I support reducing auto accidents and the amount of energy we consume by reducing the miles we drive, and I agree with many of the suggestions for accomplishing these goals in "Car Wreck" (November/December). But telecommuting and shopping online are unlikely to move us in the right direction.
While telecommuting and online shopping can reduce the need for driving, they can also encourage employees to live farther from work or other destinations and make it easier to order more products from distant locations, which requires more frequent and longer shipping routes. As UC Davis researcher Patricia Mokhtarian found in a 2003 article on telecommuting, predictions that telecommunications would reduce travel occurred as early as 1879, three years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Yet despite the availability of ever more telecommunications, travel has increased significantly, leading Mokhtarian to conclude that telecommunications likely complement travel rather than replacing it.
As for driving, the number of miles driven annually by Americans has steadily increased for most of the past fifty years except for brief periods of decline generally triggered by recessions or higher oil and gasoline prices. Indeed, a policy of higher energy prices is probably a better alternative to using more telecommunications—and not just for safety or conservation. In 2008, higher oil prices also increased the cost of long-distance shipping from overseas and began to bring good-paying manufacturing jobs back to the United States for the first time in fifty years.
Dusty Horwitt '94
I read "Car Wreck" in the November/December BAM with great interest. I am one American who, for reasons both environmental and economic, doesn't own a car, despite being born and raised in the car mecca of southern California.
How do I manage? Fortunately, I like to run long distances and ride a bike—both of which were key to surviving a year in Lexington, Kentucky, without a car, after seven carless years in graduate school in New York City, where I also commuted by bike.
Now living in Denver, I continue to run to the store with a backpack, ride my bike, and ride public transit (at no cost, thanks to a University of Denver employee benefit program). I also belong to a car-sharing service and occasionally rely on the kindness of friends with cars. I find that not owning a car makes training for marathons easier and gives me more time to read for pleasure while riding the bus or Denver's great new light-rail system.
Riding the public transit systems of various U.S. and Canadian cities has taught me that we don't always need to think big when we conceive smarter infrastructure and urban design. The simple lack of a sidewalk has often stymied me in my quest to go on foot from point A to point B in the United States, which is quite different compared to my pedestrian-friendly experience in Italian towns.
Gabrielle E. Popoff '99
Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez '84 did a nice job elucidating the negative impacts of America's car culture on our quality of life. They only hinted, however, at the sole real possibility for significantly changing the situation.
The only way we will break our dependence on the automobile is by making the marginal cost of using it significantly higher than the alternatives. This means that, rather than fighting wars to ensure our supply of cheap oil, we should be taxing fossil fuels to ensure that the price of gasoline never falls below four dollars a gallon. As the Lutz sisters pointed out, it wasn't until we had such prices in the summer of 2008 that we saw a significant decline in miles driven. Of course, such a carbon tax should be revenue-neutral and phased in so that individuals, families, and communities have time to adapt to the new economic reality. This would provide the economic incentive for people to move closer to work, find jobs closer to home, approve mixed-use neighborhoods, and vote for better funding of transit systems and for bike lanes on all public streets. It's only when the cost of actually using a car becomes significant that most people will consider not owning one.
Steve Drouilhet '79