Why you should care

Because how else will people appreciate transit?

On September 27, Paris went car-free. Not the whole city and not the whole day, and yet, closing 30 percent of the city for less than eight hours brought a 40 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in the air and a 50 percent drop in noise pollution. The streets buzzed with cyclists and flaneurs instead of delivery trucks, and the mayor tweeted that she was open to monthly car-free days in the future.

But that, as they say, is Paris, a city blessed with cheap transit networks, and one that’s small enough you could walk it end to end in three hours: Other cities couldn’t possibly pull it off, critics say. Car-free days in, say, the Bay Area would destroy commutes and remind people just how draining it is to get from point A to point B without a set of wheels. And that’s exactly why car-free days should be mandated in metro areas that couldn’t pull it off.

To be sure, this sort of shock therapy for public transit systems would be deeply unpleasant for all involved.

 

The idea here is simple: If you force people to experience the sorry public transit of their so-called cities, you may well generate the political will necessary to invest in a better system. Rosemary Mascali is the co-chair of Long Island’s Car Free Day, which seeks to unite scads of political authorities in an area without a coherent, centralized transit system. That it sounds quixotic is why it’s important, says Mascali, who thinks people who understand the shortcomings of the transit system are more likely to advocate for change. “People say, ‘What’s the point? If a commute takes two hours on transit, you’ve just proved you can’t be car-free.’ But some people have to take that bus.”

To be sure, this sort of shock therapy for public transit systems would be deeply unpleasant for all involved. Already the Caltrain, which travels from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, fairly bursts with commuters every morning and night; to force every commuter on it would be to create a hell on rails. There would be endless lines at the ticket machines and untold lost work hours, and many people would arrive at their offices seething and sweaty. One could argue that spreading awareness with a volunteer program, like Meatless Mondays, would be better. But that would miss the point: Only when people are forced onto the bus do they get onto the public transit bus.

And it might not be so bad. Ratna Amin, the transportation policy director at Bay Area nonprofit SPUR, says that while the city’s transit system would definitely be overloaded if everyone tried to use it at once, there’d be upsides. “What we could look forward to on a day like that is that no buses or trains would be stuck on any traffic, which would greatly increase reliability,” she says. “The other thing we’d have to talk about is how much safer it would be on a day like that.”

So riders would discover how the other half lives — and learn just how dismal their city’s transit options really are — or they’d learn how doable carless commuting can be. Either way, it’s one step closer to that reduction in air pollution, noise pollution and hours spent in traffic jams.

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