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Moving Beyond the Car Will Be a Natural Progression

You're more likely to want to walk, rather than drive, at the end of a stressful day, argues Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Photo by Ted Winder.

Last week, United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced an investment of $928.5 million in the nation’s transit infrastructure. Transit providers across the United States will receive federal funds for more than 300 public transportation projects in urban, suburban and rural areas. The funds will go to a variety of projects from renovating transit facilities to manufacturing clean-fuel buses, all in an effort to meet the transit needs of the future of the nation and to help restore the economy.

The funds to improve public transportation come at a time of declining vehicle miles traveled by car, the Globe and Mail reports. “The distance driven by Americans per capita each year flatlined at the turn of the century and has been dropping for six years. By last spring, Americans were driving the same distance as they had in 1998,” the article explains.

The article adds that Europe, Australia, Japan and Canada are displaying similar declines, but the trend is not necessarily associated with the economic collapse, nor does it have to do with environmental concerns or rising gas prices. The reason behind the shift is purely practical and intuitively human.

The “Marchetti Wall” is a psychological concept that describes the barrier against spending more than an hour traveling to work or home. Named after the Venetian physicist, Cesare Marchetti, the concept claims that “human beings instinctively adjust their lives to avoid travelling more than that amount every day, but that we’ve been doing so since the Neolithic era, even as modes and speeds of transportation have advanced,” the article explains.

“If you’re a typical North American, at the end of a long, stressful day at work, you’re not saying, ‘I can’t wait to get in my car. I would just love to go for a drive.’ It’s much more likely you’ll say, ‘I wish I could go for a walk,’ ” Todd Litman says, a British Columbia transportation consultant and the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, according to an interview with the Globe and Mail.

Demographics also play a role in the decline in car use, the article adds. The two largest cohorts are aging baby-boomers, who will be cutting back on daily commutes as they near retirement age, and teenagers, who have been putting off getting their driver’s licenses.  “While young people cut the cord to car dependency, the generation that yoked its identity to horsepower-driven icons such as teenage muscle cars and hippie Volkswagens may soon be joining them,” the article says. “With the oldest baby boomers now reaching retirement age, more and more will also be abandoning the very slow rat race that is the daily commute.” In fact, the article adds, most people reduce their driving by 50 percent upon retiring.

All of these factors together require a new direction in transportation policy, one that will accommodate the growing population, dense urbanization and the decline of car use.

“A lot of current policies are misguided,” Mr. Litman says. “They might have made sense 40 or 50 years ago, but now it makes absolutely no sense to continue the policy distortions that encourage auto use.”

What do you think? Have you been making a conscious effort to decrease your travel time? Tell us about your incentives in the comments section below.

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  • I am happy to see these trends, I guess I am part of the middle group, family with a toddler, who also gave up the car. But that is only thanks to Copenhagenization of my current city, incidently, Copenhagen. Which means I can go anywhere, fast and safely with the little one on the back of my bicycle or in its pram on the bus. My dream? Not congestion charges, not electric cars, but simply car-free cities.