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December 1, 2008

Is the End of Auto-cracy in Sight?

Our car-dominated transportation system may soon make more room for biking, walking, transit and trains.

One of the biggest factors undermining a commons-based society during the 20th Century was the automobile. Untold billions of dollars of public money was spent to enshrine the private car as essential to modern life, first in the U.S. and then throughout the world.

From Flickr by Lynac, creative commons license, non-commercial.

The commons was sacrificed to achieve this manufactured dream of speed, privacy and convenience. The air was polluted, the climate altered, landscapes paved over, urban neighborhoods ripped apart, and the very nature of our social connections turned upside down. Streets, once public spaces used by everyone, became the exclusive domain of vehicles. Our public life declined, as people began to move about town isolated behind their windshields.

Problems caused by a transportation system dominated by automobiles have been apparent for decades, but little happened to change the situation. It was considered an impossible dream that we would embrace any other way of travel.

But there are growing signs that people now understand —even in auto-dominated America—that we must broaden our transportation system by giving significant funding to bikes, transit, trains and walking. The fate or our environment, economy and communities depend upon it.

In the November election, voters around the U.S. approved billions in new spending for transit including a California high-speed intercity rail system and a $17.8 billion tax increase in Seattle for expanded light rail and bus service. Even citizens in Jonesboro, Arkansas, voted 86-14 percent to continue their local transit system, established in 2005.

Transportation for America —a new coalition of civic, community, environmental and social justice groups—has drafted the Build for America aganda, an ambitious five-point plan to strengthen the U.S. economy by creating a 21st Century transportation system based upon:

1) Modernizing and expanding intercity rail and urban transit systems comparable to those in Europe and China.

2) Investing in green transportation technology—not just cleaner cars and buses, but also expanding opportunities for people to walk, bike and take transit.

3) Restoring our decaying roads, bridges and transit systems before building any new roads.

4) Cutting back on unnecessary transportation spending by reevaluating all planned projects in light of our need to cut back on oil dependence.

5) Saving American families money by providing more affordable housing options within easy walking and biking distance or transit connections to jobs and commercial districts.

Not only would this boost our economic prospects, it would reinvigorate a sense of community in our towns and cities, which is the chief prerequisite for a commons-based society.