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Thinking Beyond the Car

By Dr. Beverly Kuhn P.E., PTOE, PMP posted 06-01-2022 08:15 PM

  
When one looks across the landscape of America, it is easy to see the impact the personal automobile has had on our evolution as a society. The Interstate system allowed Americans to travel from coast to coast in the comfort of their car, charting their own route and seeing the beauty of the horizon rising before them. I, myself, have been a devotee of the road trip, having traveled across the country with my husband and our two sons since they could see out of the back seat window, stopping at many a national park and cozy roadside eatery along the way.

However, growing up in a small Texas community in the 1970s, I was more likely to roam the streets on my bicycle and ride the bus to school. My parents only had one car, and my father carpooled 5 days a week to his job in Galveston, which was 20 miles away. For 1 to 2 days a week, my mother did not have access to vehicular transportation. Looking back through the lens of a transportation professional, I realize that our community was small enough to be navigable for those without a car, but sidewalks were rare and bicycle lanes were non-existent. It is only somewhat better today. In the past year, at least two pedestrians have been struck and killed by drivers in a part of my hometown where  sidewalks are inconsistent. So very tragic, and yet, preventable.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Paris, France. Until then, Houston, TX was the largest city I had visited. I was fascinated by the bustling streets filled with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. I learned you could travel nearly anywhere in the city by hopping on a bus or the subway. What freedom!

My older son, who is a self-proclaimed minimalist, is approaching his final year in college. His plans after graduation are to work in a city where he will not have to own a car—but he realizes that in much of the United States, that is not truly an option. Luckily, he will likely have the luxury of choosing to live in a city that meets his requirements, even if that location is overseas.

But what about so many who do not have that luxury? I am reminded of the young man my husband once met at a local fast-food restaurant. His daily commute was more than 2 hours one way because he had to travel from the only regional homeless shelter, which is 14 miles away. That commute involved a limited service fixed-route bus ride and a 3-mile walk. And yet, there he was, working the 6:00 a.m. shift, trying to lift himself out of poverty. Many of our neighbors face similar challenges accessing essential services and recreational activities, all which contribute to a better quality of life.

As transportation professionals, we need to think about how we can meet the transportation needs of everyone, including those who either cannot afford or choose not to own a car. We need to challenge ourselves to rethink our communities so that our neighbors’ safety and success is not limited by their transportation choices or their financial reality. Can we ensure our roads are optimal and safe for all users? Can we plan local development so that it is accessible to all travel modes, not just a car? How can we help our communities thrive and our neighbors reach their full potential? We have the keys…let’s use them!

Do you have insights on how to look beyond the car? Reach out to me on the ITE e-Community or on Twitter: @BeverlyKuhn.

This is from the president's message in the June issue of ITE Journal.
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