Friday, October 12, 2007

Transportation and Ithaca: Do We Really Need a Train?

First of all, I am not discouraging the tireless and groundbreaking work of the people rallying to get a new system of commuter transit in Ithaca. This blog post is merely a look at what other alternatives are available and what is already in place for our fair city.

It is abundantly clear that the personal automobile is clogging our streets, choking us with pollution and is threatening to take over our cities. The Bureau of Transportation recently released “BTS Special Report: Trends in Personal Income and Passenger Vehicle miles” in which they illustrate that the higher the income ($100,000+) the more trips taken per day, for longer distances and with more cars in the household. For the lower income group ($29,000) about 40% have one car in the household that they use to make daily trips (that are less frequent and shorter than the wealthier counterparts). To find out more about these statistics go to:

With that, let’s look at ways to discourage the automobile from living in our cities and the alternatives to using them at all. I read chapter 9 of “Towards Sustainable Cities” which was titled “ Transportation Planning and Traffic Management.” This chapter started out with car facts and then proceeded to lay out planning policies that offer some alternatives. A very astute observation by Mark Roseland ( the author) was that people spend the most time in their cars on the way to work. Therefore, if employers were targeted to make policy changes and offer incentives to their employees for biking to work, telecommuting, walking to work, carpooling, taking public transit, then this would truly be a comprehensive approach to reducing the amount of personal autos which only carry a single passenger and sit in traffic for 4 rush hours ( yes, it has officially increased from three hours to four hours according to BEST ( Employers could offer telecommuting as a way to reduce the amount of trips made. An example of this approach can be seen in Ecovillage Ithaca where you can rent/own office space less than one minute walking distance from your home. Your employer could also help pay for the cost of taking public transportation, or even pay it in full! The university you attend could institute a UPASS system for its students ( ahem, CORNELL?? Way to drop the ball…). Federal agencies could even chip in to subsidize the cost of transportation for those in need of financial assistance. Why not just make it free? Buffalo’s train system is sort of like this: I once went to the machine, paid for the ticket, boarded the train, reached my destination and left the station without anyone taking/swiping my ticket!)

Within the same vein of substituting cars for alternatives, the Community Cycling Center of Portland Oregon offers bikes to low income people in need of transportation. RIBS here in Ithaca offers similar initiatives to that of CCC furthered by the recent release of two hot pink bikes into the commons as the start of a Bike-share program. Policies like adding bike lanes or making streets appeal to only pedestrians and cyclists so that cars are only “visitors” are ways in which municipal planners can take action. Also, as I read from the blog earlier, the elderly and differently-abled may be concerned about the proposal for an elevated train. Planning policies of widening the sidewalks, reducing glare on sidewalks by using sandstone and aligning curb ramps with directional grooves along with corner buldges to decrease crossing distance take these members of society into account. Actions taken to make a city more walkable increase density, economic activity and reduce the need for cars.

While a walkable city is not quite in sight for Ithaca, some actions have been taken. Have you noticed that there is a stop sign or a streetlight for every miniscule sized block in downtown Ithaca? That is technically termed traffic calming. By slowing down cars on the street you can increase safety on the road and discourage drivers from even getting into the car. Car sharing and road pricing are another few alternatives to the traditional car addiction. Cars are heavily subsidized by the government because we generally do no pay for the use of roads, therefore, we can discourage driving with tolls and increase awareness of the costs of using cars. Car sharing is another initiative set to begin this November here in Ithaca, so look forward to that!

There countless ways to discourage the car. Re-designing the layout of our residential streets, charging for parking, reduce the required amount of parking for new developments, incentives to carpool, increase parking rates, and giving priory to high occupancy vehicles—just to name a few. My criticism of the increased parking rates is that the poor people who drive their one car to work are already charged more (proportionately) for driving to work, and those who can afford to pay current parking rates would not be discouraged from driving.

These may seem like piece meal strategies, but really, any comprehensive plan has an overarching objective with small policies that get us to that point. Changes can be made at all levels: personal choices (initiated by employers), neighborhood choices (re-design of residential streets, street reclaiming, etc), municipal choices (infrastructure changes) and regional choices (infrastructure and financing that connect people throughout the region). Many organizations exist around this country and the world that are pushing for these sorts of responsible choices to be made. Some approach the situation on the human level, like RIBS and the Community Cycling Center (, and others approach the federal government to make laws that dictate changes within the system, like Environmental Defense (, either way—if you see efforts such as these to be piecemeal, I’d suggest you get a wider perspective.

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