Opinion: Rethinking our transportation needs

It is a tiny tragedy that we will pave over a few acres of designated wetlands. The real tragedy is our failure to imagine transportation solutions that both work and respect our natural and human world.

We need to begin to recognize that as long we each expect to be transported with maximum personal convenience and speed, these little tragedies are inevitable. That is, so long as each of us wants our own bubble of climate-controlled power which takes us from our doorstep to within feet of where we want to be without expending physical effort, we will be stuck with traffic. This seductive “right of cars” is failing us. As long as nearly all of us demand this “right,” none of us can fully realize it.

The eventual answer will require a fundamental change in our way of thinking about how we get places. I think the time has come to think seriously about zoning transportation. In simplest terms this means designating more areas primarily for human power and fewer areas in which motor power is dominant. We must come to an agreement that there are places in which cars and people just don’t mix. That includes how we locate parking.

Our community is squabbling over additional levels of a parking garage or whether a roundabout at Ninth and New Hampshire is the best way to move cars through downtown But with some imagination, we might decide that private vehicles do not belong there at all. If we could design our downtown area for human powered transport, with efficient perimeter public transport, as well as some limited motor transport for the less able and the disabled within the no-car zone, I think we might find it to be more comfortable and convenient for almost all of us.

It’s the idea of mixing speeds and sizes of vehicles within most crowded transportation contexts that must be abandoned. As for downtown Lawrence, any transition zone would continue to be a problem with only continued piecemeal solutions as long as most people continue to insist on driving their own cars to get to downtown. Until our mindset changes, that is until most of us manage, somehow, to change the way we think about our “right” to drive everywhere, we will continue to be “gridlocked.”

It’s not hard to see that as long as we insist on having our cake and eating it too — that is, making private cars the foundation for every transportation scenario — paving paradise and pedestrians or cyclists run over will continue to be our tragedies.

There are places for personal automobiles in our society, but downtown areas and neighborhoods would probably be better off without them. Every neighborhood has paved strips where nature used to be, it should be recalled, primarily so that we can each park our own cars directly next to our own doors.

Perimeter parking, shuttle systems and human-powered transport are words that need to enter our vocabulary. We should expect that some conveniences would diminish and others increase in the process of moving to more effective ways of getting around. But until we can agree as a society to exclude cars from more human zones and extend our willingness to walk, bike and even pull carts, transportation solutions will fail us.

It certainly wouldn’t kill us to walk more. We might even live longer and enjoy it more, but only if we don’t have to do so much of our walking and biking right next to cars.

But until we get to a better way, I still drive a car, too, when there’s no clear alternative, because this is a kind of chicken and egg problem. What I am proposing simply won’t begin to work well unless most of us can decide to make it work together.

Try to imagine the day when humans and cyclists have the right of way all along increased numbers of no-car routes, and it’s the cars that have to stop and wait for people to pass. Everyone would still get where they wanted to go, but instead of everyone having the right to go as fast as they can, we would have accepted that there are appropriate vehicles and paces within increasingly crowded spaces. There would still be bad weather days, to be sure, but I can imagine, just maybe, we might actually be more satisfied overall with a transportation system designed first to move people, not accommodate our vehicles.

Until then, whether you’re turning right or left on green, I should be safe walking with the light downtown. But I will be watching out for the cars anyway.