We all make decisions about what transportation mode to use. For most of us, these choices don’t change very often – we have routines and have thoroughly explored our options. But we do still make them – if we change jobs, if we move, if a new light rail line opens.
These decisions, like most, are largely cost-benefit: What’s the cost of busing to a suburban job and losing flexibility? How much would I save on parking if I bought a bus pass instead? They’re often complex, trying to balance everyday needs with exceptions while trying to predict future changes.
Most of us are here because we want to see those costs and benefits change: Some directly for ourselves – we want to be able to use transit, walk, or cycle more easily. Some more indirectly – we want to see lower carbon emissions per capita, or the political and social changes that come with more dense neighborhoods.
I think it’s important to recognize that an individual’s decisions about what mode to use are almost entirely a product of their environment. We all have preferences about what we want – a downtown condo and a subway, a rural house with a sports car – and these are equally valid desires. We each value our desired lifestyle differently – some people are willing to pay more than others toward their preferences – but for the most part, we are maximizers, looking for the best deal possible.
This is where public policy comes in. Public money spent on infrastructure has for centuries changed the costs and benefits for an individual when making their transportation choices. So much, in fact, that today ‘transportation choice’ is practically a code phrase for ‘not a car’, when only a hundred years ago road trips didn’t even exist – much less international flights.
The transportation and land use policy changes you’ll hear wonks and ideologues like us suggest are about changing those costs and benefits. The single largest reason these are so hard to change is that people everywhere around us have made future plans assuming the status quo. These can be as simple as “I plan to drive to work tomorrow” and as complex as “I plan to vote to expand this highway because I was elected largely due to contributions from employees of a labor union that does most of its work on highway projects.”
There’s a huge range in the relative difficulty of changing a transportation decision. On one end someone just might not know they can get a transit pass from their employer. On the other end, you might have to run challengers against entrenched politicians to stop a project. So the decisions we often make as activists are about the cost effectiveness not of transportation choices, but of our activism choices.
Activists like us can’t build a lot more transit right now. Link expansion is under construction, and getting significantly more means going to the legislature. Transportation for Washington is pushing bills to provide better local transit funding, mostly for bus agencies, but we won’t have a big opportunity to build rail for at least a few years, until today’s budget issues are worked out.
In the meantime, we can set up for the future: push to allow more development around transit, and to remove parking minimums. We’d let the market do our work for us – people who move into new buildings without parking are natural transit users, just like the vast majority of Capitol Hill voters who supported Sound Transit expansion. This is our low hanging fruit that makes the decision not to drive that much easier.