I already had the general topic in mind for my talk at the fall 2022 Washington State Ridesharing Organization conference: It carried the title on this blog post. Then I got a real-world reminder of its relevance.
Before Sept. 1 when I fell and broke my wrist, I was someone who could manage all my own transportation needs regardless of mode. I live in a one-car household with two people so I was already ridesharing with my husband at times, or if he was gone with the car, I’d get myself places some other way. I could drive a car, book tickets on a train or plane, get myself to an Amtrak station or airport through a variety of modes, ask friends for a ride if I needed one, bike or walk, look at a map and plan connections between modes, click and scroll and find information for any and all of the above online.
After I broke my wrist my options reduced dramatically. I could walk, or I could be a passenger. I could still—working very slowly, with my non-dominant left hand—book my own tickets and use software and apps to plan. But it immediately became much more fatiguing to use an app or think about the complications of modal transfers and getting myself places when I only really had one hand to work with. I did a lot of clicking on the wrong spots; touchscreen operation wasn’t any smoother and was usually worse.
This was a temporary reality for me. This or something like it is everyday reality for many, and eventually for all of us. Whether you end up with a temporary disability like this one is supposed to be, whether you already have or acquire a change in your ability to manage your transportation needs, when you age out of certain reflexes, you will be here too.
When I say I could meet my own transportation needs before the broken wrist, that isn’t really true. I could use the systems that had been made available by a large network of people who fund, plan, design, construct, operate, maintain, and connect these systems.
That’s true no matter what mode you use. If you go out the door and get into a vehicle you aren’t doing that on your own. You’re able to do that because thousands and thousands of people designed and built a complete system for driving door-to-door regardless of destination. We’ve even managed to create marine highways that will carry your car across the water to reach the San Juan islands.
We built a system that works well for you if you drive. But in the process we built inequities into the system in the form of straight up concrete barriers to access, heavy doses of emissions and particulates that create higher asthma rates and other health burdens, and the cost burden of car ownership if that’s the only way you can really get places and if you’re able to drive.
We created a system reliant on fossil fuel and the planet is literally on fire. As we met in Leavenworth we could even taste the smoke.
When we did all of this we also made it harder to use climate-friendly transportation modes. We built a system that encouraged people to live far from everyday services and things like groceries or healthcare, and now they’re losing their transportation independence as they age and still need to go places. That’s you and that’s me.
We built this huge driving network as a system that we all pay for. I often run into the misunderstanding or the mistaken belief that drivers pay for the roads. But nowhere in this country do state and federal gas taxes and other fees associated with driving pay 100% of the cost of roads. They haven’t in a long, long time.
Even if I never drove a car I would still be paying for roads through federal income tax, sales tax, real estate transfer taxes, various fees—all kinds of revenue sources pay for the roads. And don’t forget the hidden cost of parking embedded in everything from apartment rent to the apples and bread I carry home on my bike when I make a grocery run that doesn’t require any space whatsoever in the parking lot. People who can’t afford a car or can’t drive one subsidize that parking lot in the price of the food they eat! So we all pay these invisible taxes but we don’t all benefit equally.
I served on the technical advisory group for a legislative study on nondrivers in the state and their needs. That study got started with the recognition highlighted by the efforts of Disability Rights Washington that at least a quarter of Washingtonians don’t drive. They may not drive due to their age, disability, income, some other factor that keeps them from owning a car even if they could drive one. But a lot of people straight up cannot drive and never will drive. Depending on where you live the percentage in your community may be higher than 25%.
One of the discussions we had in that technical advisory group was about how to address children. Children do have transportation needs even though they obviously can’t be drivers due to their age. The Active Transportation Division I head up for Washington State Department of Transportation gives out Safe Routes to School grants so we definitely want the transportation needs related to children to be considered directly.
I had little kids a long time ago and I still remember the a chauffeuring role that goes with being a caregiver for people of any age (although my children will tell you about how I put them on the city bus rather than driving them around). If those children could walk or bike to school we would eliminate anywhere from 10-30% of morning and afternoon traffic congestion, they would get healthy activity, and their caregivers wouldn’t have that extra item on their to-do list. Let’s get real: Maybe they wouldn’t speed to make up time as they cram too much into their morning and hit someone else’s child with that giant steel box.
That need to transport people who can’t drive is often described as a caregiver’s burden. How do we stop talking about this need for a complete system as a “burden” and instead look at the opportunity to enable people to fully participate in their community’s life?
There was a comment in one of the meetings of this technical group that maybe we really only need to think about access to employment, education, groceries, and health care. This very short list leaves out being able to meet a friend for coffee, going to the movies, hanging out at a local park, going to an art gallery, stopping spontaneously at the yarn store if you like to knit. Life, in other words.
Would you want to live your life in a small box with four sides and those sides are labeled Employment, Education, Groceries, Health Care? And yet that’s the kind of system we’ve designed. It’s a system that says only certain things are really essential and certain people will get easy access to those things and to everything else too. So the box gets smaller and smaller because we build a system that relies on you getting into that vehicular box!
We take away people’s freedom and independence when we don’t provide a full range of transportation services and modes beyond the box.
We didn’t build this isolating system alone. In a way, we worked as a network to build a system that separates people. We don’t have to use this system alone. And we definitely can’t keep treating it as a solo activity and expect to solve the big problems that face our species like climate change and the inequities we built into the existing transportation system.
Spend some time thinking about your own assumptions about getting around and what would happen if those change and you’ll realize we all need a complete network. That’s a network of people we can rely on, systems that go where we need to go, and all modes of transportation connected to each other.
After all, as Ram Dass said, we are all just walking each other home.