Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Travelers, not "Commuters"

In nearly every story about transportation issues, you will see somebody refer to those who use transportation infrastructure as "commuters." We privilege the daily commute as the epitome of transportation challenges, and it strongly shapes the way we look at transportation (especially transit) around us. The sort of infrastructure that may well serve a "commuter" will likely be very, very different from the sort of infrastructure that will serve a person on a different sort of outing- and, for our transportation system to be effective, we need to plan for every sort of journey a person is likely to take.

An analysis of transportation in Kane County, IL (a suburban county outside of Chicago, and the first data point I found on Google) shows that work trips make up roughly 23% of all trips. Of course, these trips are highly concentrated at particular times of day- this is why "rush hour" congestion occurs- but they are notably not even a quarter of trips. Add in the 9% of "school" trips (many of which I'm sure are K-12, not university) and you still only get 32%, a little less than a third. So planning exclusively for work trips is missing somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of journeys taken- a vast majority.

What do we get when we plan transit just for work trips? We get things like Metrolink and RTA's CommuterLink- systems that run only during peak hours, Monday-Friday. We get a local bus system that shuts down by 7 or 8 pm- just when things are starting to get interesting! We get an understanding that, while transit might be a viable alternative for getting to work and back, you're still going to need a car when you get home if you want to go anywhere else- making it impossible for people to realize the financial and health benefits of car-freedom.

What do we get when we plan cycling facilities just for work trips? We get bicycle parking ordinances that require showers, lockers and storage rooms for employees while customers chain up to the handicapped parking sign. We get commuter cyclists advocating within their companies for better cycling facilities, while the community at large does without. We get a community of cyclists that ride to work and back every day, and then get home, get in their car and go out to dinner.

What do we get when we plan auto infrastructure for work trips? We get bloated freeways, highways and streets to keep up with peak-hour demand, while our pedestrian, transit and cycling environments suffer, and we get people who find it incredibly easy to just keep driving to work because, after all, they need their car when they get home.

We need to start thinking of transportation infrastructure- especially transit- for every sort of trip people make, rather than just the daily commute. If we don't, we will perpetuate auto-dominance for the other 75% of trips, which will feed demand for more "commuter" automobile facilities.

So I encourage you all to stand up and say with me- I am not a commuter. I am a traveler.

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