure how people travel or to criticize or penalize people for choices without creating the positive conditions that can develop new behavior. The intent should not be to stop people from traveling, but to create opportunities to minimize resource use and maximize energy efficiency. For example, strategies that reduce the amount of travel by making it easy to walk from home to work are great and will reap results—but we should understand that the benefits of these short trips and saved money may be invested in long-distance vacations.

A strategy that relies solely on penalizing mobility risks failure as people find a way to get around whatever restrictions are placed on them. Increasing the cost for parking in downtown Seattle can help to encourage people to choose different modes of travel. But it must be matched with convenient transportation alternatives and compelling reasons to go downtown. Only by making both alternative modes and the destination compelling can we count on people not choosing to drive to a shopping mall or workplace with free parking instead.

It will require some experimentation to find the best ways to move people efficiently as well as thoughtful planning to identify interim actions.

An effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions from must draw people to efficient modes by designing and funding systems that reflect people’s needs and provide enticing options for change. Make transit and bike/ped routes safe, convenient, reliable and desirable—fashionable would be optimum. We can’t assume that people will stay put—and the complexities of two-job couples and multiple-destination families ensure that not many people will be able to avoid using automobiles entirely.

Don’t try to make people feel guilty about driving; rely on urban design to reduce trips as much as possible, and then on economic incentives and system design to draw them into the best choices for the trips they do take. And acknowledge that the private vehicle is going to be part of the equation, and that there will be a lot more people in our metropolitan area, so that even as we reduce per capita trips we will reduce total trips by a much smaller percentage. That means designing systems that will make automobile travel easy using efficient electric cars, but that will have significant disincentives to using cars when there are other possible alternatives available—and making sure that there are lures to get people to use those alternatives.

Reshaping transportation choices is a long-range goal, and we cannot expect change to happen immediately. We need to assertively plan for the transition to a future that is not dependent on fossil fuels while acknowledging current patterns of behavior and providing for current economic and social needs. This will require some experimentation to find the best ways to move people efficiently as well as thoughtful planning to identify interim actions.

Effective strategies must be built around community engagement. They will only be embraced if they embody a shared understanding of the challenges and an appreciation of our common needs. The approach must emphasize hope, convenience, and community, not fear and penalty. Riding the bus must not only be good for the planet, easy, and good for the pocketbook—it should also be a fun way to travel as you join the bus rider community. For a climate strategy that works we must accept our desire to be mobile, acknowledge the limitations of our natural environment, and take creative steps that help people choose change because they want to.


Richard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.

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