Transportation alternatives: walkability and sking to work

Skis on walkbridge over Metrolink tracks, Forest Park. Photograph by author.

One of the hallmarks of our species is the efficient mobility which has resulted from one hundred millennia of evolution. We developed bipedal locomotion to better watch for predators and locate food and this adaptation drove brain development and led to higher intelligence. Over thousands of years we were able to develop multiple modes of transportation from the the taming of the horse to the cart to the bicycle and the steam locomotive. Many populations in extreme climates tailored specialized transportation devices to their environments. Similar inventions in far flung locations arose separately or became globalized through trade networks. What is striking is that through this entire process humanity did not discard previous solutions, but rather added new solutions alongside existing technologies.

That is until the twentieth century.

If I were to survey today, the vast majority of Americans used automobiles as our only means of transportation. To many, anything other than automotive transportation is "strange", "a novelty", or even worse "exercise". While everyone looks fondly back on their college years when everyone walked or biked to class, loves the freedom and leisure that alternative transportation provides on vacation, or sees it as an enticement to visit the land of fruit and nuts we avoid it in everyday life.

While it may be quite easy to naïvely crusade to enlighten people and yank them from their cars, such effort will run into a half century of governmental subsidization. According to Stanley Hart and Alvin Spivak, government subsidies towards automobile manufacturing and usage account for as much as 10% of the annual Gross National Product. The reason that Amsterdam can boast more bicycle trips than automobile trips on an annual basis is that the Netherlands has never skewed subsidy in the way that the United States has. Raising the gas tax will help to close this gap, but we must rethink our entire way of living and doing business and create corresponding policy.

By favoring the redevelopment of existing urban communities and prioritizing dense, walkable infill on brownfield sites we can begin to (re)build the conditions that make multi-modality possible. However, building construction is not the whole answer. We must also devise financial assistance to small businesses in dense areas, adopt form-based zoning overlays for mixed use districts, drastically reduce existing parking requirements, and require creation of complete street infrastructure . While this will require political courage and effort, such changes will also keep cities competitive and attract a new generation of future entrepreneurs and leaders.

To use a personal example I am a member of the so-called "millennial generation", I can attest that, like myself, the majority of my classmates in graduate school prioritize urban life, transit accessibility, and alternatives to driving when looking for places to live. For every few acquaintances who moved to the sunbelt, many more moved to a handful of multi-modal connected hotspots such as San Francisco, New York, Portland, Seattle, or Chicago.

When I chose to move within Saint Louis, I picked my neighborhood based on a combination of known bike routes, light rail accessibility, amenities, price analysis on Zilpy, and geographic analysis on WalkScore. As Jamais Cascio writes in the Atlantic new web-based technologies "offer the capacity to do something that was once limited to a hermetic priesthood. Intelligence augmentation decreases the need for specialization and increases participatory complexity." This could well be the rallying cry of the millennial generation. We have unimagined access to data, and we have the tools to use it to shape our decisions. These developments will result in increasingly bloodthirsty competition between cities for desired demographics; conversely the complacent will swiftly decline.

WalkScore™ of Central West End via WalkScore.

Physical conditions alone constitute only half of the battle of sustainable transit alternatives. The remainder is a battle of hearts and minds. When we examine the neighborhood my priorities have led me to select, we find that it has a WalkScore of 94. According to the site, only 4% of users have a higher walkscore. Yet, when I think of my daily life I do not live like I am in the ninety-sixth percentile for walkability. While I am lucky enough to have a part time position less than a mile away, the bulk of my employment requires a commute of four and a half miles. While I am able to commute there by bicycle often, job demands and weather compel me to drive more than I'd like.

Yet, as someone who advocates for access to alternative transportation methods and tries to minimize my car usage accordingly, I was pleased to be pictured on page A2 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 8th.

Photo of the author in the Post-Dispatch Image by Dawn Majors.

I was on my way to my part-time job and unable to bicycle due to four inches of powdery snow on the ground. My next instinct was to drive, but my car had been parked in. Since I was lucky enough to live close enough to that place of employment, I grabbed my skis and headed to work. On the way Ms. Majors spotted me and took a series of pictures.

Soon thereafter I received a letter from Gregory F.X. Daly, the Saint Louis Collector of Revenue commending for my "dedication to my employer". While I appreciate his kind gesture, I think that associating non-automotive transit with extraordinary dedication indicates a conditioning antithetical with the wide-scale acceptance of transportation alternatives. Interestingly enough, an identical response occured in comment thread concerning skiing to work in Madison, Wi, while in Alaska a company pays employees to bike, ski, or skate to work . Perhaps a little latitude makes all the difference?

I do not endorse this skier's disregard for traffic law nor the abuse he causes to the bottoms of his skis

In a related note, I have started a statistical microblog at Daytum where I am tabulating my life. Of particular relevance to this entry is transportation. My resolution for this year is to equalize my sustainable transit usage with automobile usage. I hope that by tracking this over the coming months I can cut down on the 152 gallons of gas (and 2900 pounds of resulting CO2) I used last year.

View my life in statistics at Daytum.