March 8, 2022

VALDETARO | The Mandate We Really Should Be Ending

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Mandates are a hot topic at the moment. As I write the first draft of this, a conspiratorial group of truckers are attempting to wreak havoc-through-gridlock on the interstate I grew up next to as an act of protest against vaccine mandates. Closer to Sun readership, one of my fellow columnists wrote about Cornell’s mask mandates (again) on the exact same day that the New York statewide school mask mandate ended.

And yet, at a time when these largely unenforced mandates rile up so many, there is a different requirement that affects almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives in Ithaca, yet often avoids the spotlight. With significant negative repercussions for the climate crisis, socioeconomic equity and general quality of life, it is a precondition for participating in society that policymakers from our city aldermen all the way up to Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York’s senators should be striving to end as soon as possible. What am I talking about? The driving mandate.

A set of policies which all but requires people to have their own personal vehicle in order to meet their basic needs, the driving mandate isn’t stated explicitly anywhere. Despite this, if you need a car to get groceries, go to medical appointments, commute to work or school or spend time with friends and family in a reasonable manner, you too are under the despotic rule of the driving mandate. On Cornell’s campus, in Collegetown and around the Commons, this regime can be difficult to see; all of these areas are fairly dense, walkable and frequently served by multiple TCAT routes.

Wander beyond these neighborhoods, though, and the driving mandate rears its ugly head once again. Want to go to Wegmans or Trader Joes? For most of the day, there’s only one bus an hour. Need to get to the hospital at Cayuga Medical Center? If you don’t catch the hourly bus, you’re stuck taking an Uber or walking. Looking to visit one of Tompkins County’s iconic state parks without having to actually park there? On a weekend, there are only a few buses all day to each entrance. These hypotheticals don’t even address intercity travel, where anybody without a car is severely limited if trying to go anywhere other than New York City. The fact that driving is by far the easiest way to get to many important locations in Ithaca may not seem controversial. What’s so wrong with prioritizing the mode of transportation that over 91% of households have access to?

First of all, driving exacerbates the climate crisis. On a societal level, as I mentioned two weeks ago, a plurality of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions now come from transportation. On a local level, structuring communities around cars leads to the kind of sprawling development in which buildings require more energy to heat them, more land is devoured for parking lots and subdivisions and the longer distances help increase transportation emissions despite recent improvements in fuel efficiency. The suburbs may have more greenery than inner cities, but they also have much larger carbon footprints.

Second, catering to driving is inequitable and always has been. When they were first adopted, cars were toys rich men used for leisure — and killing scores of children. Since the start of the interstate highway program, car infrastructure has been used to destroy Black and brown communities across the country, from Southeast DC to Miami’s Overtown and the many other households that continue to be displaced to this day. Non-drivers today are disproportionately non-white and lower income, and owning a car is a significant financial burden. People killed while walking are also disproportionately people of color, older and traveling in lower income areas when they die.

Third, cars severely diminish our quality of life. Air pollution has serious consequences, and even if most cars become electric-powered, recent research suggests most emissions come from the rubber hitting the road, not the tailpipe. Noise pollution from cars is also deleterious to public health; as someone whose bedroom window is about 15 feet above Dryden Road and its noisy drivers, I can attest to this. Commuting tends to be less enjoyable in cars than on transit or by bike or foot, and the sprawl that necessitates commuting is physically isolating and socially alienating. Similarly, being easy to drive to is a sure sign a destination will be even easier to leave. Ask anybody who’s been to restaurants along both the Commons and Route 13, after you’re done eating and drinking it’s much more enjoyable to spend time relaxing and walking around at the former than the latter.

Finally, the design choices that make driving easy don’t just make the places we drive to sterile but make it much less likely any other transportation mode will be used to get there. Wide roads, wide turns and large parking lots lead to the fast cars and sprawled development styles that make walking and cycling both dangerous and impractical, and usably frequent transit operations prohibitively inefficient. This is how a driving preference becomes a driving mandate.

So, how do we end the driving mandate? Locally, we can encourage developers to build affordable, walkable housing on the city’s acres of underutilized parking lots. We can also turn our parking minimums into parking maximums so that we get more street-oriented, cheaper buildings like Collegetown Crossing and fewer car-oriented, expensive-to-build ones like 312 College Ave. Then, we could make the streets that serve those buildings ducking safe and frequently served by TCAT, every 10 minutes at least.

At the state level, Gov. Hochul can follow through on her Brooks School rhetoric about shovel-ready infrastructure projects, emissions reduction goals and high-speed rail by looking at this proposal for an intercity rail network in New York that would connect Ithaca to Syracuse via an abandoned rail line. In the meantime, she can subsidize intercity bus service so a Starbucks employee commuting from Cortland to Collegetown, a Cornell student flying out of the Syracuse airport and even a governor speaking to Cornell students can rely on quality transit for those trips. If Gov. Hochul can get to a Cornell event on Lexington Avenue on transit, she should be able to do the same when going to East Avenue. 

Nationally, the actions involve regulation. Instead of prohibiting new public housing units, Congress can give states and local governments funds to build them so the thousands of units built on parking lots across Ithaca are socially owned. Instead of letting auto manufacturers regulate their designs themselves, Congress can require approval of new car models, ensuring that newly safe street designs aren’t counteracted by consumer trucks as large as tanks.

For several decades, driving has fundamentally shaped the way we relate to each other, our society and the planet at large. This mobility monopoly has destroyed our cities, kills tens of thousands of us every year and continues to threaten us with disconnection from our most basic needs to survive unless we operate a multi-thousand-pound metal box. It’s time to end it; the driving mandate’s got to go.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Far Above runs every other Wednesday this semester.