Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Commuters" are killing us

No, I don't mean the actual people who commute. Rather, I'm talking about how any transportation conversation seems to frame those seeking transportation as "commuters." Work trips are important, certainly, but they are not the most common type of trip taken on our transportation system. Daily work/school commute trips account for only around 20-30% of daily trips, and the most congested hour of the week on surface streets is actually 1pm on Saturday. To think only about the commute trip profoundly damages our transit system, as I've mentioned before, but it also impairs the way we think about other transportation topics.

Take, for example, bicycling. I wrote last week about the Bicycle Advisory Committee's slant towards recreational, rather than transportation, cyclists. Many of the other committee members also proudly state that they are "commuters," but note that wayfinding is (in their minds) less important for commuter cyclists. The committee chair told me that
If you're a commuter, you can plan out your route, look at the maps beforehand, learn the streets, maybe even drive it a few times before you commit to it.*

First, note the auto-centrism. Many cyclists in this city, especially transportation cyclists, ride bikes because they can't drive, can't afford a car, or choose not to use an automobile for other reasons. Second, and more importantly for this post, is the assumption that a cyclist riding for transportation would be riding the same route, between home and work, over and over and over without deviation. This sort of view makes no provision for cycling to other destinations, such as the grocery store, social activities, or government meetings like those of the BAC. Thus there is a fundamental difference between panning infrastructure for bicycle commuters, and planning infrastructure for transportation cyclists- the latter being those who bike, not just to work, but to everywhere. Furthermore, our city will not be bicycle-friendly unless and until her residents can safely make, not only their work trip, but all of their day-to-day trips on a bicycle.

I once again encourage everyone to be very careful in their use of the word "commuter." It implies a very particular sort of travel, with often devastating impacts on alternative transportation.

*I wasn't taking notes when he said this, so this quote may not be verbatim. It captures the spirit of his comments.


Helen Bushnell said...

The emphasis on "commuters" also assumes that people who work for others are more worthy of subsidy than those who work for themselves and that there is such a thing as a "normal work schedule". In the US, people who work on Saturdays are basically forced to drive, even in places with good transit, such as the DC area. Often the same is true who have attend evening meetings or travel for business during the day.

Chris said...

I work a night shift, and don't own a vehicle. I take transit in to work, but it's not running when I get out. I used to walk, but I really didn't like to, when I was tired after work, and walking through the city by myself that time of day/night always makes me a little uncomfortable. About 6 months ago, got myself a folding bike that I can take on the bus with me on my way in, and it saves me having to walk on the way home. Sometimes I even ride in to work, if the traffic isn't bad.