Use Mass Transit Or Pay To Drive

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 27, 2007

A couple of decades ago, I counted four cars parked in front of my neighbor’s house - plus a fifth in the garage. Five adults, all licensed to drive, lived in the house.

I went into a liberal environ-mentalist rage.

“Look at that,” I said to the wife. “Five people, five cars. What is this? Is every American entitled to put a car on the road, burning gasoline, spewing pollution? Where does it say that in the Bill of Rights? What’s wrong with those people?”

Two decades later, four licensed drivers now live in my house: the wife, my daughter, my cousin and me. Four cars fill the carport to overflowing. Each of us feels entitled to drive anywhere, anytime we wish, burning all the gasoline and spewing all the pollution we want, on the crowded streets and highways of Oahu - without inconveniencing any of our house-mates by, say, borrowing a car for an hour or two.

Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.

Mayor and Council are proceeding with the environmental impact statement and preliminary planning for Oahu’s fixed rail mass transit system. But rail’s opponents haven’t given up. One of their arguments, made in the form of a rhetorical question, is: “Are you, oh long-winded, loud-mouthed mass transit proponent, planning to ride the thing?”

I lower my eyes at that point, turn away, shift the rhetorical ground, usually synchronically. Truth be told, there’s little chance I’ll be getting on that train unless it can provide me with the level of flexibility my battered old ‘98 Honda Civic LX provides.

No sir. When I go to town, it’s usually to the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus or to the PBS-Hawaii studio across the street. The new train won’t go there. Then I like to go up to Tamura’s on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki to buy a bottle of wine - maybe two bottles of wine - or three. Train won’t go there either. Then out to Kahala to the Barnes and Noble store to browse its bookshelves. The train won’t run there either.

Where did my neighbors and I get this sense of entitlement to absolute flexibility of transport? It’s an easy question to answer: in the vast rural spaces of a continental nation - rural spaces through which highways could carry happy motorists from sea to shining sea - and back again. Island Hawaii never knew such spatial luxury.

Neither, of course, did the continent’s great cities; and almost all of them - New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington - built mass transit system to deal with the crush of people.

But those subways and elevated trains haven’t been enough. Too many of the vehicularly entitled insist on their right to drive into the urban core.

Earlier this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged his citizens’ inalienable right to clog the corridors of his city. He’s proposed reducing traffic in the busiest parts of Manhattan by charging people to drive there. If Bloomberg’s proposal receives the approval of the New York State Legislature, New York will become the first American city to try congestion pricing to alleviate traffic.

London began doing so in 2003, and most observers feel it’s been a success.

But that’s England - in socialist Europe, the home of planners and meddling bureaucrats and over-regulation. Americans will never accept it. Right?

Maybe wrong. The plan will cost both private citizens and businesses dearly: Bloomberg proposes to charge $8 for cars and $21 for commercial vehicles that enter parts of Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. And in places like Brooklyn and Long Island, elected officials fear that their communities will become parking lots as long-distance commuters leave their cars there to take public transportation into Manhattan.

Still, New York’s Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, recently endorsed Republican Bloomberg’s traffic congestion plan. So has federal Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters, who told The New York Times: “It cannot be easy for a politician to propose charging commuters more money to enter Manhattan, but the mayor’s plan is sound, and the mayor’s plan will work.”

To receive federal funding, Bloomberg’s plan needs legislative approval by August. Its passage may mark the end of the Americans’vehicular entitlement.

Mayor Bloomberg recognizes that the unfettered use of the automobile has to end. So too, I think, does Mayor Mufi Hannemann. So too should we all.

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