At a recent transportation forum, gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley suggested that it shouldn’t be the role of state government to “push people out of their cars” and onto alternative modes of transit. He’s wrong. For all kinds of reasons, and in all kinds of ways, encouraging people to drive less ought to be a high priority of state government.
Let me say right off the bat that I love my car. I love cars in general. I drive a tiny blue hatchback which is nimble, fun, great for zipping around the largely traffic-free roads around where I live, and very me. But just because I love driving doesn’t mean that it’s always the right way to go, or that it’s always the best option.
There’s a lot of good reasons to get people out of cars, but let’s start with the obvious one: they cost us an awful lot of money. The state’s transportation infrastructure, which is heavily skewed toward roads, highways, and bridges, is in extremely poor shape, and the special transportation fund — which keeps being raided by the legislature — is unable to keep up with demand. This means the roads are constantly in need of repair. According to a study by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation study group, traveling on bad roads costs Connecticut motorists $1.6 billion per year, or $661 per motorist, in extra maintenance and operating costs. Layer on top of that the extra costs associated with owning a car and paying for fuel, as well as the general costs of maintaining and clearing the roads, and suddenly cars are an expensive prospect.
This isn’t to say that mass transit isn’t expensive. Construction, subsidies, and fare costs do add up. But the convenience of cars, especially in congested areas, comes with a high price for individuals, governments, and the environment.
Another problem cars generate is the issue of where to park them. Creating parking is one of the drivers of suburban sprawl, and one of the things that holds back cities like Hartford. It’s hard to concentrate amenities, shops, housing, and services downtown when so much of the space needs to be set aside for parking.
Train and bus lines, by contrast, don’t need anywhere near as much parking, and mass transit station stops are often hubs of economic activity. People want to live near the stations, and new housing often means new shops and services nearby. There’s already interest, for example, in developing land around some of the stops when the CTFastrak busway opens for business.
But getting people out of cars isn’t just about mass transit. Over the past decade Connecticut has quietly been building an ever-increasing number of miles of paved, multi-use trails — which can be used for walking, running, and biking. Many of these trails are built on abandoned rail lines, and often this means that they run right through the heart of a community. The Farmington Valley, for instance, has an excellent system of trails that connect towns from Suffield to Farmington to Canton. Another multi-use trail connects New Haven with Cheshire, and there are plans to join the two systems — meaning cyclists could someday ride from Yale to Westfield, Mass. on a dedicated right-of-way.
The benefits of these trails are enormous. They are great ways for people to stay healthy, of course, and provide access to some of the most beautiful parts of the state. They also allow people to move around and between communities without having to get in a car. Because the trails ban motorized vehicles, they are much safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and because they follow old railway lines, they are relatively flat and straight. People use the trails for recreation, running errands, seeing friends, and even commuting to work.
Building multi-use trails is astonishingly cheap compared to more traditional transportation projects, and