Perspectives: Car-centric focus limits citizen choice

3 Aug

A Midlands Voices op-ed appeared in today’s OWH, coauthored by Craig Moody of V.O.I.C.E. and Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer of ModeShift Omaha.  The column can be read here and is reproduced below.

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A July 15 World-Herald editorial, “Be careful, Big Brother,” missed an opportunity to productively participate in Omaha’s ongoing transportation dialogue.

Rather than thoughtfully weighing in on the issue of Omaha’s transportation future, the editorial unnecessarily based its position on what cities across an ocean have done — an unfair comparison. We would have wanted to see the editorial address the facts facing Omaha rather than set a European strawman ablaze.

While the editorial was correct in identifying that the Bill of Rights protects individuals from government intruding on private decisions, transportation is an issue of public concern requiring public investment.

The 2010 Nebraska Driver’s Manual refers to driving as a privilege, not a right, more than a dozen times. In truth, our continued focus on car-only streets limits a nondriving citizen’s freedom to travel, to work or to engage in commerce.

Our current car-centric transportation system is a greater infringement upon individual rights and private choice than complete street designs or congestion fees ever could be. Smart transportation and urban planning seek to provide a broader array of choices, not issue mandates.

Currently, the only way to effectively get around most of Omaha is by car, and many Omahans can’t afford one, let alone the insurance, gas and maintenance that accompany car ownership. According to AAA, the average annual cost of car ownership is more than $8,000. Without viable alternative modes of transportation, that cost of ownership becomes a de facto tax.

Under our present-day transportation system, these citizens, along with many others who would prefer effective mass transit, are compelled to own a car or suffer limited access to opportunities.

The role of the car in the United States’ transportation system has expanded for decades. Expanding roads demand more and more space and make it harder for walkers, bikers and bus-riders to safely and conveniently move about. Consequently, pollution has increased, obesity rates have skyrocketed, sprawl has dominated, and citizens and cities alike are poorer because of it.

If we continue to cater our planning efforts toward the car, we may be subject to the same struggles that many poorly planned urban cities are experiencing: a dwindling population and giant swaths of vacant land.

Now, we see the pendulum swinging back with urban developments like Aksarben Village, North Downtown and Midtown Crossing. This type of density is critical to an active transportation network in which all Omahans are free to choose among many transportation options.

An active and diversified transportation network will mean healthier and wealthier Omahans. It will mean cleaner air and more green space. It will mean stronger local businesses with more sustainable regional economic growth. And our city will be safer and more accessible for children, the elderly, the disabled and anyone else who leaves his home. It will mean citizens can still drive a car, but they also can choose other safe, convenient and healthier ways to get around.

Undoubtedly this is an important discussion for our community; we are all stakeholders. We encourage all Omahans to learn about the process and get involved. The decisions being made today will affect several generations to come. They are not decisions to be taken lightly and require the involvement of all citizens as well as The World-Herald.

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