Monday, November 19, 2018

In Defense of the Humble Prius or Why It's So Hard for Me to Drive Less

In this post I'll be taking a look at why I drive more than I used to, even though I know that driving is bad for the environment, public safety and for the kind of urban design I want to see.

First let's note the irony.  When I started writing this blog in 2009, I was an urban planning graduate student at USC, and living alone in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood (about 5 km west of Downtown Los Angeles) without a car.  Koreatown is a dense, mixed-use neighborhood with good transit service, including subway stations, and my apartment was about 5 km from campus, a commute I made by bus.  I did own a car at the time, but I kept it parked at my parents' house in Long Beach, so that I had to go out of my way to use it.  At the time I was inspired to point out that despite the stereotypes about Los Angeles, yes you CAN live a full life in LA without a car.

Am I retracting that point?  Yes and no.  2018 me lives in Whittier (also in Los Angeles County about 24 km east of Downtown Los Angeles) in a townhouse, is married (my wife also works full-time), has a one-year-old son in preschool and a full-time job.  Thanks to the magic that is Uptown Whittier, I can still walk to some things pretty easily, especially restaurants and errands, but beyond that I tend to crack open the ol' Prius.  Why?

First off, my commute to work is longer (22 km) than my commute to school was, and all of the non-driving options take much longer than driving.  I've tried the bus and I've tried biking, both of which take me about 2 hours each way, versus 30-45 minutes by car.  Before my son was born I did sometimes drive to a park and ride lot and take transit half way in (about 90 minutes), but that fell apart once I started to have to drop him at daycare on my way to work.  If you have a full-time job and a kid you know that time with the family and free time are precious, so driving helps me have more free time.

But you will object, why not just live closer to work, so that other modes of transportation will be more viable?  Well, we did consider that before buying our place, but that argument falls apart in a few key ways in our case. 1) We live in Los Angeles County, which is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.  We don't have unlimited choice about where to live.  2)  If we moved closer to my job, we would also be moving farther away from my wife's job, and vice versa.  I could be walking to work, but she would just be driving farther.  3) Why not get a different job in a better location?  True, this is technically possible, but not easy.

Your next objection will be, don't you realize that your lifestyle is causing climate change and contributing to air pollution, and putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk, and undermining walkable urbanism?  Yes, these things are all true.  I benefit from the choice I have made to drive, but it has negative side effects.  This is where the Prius comes in.  My 2015 Prius is rated by at 20.4 km per liter (48 MPG) versus 11.5 km per liter (27 MPG) for the typical car sold in America.  That reduces the harm caused to the climate and air quality, but doesn't do anything for safety and urbanism.  For safety, I drive carefully (often to the annoyance of my fellow drivers) and for urbanism I live in a walkable neighborhood.  Still, I would argue that the Prius is a way for me to do something on issues I care about, in circumstances where I feel like I don't have a lot of good options.  I mean, would you rather I haul my ass to the office in an F-150?

So what's the solution?  Turns out, there are no easy solutions.  However, there are three areas where I can see glimmers of hope.  First, Los Angeles County is building out a rail transit system, thanks to four separate local sales tax measures that have passed between 1980 and 2016.  Thanks to these, light rail will eventually get to within walking distance of my home, and more importantly, the homes of many other people, which will give us better non-car transportation options.  Second, urbanism works, as long as we are willing to do it.  When I lived in Koreatown I could get around conveniently without a car.  This is because the neighborhood is built around classic urbanist principles: density, mixed uses, short blocks, robust transit.  There's nothing stopping us from building more places like that except for political will.  Building more housing in LA is also key to solving the housing shortage that makes housing too expensive, which would give people more options on where to live.  Thirdly, I take hope in electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids (my Prius is just a regular hybrid).  As I have noted before, these vehicles have recently gotten much better and much cheaper, and for those of us trapped in the car, they point the way to a stable climate and cleaner air, which are not small things.  Yes, vehicles cause problems, but they also solve problems.  That's why people use them, and if we want cities with less vehicle use, we need to study why people choose to drive, one case at a time, and give people better ways to solve their transportation problems.