Autos

We must imagine a world where cars are a choice, not a necessity


I don’t own a car. 

I wish I could coast on that truth as my credentials for discussing my commitment to a car-free lifestyle, but the truth is I do often drive — borrowing a car from a small network of friends and family and neighbors who are immensely generous — because I often need to drive. 

Even that isn’t the complete truth. Sometimes it isn’t need. Sometimes it is, quite frankly, laziness — when there’s too much snow to bike, or it’s too cold or too hot to walk comfortably. The point is, I drive more than I want to. 

But I wish I didn’t have to drive at all. I wish it was so easy to walk or bike or bus that driving was the inconvenient choice — like it was when I had the privilege of living abroad in public transit-rich and walkable cities in Spain and China. 

But, if you live here, in Colorado, in the West, in America, odds are your daily life is shaped around the convenience of driving.

This reality, though, is proving ruinous. Not only are cars — even electric cars — ruinous for our environment, but they are extremely deadly, and continue to get more so thanks to their ever-increasing size and our addiction to smartphones. On top of that, they tend to make us miserable.

Still, because our society is so utterly structured around cars and roads and highways and parking lots, for many it is simply impossible to not drive, especially in cities with a high cost of living; expensive housing forces low-wage earners (those upon whose backs the amenities we so enjoy are produced) to live elsewhere and commute. 

For most, that means driving. Certainly, many people use public transit, but for many more, it is inconvenient or impossible. 

On top of that, RTD is expensive. A round-trip regional fare costs $10. Or it used to. Starting on Jan. 1, 2024, RTD is slashing its ticket prices by doing away with regional fares altogether, leaving just two fare categories: local and airport. That means riders will be able to commute throughout RTD’s network for $2.75, with a day pass costing just $5.50. 

After seeing a 10% increase in ridership during this summer’s Zero Fare for Better Air initiative, the new fare structure seems designed to capitalize on the rather obvious fact that people will use services that are relatively cheap (or, better yet, free). This new fare structure and the continuation of the Zero Fare for Youth program, which goes until August 2024, should be celebrated. 

So too should the news of the Front Range Passenger Rail getting half a million dollars in seed money from the federal government. The commuter train, which will hopefully run from Fort Collins and Pueblo, is still in its conceptual phase and could easily be derailed (pun intended) before any track is ever laid, but the project is, at the very least, a recognition of Colorado’s need for vastly improved public transit options. 

These two developments are heartening, but they should also lay bare the scale of the challenge we are facing; a new train line and cheaper buses will not ween us from our car dependence. 

True change will only come when it is possible to spontaneously use public transit, when riders don’t have to plan trips, but can simply walk out the door and know there will be a bus or a train arriving soon, that there will be a quick connection, and that there is a stop close to their destination. It will require more infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. And it will require embracing the sort of density and zoning that makes a car-free lifestyle feasible for everyone. 

More fundamentally, it will require us to embrace a new mentality. One wherein our expectations for housing and travel and transit are revised to better meet the realities of collective community living. 

Of course, there will always be a need for cars. Even the most utopian European cities still rely on cars and trucks for some tasks. And for some people, for whom mobility or utilizing public transit is difficult, cars will remain indispensable. 

But, for the sake of our planet and our community and our mental health, we must start the work of imagining a world where cars are a choice, not a necessity. 

With 2024 on the horizon, my resolution is to drive less. I’m sure I’ll fail at this a lot. Life is complicated and, for the time being, cars are convenient. But I still want to try.

Gary Garrison is the Daily Camera’s opinion editor. Email: ggarrison@prairiemountainmedia.com.



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