Technology, Not Transit, Is Key to Improving Mobility

Reducing impacts on the environment through innovation, not transit mandates

Some particularly hardcore environmentalists and a few city planners hope cars will go the way of dinosaurs. They believe we’ll run out of oil and be forced to find a new means of travel, preferably by foot, bike and train.

That would mean a return to the “good life” they say, where we live in apartments, or high-rise condos and walk or hop a train to work in downtown high-rise office buildings not far from home. In short, we’d revert to a 19th century life of low mobility.

The history of my Toyota Prius, which just hit 100,000 miles, suggests otherwise. Technology and innovation, like hybrids, show we can keep the benefits of enhanced mobility that come with our cars – more contact with friends and family; access to more career options and work locations; more entertainment and shopping choices – while improving the auto in ways that reduce impacts on the environment.

In 2003, when I bought my used Prius, gas was cheap, hovering slightly above $1 a gallon in Ohio where I live. But technology alone wasn’t enough to make the purchase a no-brainer. A couple hundred dollars in gas savings would not compensate for the potential headaches of a new technology, lack of access to cheap repair shops and limited cargo space for kids and sports equipment.

Now, of course, my decision looks brilliant. Gas prices hit $2 in 2004. By the summer of 2005, drivers were choking at the sight of $3 a gallon. Refinery bottlenecks, reformulated gas mandates, uncertainty around pesky South American socialists, and a protracted military presence in the Middle East conspired to keep prices relatively high.

With its consistent 48 miles per gallon performance, the Prius has generated a small financial windfall and more than paid back in savings the difference in price between a conventional car and the hybrid.

I’m not alone. Hybrid sales have jumped along with gas prices. Dealers are on track to sell 345,000 in 2007. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hybrids are a small, but growing segment of the car market. JD Power speculates that 65 hybrid models will swarm the market by 2010. The next generation will offer fuel efficiency approaching 70 miles per gallon (or more).

All this bodes well for mobility in America. We can live where we want. Work we want. And commute how we want.

Yet groups yearning for cars to go extinct believe we should ditch cars, and the mobility they provide, for transit. But transit commuters in Washington spend an average of 47 minutes commuting, while solo drivers spend just 29 minutes, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

In most of our biggest cities – New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia – commute times are actually much longer for transit riders than solo drivers. Yes, despite all that gridlock on the roads.

Most Americans don’t want to double our commute times by shifting to buses and trains. Most don’t want to cram our kids into smaller houses and apartments to live closer to downtown or work.

And ingenuity from the creative minds that created my Prius will make sure we don’t have to. Our cars will run cleanly, boosting air quality and reducing the health risks of living in cities. We will be able to reach the most diverse and interesting places in our cities on our schedule, not someone else’s.

Instead of hoping for the demise of the car because of a ‘reliance on evil foreign oil,’ we should celebrate the mobility it provides.