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The one-mile solution

Part Three in an ongoing series linking energy consumption and development patterns

With the price at the pump topping record levels, many advocacy groups have published their own versions of "10 Tips for Reducing Your Energy Consumption." While individual efforts – as well as critical thinking in the ongoing alternative fuels debate – are integral, communities also must start planning carefully to achieve the only sure-fire method for curbing America 's oil addiction: cutting car trips. Imagine the possibilities if we stopped subsidizing unnaturally low gas prices, and started letting the market catch up to rising consumer demand for pedestrian and bike-friendly communities near jobs, retail and public transportation. This is Part Three in an ongoing Metropolitan Planning Council Web series, highlighting how we, as a region, can start recognizing every chance to grow or rebuild as another opportunity to diminish our auto dependency. Check back every other Thursday to learn innovative ways we can beat our oil addiction through sensible growth.

At some point in the last few years, most of us have stopped and wondered, “Where in the world did all of these cars come from?” Just 60 years ago, owning a car was a rarity; now it’s next to impossible to avoid them. From Naperville to South Elgin, no one is happy with the inescapable presence of more and more cars on the road. “Stuck in traffic” has become an honest – if overused – excuse for missed morning meetings. Five-mile commutes that once took 15 minutes now take 45. And streets our parents easily crossed as children today are so dangerous we wouldn’t dream of letting our own children near them. To put it simply, more people are choosing to drive more often, and the effects have become glaringly obvious.

One of the most startling statistics of the modern age – and a partial answer to the question, “Where in the world did all of these cars come from?” – is that almost two-thirds of trips under one mile are now taken by private vehicle. That means that almost two out of three people are now un-parking their cars, paying for gas to idle at a couple of traffic lights, slowly lumbering down a few streets, and searching for parking again – all of that to avoid walking what for ages has been considered easy walking distance.

In these days of frenetic lifestyles and high gas prices, it’s no wonder you hear people say, “I have a car, but I only use it for short trips.” Their logic is that by only using the car to drive short distances – for convenience’ sake – they’re saving money on gas. But that line of reason doesn’t hold true when you consider that, of all car trips taken in metropolitan areas (including Chicago), half are three miles or less and more than one in four are one mile or less. Although the media has recently fixated on the trend of the so-called extreme commuter, the real story on our streets is that more and more people have been using a car to run errands, see family, go to school or church, or see a movie within what has until just recently been considered easy walking or bicycling distance.

Need more convincing? Between 1980 and 2003, the U.S. population grew by 28 percent; however, the number of miles people drove increased by 89 percent. Clearly, this is not a matter of disinvestment in the train and bus system; it’s a complete lifestyle reorientation.

So why in the world have more and more people been driving more often, creating traffic that puts our lives on indefinite pause, dirtying our air and water, and undermining our physical and mental well-being? Certainly, it’s hard to question the recently developed cultural belief that buying a car, and then a better one, and then a better one, is a sign of status and independence from money troubles. But even for those who wonder, “Why should I have to drive a mile to buy a gallon of milk?” access simply isn’t available to lifestyle options that could free them from their cars.

Here’s a list – by no means exhaustive – of big and small impediments that exist to easing car dependence throughout the Chicago region:

  • Sidewalks are very poorly maintained or inconsistent;
  • Sidewalks lead to nowhere, since many businesses have relocated to strip malls at the edge of town;
  • No train or bus service exists in some areas – or the service is too poor to make it competitive with driving;
  • Intersections are impossible or unpleasant to cross on foot for a variety of reasons: the street is too big; street lights are timed so pedestrians must wait a long time for the walk signal and then must hurry across to beat the stop signal; or the curb is soft so that drivers never slow down when they turn;
  • Schools are too far away to walk to, or the walking route is too dangerous for children;
  • Grocery stores and other shops selling basic necessities are inaccessible to pedestrians or transit riders;
  • Streets are too fast and scary to make bicycling safe;
  • Stores are all geared toward drivers, with seas of parking that are unpleasant to navigate on foot; and
  • Few, if any, reasonably priced homes exist near train stations.

Take a closer look at this list and you’ll find that it describes disconnections in our neighborhoods that prevent people from getting around on foot, bike or transit. Fortunately, a trend toward transit-oriented development has been radiating from downtown Chicago to the far suburbs. The basic principle of transit-oriented development is connections . Developing a community around a town-square-like area located near a train station means connecting residents’ commutes with their homes, shopping, dining and entertainment, and families. When it’s all connected, it’s easy to walk, bike or take transit. Places like Tinley Park and Elmhurst are booming with development around their transit stops, as developers wake up to widespread pent-up desire for a car-free or car-light lifestyle.

Transit-oriented development is a wonderfully simple solution to the unsustainably large number of short-distance car trips, but it will only be successful if the city and state aggressively restructure how they spend precious transportation dollars. Transit-oriented development only works when we have a great transit system, and if we have complete streets designed from the point of view of pedestrians, bicyclists, residents, and drivers. As state leaders begin to discuss Illinois ’ next transportation capital package, they should remember that how transportation funding is allocated affects all of our lifestyles. Instead of fuming, “Where in the world did all of these cars come from?” we could be looking forward to our next trip to the post office, grocery store, or library in the new-old fashioned way – on foot.

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