I had a friend visit me from Michigan not long ago. She said, “This place is like a vacation spot.” I thought maybe she was simply in vacation mode. But, this weekend I felt like that too, and I wasn’t on vacation. We ate at a restaurant we’d never tried before called Margaret’s Cantina which was fabulous and one of those experiences where if you were on vacation you’d say, “If we lived here, I’d eat here every day!” even though you know life doesn’t work that way. We saw a couple of movies, ate brunch at our favorite brunch place, listened to some live music at a very cool cafe tucked in the woods and layed out in the sun by the pool! We spent time with good friends and our daughter and I enjoyed running through Duke Forest. And truth be told, there was something better about this than vacation. We found most of these places over time and knew we were choosing our top picks. I’ve been on many vacations where you throw a dart and hope to hit a bullseye, but often don’t. We enjoyed the company of people we truly enjoy. And while it can be fun to meet new people while traveling, it’s nice to be with people who don’t need to start the conversation with, “so…what do you do?” And best of all, I don’t have travel fatigue now on Monday morning. What a deal.
Robin Chase is a transportation genius. I’d love to meet her sometime. Nearly a decade ago, before all the hype about the national infrastructure system failing us, she founded a car-sharing service called Zip Car. UNC actually has Zip Cars here on campus, which may come in handy now that we’re down to one car. Now she’s come up with the next iteration of this idea, GoLoco. It’s a social networking site that encourages people to share rides. In this interview she talks about how infrastructure is destiny. She says,
…we all like to do things easily. So whatever infrastructure enables us to do conveniently, that’s what we do more of and the things that it makes difficult, we do less of them. Today we have set up our infrastructure to make getting in your car and going door to door really easy. Getting there by bike or by foot is frequently terrifying and dangerous. So which way do we go?
So yes, with our current infrastructure where our choices are extremely limited, I think ride sharing makes a lot of sense. Yet even though it’ll take decades to have true transportation options I think we need to keep pushing for complete streets, efficient public transportation and facilities for walking and biking.
I work every day with communities across the country who are trying to change their policies and environments in order to make walking and biking for transportation easier (among other things). And the Safe Routes to School movement is helping children have better commuting choices today while creating a generation who demands more transportation options tomorrow!
But creating shared cars, shared rides or even improving bicycling and walking facilities is not enough. If our houses aren’t close to the destinations we frequent, the options of walking and biking are out. If the houses that are in walkable areas are unaffordable, then we haven’t addressed our oil dependency, global warming or a struggling economy let alone social justice.
So, I was encouraged to see the announcement this week for an interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide. The three agencies involved are by U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
To make sustainable changes that truly lift our country and quality of life, we must look at the interconnectedness of all our systems. It’s easy to see once your eyes are open to it. Here, in the Chapel Hill area the problem is evident every day as it is in many towns. While I live two blocks from work and can walk to a half dozen places I frequent and find tremendous stress relief from this choice, I am unable to get to dozens more places within five miles because of a lack of safe biking and walking facilities and limited public transportation. My good friend is struggling to buy her first house because the optimal locations for reducing dependency on the car are priced out of reach. My daughter chose an affordable apartment but has found that crossing the street to the bus stop is a dangerous proposition and with limited bus service is finding access to jobs difficult. I have coworkers who choose to bike commute despite dangerous roads, taking the risk in order to live a lifestyle they believe should be our right.
Finding solutions to our transportation, housing, economic and environmental challenges will not be easy. It’ll take many Robin Chase’s with many innovative ideas and decades of commitment. This is not work for the faint of heart. But it is vitally important now and for our children’s children.