Can we slay the car monster?

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 23, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

A mutant species emerged last century: Homo automobilus accompanied by a reign of traffic. Particularly in the United States, we have evolved into human hybrids encased in tons of metal, glass and plastic. And, we have designed the landscape around that physique.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Money, health and environment are the corners of the green triangle. If you do something beneficial for one corner, it has an impact on the other two corners. For example, a bicyclist commuting to work usually spends less money (gas, parking, tolls, cost of vehicle and maintenance), enjoys health benefits from biking and has a lower impact on the environment.

Sounds good — so you would think communities would want to promote more biking rather than expand roads and put up obstacles, like “Dismount before crossing” signs or having to press a button (often broken) to operate the traffic signal.

In our myopia , we have designed the landscape to favor cars, a monster of our own creation, and a significant problem during bad weather or mass evacuations. Cars rely on a finite store of oil that is increasingly hard to extract or is under the control of tyrants. Like other addicts, we are willing to overlook the less savory characteristics of our dealers, saying, “I need it [oil], and I’ll do anything to get it.”

Much of law enforcement is concerned with traffic. In the United States, according to 2009 statistics, an average of 93 people a day died on roadways. A car is a deadly weapon, and we have designed our lives around it.

Also, the car-oriented environment discourages walking and biking because of safety issues resulting in the growing problem of obesity.

It’s hard to imagine a world without cars, but oil is finite, so cars and other products based on oil are ultimately unsustainable. While we still have oil, we need to prepare for the post-oil world.

Live free or drive.

— Joan Grey, Arlington

Grey wrote in while we were having a debate in the column about when and where drivers should be sharing the road with cyclists and pedestrians. Her theme is a larger one.

I don’t always agree with her on specifics. For instance, I wish more cyclists would “dismount before crossing” at places like the George Washington Memorial Parkway, for their safety as well as that of motorists. But I do agree that 21st-century transportation is going to be about finding alternatives to solo driving in gas-powered cars.

State and local departments in charge of roads have shown increased concern about providing those alternatives. But the American Community Survey report released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that there’s been no radical change in travelers’ behavior. The 2009 figures for commuting show that three of four commuters nationwide drove alone to work. About 5 percent commuted by public transportation and 3 percent walked to work. All other transportation modes were used by less than 1 percent of those who did not work at home.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am an irregular user of the buses on 16th Street NW during morning rush hour, traveling from U Street to M Street. I can take any of the lines that go by.

Nevertheless, if I get to the 16th and U stop after 8:10 a.m. or so, it can be a 10- to 20-minute wait for a bus that is not already jammed and can actually take on new passengers.

Has there been a lessening of service on these lines? Or are more folks taking the bus? (I know I will take it much more often in the coming cold weather.)

The real question is, how do we get adequate bus service on this line? Commuters should not have to deal with two, three or four buses passing them by, and with waiting up to 20 minutes for a bus with room.

— Ronnie J. Kweller,

the District

There’s been no recent change in the schedule on the 16th Street Line. The line is one of the most popular in the Metrobus system, and for many blocks, the buses move through heavy congestion, with lots of traffic signals.

In 2009, Metro made significant changes intended to deal with the problems that Kweller says still exist. The changes included creating a limited stop service for rush hours, a very good idea. But the fundamental problem remains: On the big commuter routes, the buses get stuck with everyone else.

We need to take the next step on 16th Street and elsewhere in the D.C. region. We need lanes dedicated to buses, and we need to apply the techniques that allow them to move through intersections more quickly than cars.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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