Cars and Choice

I was cruising to work on my trusty bicycleta today and offhandedly observed that every car that passed me was single occupant. Now this is not a tremendous revelation: Most people drive to work alone. But the observation got me thinking about transportation and individual choice.

We have a tremendous public transportation system where I live. The inexpensive-to-ride public bus runs through neighborhoods and downtown at regularly scheduled intervals, and the bicycle lanes are clearly designated and wide. If you work downtown, most likely you have a very short commute. Yet with these options available, the vast majority of people choose to drive themselves to work, alone, in their car. Why?

My libertarian/conservationist inclinations tend to struggle with questions like this. The decision to drive rather than ride is a matter of preference and motivation. The libertarian in me wholly supports individual choice and personal preference in these matters, while the conservationist in me recognizes the need – based on the environmental costs of driving cars – to motivate and encourage different behaviors in commuters. But as you think about the issue, you realize very quickly that changing behavior is difficult, so difficult as to possibly be beyond the ability of public policy to affect (as maybe it should be?).

Think about it: with all the financial and other incentives provided to use high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, to carpool, to use public transportation, most still choose to commute alone. In urban areas where I’ve worked and lived, even when my employer and most employers paid employee bus/subway fare, even when the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes moved at twice the speed of regular traffic lanes, even while parking can cost $20 a day, people still chose to drive to work.

I understand all the arguments about convenience (different schedules, running errands, soccer practice, etc.). That isn’t what I’m after in this discussion; rather, my question is focused on the point at which individuals would change behavior to realize environmental, and health, and financial benefits.

Like P.J. O’Rourke writes, Americans have a passion for their cars. And really, who can blame us? What I conclude from this little thought exercise is two things. First, large scale public transportation projects are a pipe dream at best, and will most often end up a costly boondoggle. Outside of tightly confined urban areas, subway and bus systems will never pay off or make a dent to reduce the numbers of drivers, while the dream of high speed rail systems, al a Europe, is highly fallible. And second, we may truly be stuck in a technology trap where, recognizing that we cannot easily change our driving habits, we may be forced to aspire to that technological leap that finally results in a low cost, widely accepted, pollution-free automobile.

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