The other day my wife and I were driving along Ocean Boulevard when we stopped at a light. Sitting next to us at the intersection was a large red Dodge Charger truck, whose driver gestured that I should roll down my window. Expecting to be in the position of giving directions to this mountain of a man, he asked instead if we liked our Mini Cooper. We responded that we did indeed love it; at this he replied, “Yeah, I’ve got to get rid of this thing,” all the while patting the side of the Dodge Charger’s door with his hand.
This whole scene reminded me of another recent incident. When traveling up to Vacaville–a small city between Sacramento and San Francisco, considered “God’s Country” by my father-in-law–the conversation with him and his friends had moved from baseball and past rides in the famous motorcycle rally to Sturgis, North Dakota, to the very contemporary topic of fuel costs. I was a bit surprised that there was little interest in complaining about the role of government or oil companies in high gas prices. Instead, there was the realization that the consumption habits of Americans (really, of everyone) needed to change.
About a year ago, we conducted a commuter survey in my office to see how people got to work, and why. While we compared well to typical commuting trends, there was clearly room for improvement, particularly in terms of becoming less reliant on automobiles with a single occupant. Since we conducted that survey, over half of our office staff have changed how they commute so as to reduce fuel consumption. Nearly ten staff members now regularly bike to work; another half-dozen have moved close enough to the office that they can walk to work, while about six more now use public transit. The idealist in me would like to think that our collective desire to be more environmentally sensitive drove this change, but the realist in me knows that the cost of gas is the primary culprit.
Rising gas prices have certainly affected national commuting habits. Public transit ridership is up; working habits are changing (for instance, four-day work weeks, or telecommuting); sales of sports utility trucks are down, while there is now a year-long waiting list for the ultra-small Smart Car. The change in commuting habits is also readily apparent in the Southern California region. This has resulted in a dirty little secret, one most government transportation agencies fear reporting because of a potential revolution in how funds are allocated. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reported a 5% reduction in bridge and tunnel traffic in May 2008 from the year prior. It is rumored that Caltrans is sitting on similar information regarding a reduction of traffic congestion on California freeways over the past year, in tandem with the rise in gas prices.
Has the damage been done? Will the combination of the fuel costs and the rising popularity of environmental sustainability change our transportation habits? In our office survey, “time” was the primary reason for the dominance of the automobile. In the Soul of the City column that appears on the Long Beach Post, Dan Brezenoff recorded a dialogue he had in June 2008 with the City Traffic Engineer, in response to Dan’s complaints in regard to the seeming lack of timing of traffic signals. Dan’s initial argument was that lack of congestion results in less air pollution, less gas consumption, and reduced driver stress. All these points are true, yet may still oversimplify the situation.
If congestion is great enough, people will find faster alternatives if they are available. This is not New York; there is no subway available to spirit riders across the city in less time than packed surface streets. But with rising gas prices and a greater awareness regarding the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, time is not always the only factor in the equation, encouraging people to make do with alternatives. As a result, the current situation can be seen as a golden opportunity to reprioritize local and regional transportation infrastructure investment, so as to improve the effectiveness of alternative modes of transportation.
In this regard, it bears noting that a disproportionate amount of Long Beach’s transportation capital improvement budget for the past five years has gone toward auto-oriented enhancements. It will likely be difficult to determine the direction of public works in the upcoming budget year, due to the current City financial crisis. In this year’s budget formulation, a realization that gas prices (and environmental awareness) are reducing traffic congestion may be behind the proposed 2009 Capital Improvement Program’s reduced allocation for things like intersection improvements, widened streets, and turn lanes.
It may indeed be an appropriate time to save money in the City budget by avoiding auto-oriented improvements, given the shift in transportation user trends. Yet that shift should be further promoted by investing in better facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. For instance, the priorities of the proposed November infrastructure bond for Long Beach should include things like adding sidewalks on those city streets without them, creating bike corridors, and funding improvements to our public transit system. Higher costs for gasoline are, in all likelihood, here to stay. It should thus be clear that reprioritized transportation funding strategy will put Long Beach on a strong footing for the future.