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27 June 2011

Mothers Against Matriculating and Driving: On Leaving Your Car Home

Many colleges are trying to discourage students from bringing cars to school with them and for a number of reasons, including safety, environmental, and parking concerns. This got me thinking about many of the problems in my own community and on our campus that we'd need to overcome to make something like this work. Below are four constraints we would need to tackle.

First, we would need to address the ongoing business sprawl that is displacing/bankrupting business in the downtown district and relocating/establishing business north of the city center on the heavily trafficked US-441. Ideally, we would discourage the ongoing sprawl that has caused so many of these problems and encourage businesses to open in places that are accessible to larger parts of the local population without the need to drive to them. Short of this, we could make the 441 business corridor more pedestrian-friendly. As it is now, driving on 441--let alone trying to walk or ride--is a harrowing experience. People tend to illegally use the center turning lane as a merging lane, but even when obeying traffic laws, it is a relatively unsafe as demonstrated by a sharp increase in traffic accidents at the intersection in front of the local Walmart. According to one of our local newspapers, the Baldwin Bulletin, addressing this string of accidents, "MPD Chief Woodrow Blue said that there is a simple solution for the problem. 'Basically, people need to slow down and pay more attention,' he said. 'Otherwise, the same thing will continue happening.'" It is exactly this type of ineffectual leadership that cannot be tolerated if we want a safer community. City officials should take active steps to reduce accidents, not simply tell people to drive better. Two fixes to the problem of 441 would be to put in protected bike lanes and sidewalks.

Second, we should develop a city-wide infrastructure of bike lanes and, even more basically, sidewalks. Even in the downtown district and around campus, there are places that are unsafe for pedestrians. For example, my wife and I live in a condominium complex just a half-mile walk from campus/downtown. Our complex, however, was built without sidewalks. To get out of the complex on foot, one has to literally walk into oncoming traffic via a blind vehicular entrance. A second example is on a road that is just south of campus, on which there are several student-inhabited apartment complexes. This road is completely absent of sidewalks, even though hundreds of students must walk on the road to get to athletic events and classes every day. By laying and maintaining sidewalks, people will be encouraged to walk instead of drive.

Third, a major problem that our community has yet to address is the complete lack of a public transportation system. I have absolutely no idea how the folks who live in the Section 8 housing around town, many of whom presumably do not own cars, get to their jobs, the grocery store, or to doctors appointments. The college now owns a small fleet of shuttle buses that run daily to get students from their apartments, dorms, and satellite parking lots to campus. If a student body of less than 6,000 can do this, certainly a city/county of 46,000 could pull it off. Again, however, this would not be necessary if businesses were planted within walking/biking distance of people's residences. (I've posted on mixed use zoning before, though.)

Fourth, the college could encourage the development of our campus culture and improve the local economy by discouraging our students from running back home to their parents on the weekends as is often the practice here (instances of which are often called "suitcase colleges"). There are a couple ways to do this. We could simply forbid underclasspersons who live in campus housing from bringing their cars with them. This was my experience as an undergraduate, and while I was somewhat ambivalent about the requirement at the time, in retrospect, it kept me on campus and forced me to make many new friends (particularly to make friends with older folks who owned cars and could drive me to the liquor grocery store). Granted, this type of policy can be pretty difficult to justify in a place that seems to be 40 minutes away from anything resembling a cultural experience and fully two hours away from Atlanta, the suburbs of which are home for most of our students and where the airport is. It would be great if they extended the light rail system down to us, but by simply expanding the newly implemented Connect by Hertz campus car rental service, the college could remedy much of this fear of isolation. The city could, also, up the cost of a parking ticket, which is right now set at the utterly ignorable price of $10 for staying longer than two hours in a designated spot. Where I went to graduate school, the equivalent ticket today is $25. (This one really shouldn't be a tough sell to a cash-strapped local government.)

Addressing these four problem areas would not only benefit our relatively privileged students but also the absolutely impoverished local population. Really, everyone wins.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a related story today.

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