What Is ‘Alternative Transportation’ the Alternative To?

by | Jun 12, 2012

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Much has been done in the past few years to engage the public in trying out “alternative” forms of transportation. “Alternative” meaning, of course, alternative to the car. A colleague of mine in Seattle is still recovering from her experience with “Bike to School and Work Day” last week. Her usual 15 minute walk to school with her nine-year-old required an investment of 45 minutes pumping tires, fitting helmets, and taking a circuitous route to avoid the Himalayan hill that lies between her house and her daughter’s school. Her subsequent commute to a meeting 12 miles away turned into orienteering adventure over hill and under dale in pursuit of an elusive, badly marked trail that ultimately spit her out into four lanes of screaming traffic. Her destination very fortunately had showers – but no bike parking. And then she had to get back.

She recounted this tale to me as a great adventure and had clearly enjoyed the ride, yet in total she had spent four hours on her bike instead of 40 minutes in her car and was up until the wee hours trying to finish her work for the day.

This example illustrates one of my favorite soap box causes that I have been proselytizing since my early planning days. In the dictionary definitions an alternative (always between two exclusive possibilities or among many possibilities – take your pick) is about choice. In my experience of transport planning, an alternative is not about the choice itself but instead about the availability of a different option (a bus, a train, a bike, etc.) In most instances the fact that public transport that approximately connects a location of desired activity (work, shopping, recreation, etc.) and a residence exists, is considered an alternative to driving a car. This is very different from choosing not to drive a car. Does it matter how many interchanges within or between modes are required? Is a bus an alternative to a car for a mother who needs to transport a child or children if there are no seat belts or places to lock in prams? In terms of meeting daily needs is a bus or a tram or train an alternative when there is no place to put groceries or hang dry cleaning? Are bike lanes safe if they share the same space as speeding motor vehicles? Are public modes real alternatives when they, by their design, violate social expectations about privacy or physical contact?

As the Victorian novelist, George Eliot (a woman who felt she had no alternative but to write as a man in order to be accepted) once observed, “How could a man be satisfied with a decision between such alternatives and under such circumstances? No more than he could be satisfied with his hat, which he’s chosen from among such shapes as the resources of the age offer him, wearing it at best with a resignation which is chiefly supported by comparison.”

But this is where I move onto the good news. The resources of our age are capable of offering us far better alternatives. We just need to break out of the same prison of conventional wisdom that forced women to pose as men to get things done a mere 200 years ago.

Last month AECOM co-hosted an Urban Mobility Salon at BMW’s iVentures office in New York with the Green Parking Council, BüroNY and TimHaahs. We were all very clear that there is a real need for personal mobility – the car. The reality is that there are always circumstances in which the car is the best mode of transportation. Once we have accepted this, it is possible to begin looking at an integrated urban transportation system that offers real alternatives.

It also means that “Green Parking” is not an oxymoron but a very real and intriguing part of the solution. Shake that film noir image of the dark, intimidating urban blight of a parking structure and re-imagine our parking structures as key building blocks for urban development. Rather than pulling into a parking garage as the end point of the journey, imagine instead the parking garage as the gateway to the journey. An active, bustling mixed-use facility where we can pick up a cup of coffee, drop off our dry cleaning, seamlessly step on a train or tram, or switch to a bike to complete the journey. On the way back we can grab a bite to eat with friends, take care of the weekly grocery shopping, and pick up our children from daycare.

Imagine the possibilities for our cities as we move towards taking our cars off the streets. They immediately become safer, our health improves as we walk, bike and breathe cleaner air, the noise levels abate and we have more room for green space and urban agriculture. It is an appealing vision. And there is no good reason why it can’t become a reality.

You may be interested in this video from America 2050’s A Better Tomorrow project to visualize America’s future communities and transportation systems.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

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