Friday, September 11, 2009

Traffic Patterns: Attitudes Toward Cars

Everything is bigger in America. From waistlines to portion sizes, the country has a knack for cultivating and embracing all things large. But lately, it seems to many as if family-sized everything is beginning to lose its appeal, especially in the form of cars.

During August’s Cash for Clunkers program, more than 400,000 cars were traded in, 84 percent of which were trucks. While some users opted to purchase newer large cars, 59 percent of vehicles purchased were compact cars like Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas. It served as only a temporary boon to the auto industry, but it could translate to long-term changes in air quality, financial responsibility and, simply, space.

As transportation secretary Ray LaHood told The New York Times, “This is a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win for consumers.”

Though the benefits and repercussions of the program are still up for debate, on a basic level, the extra space on the roads and in the lots might be a welcome change, especially in California. For a long time, cars in America just kept getting bigger. The SUV craze of the '90s meant the Chevy Suburban continued to expand and gain popularity, the Ford Excursion rolled out with what some people probably thought was more room than anyone had any business occupying, and the oversize obsession reached its pinnacle when the Hummer became, literally, widely available. Grappling with an increasing number of cars – which California will have to do as its population continues to grow – might be done more easily if they come in a neat, compact package.

As the climate bill winds its way through Congress, favoring smaller, cleaner cars could be a natural move. Essentially, this month-long cash-for-clunkers program could end up initiating a shift in the way Americans regard vehicles. Even in San Francisco, the country’s second most densely populated city and one with little room for cars, driving accounts for 60 percent of trips taken. City planning officials have just unveiled their transportation vision for 2030, and ambitious is an understatement. The city hopes to cut car use in half, up transit use to 30 percent and bring bike and foot trips up to 40 percent. If California can set the bar for fuel efficiency, San Francisco could hope to set it for general travel efficiency.

California, which has long pushed for strict fuel efficiency standards and is now setting the nation’s standard, is the veritable ground zero for car chaos. The state is expected to double in population by 2050, so many observers believe that its transportation infrastructure is in dire need of updating and funding to accommodate more vehicles. An October panel at The Club will meet to discuss the challenges, while the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lisa Jackson will visit on September 29 to identify key strategies to cleaning up our act.


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