Friday, May 13, 2011

Dear Gov. Kasich: building more highways isn’t cool

   Our dear governor sure has lots of interesting things to say. For example, he said he wants Ohioans to get on his bus or he’ll run them over with it. Odd thing is, Gov. John Kasich doesn’t like buses; doesn’t like trains much either, as we all know. He doesn’t seem to like any alternatives to driving in Ohio, except one.

   The April 16, 2011 Dayton Daily News, reported that the governor used the state’s planes for 16 in-state, and four out-of-state trips in his first 81 days in office. It took his predecessor 13 months to equal Kasich’s plane usage.

   For advocates of better trains and transit, that wasn’t the most telling part of that article. It was yet another memorable Kasich quote: “There is no doubt about it – I can’t get to all these places if I’m not able to fly.”

   That begs a question: how do the rest of us travel between Ohio cities without private planes – or for that matter, without trains or buses? “Drive” is the officially sanctioned answer within the marbled halls of the State House where your government recently approved a two-year Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) budget in which 99 percent of transportation tax dollars goes to roads and highways.

   But according to a growing number of marketers, including the automakers themselves, states that rely on cars for all movement are driving away their young people and placing under house arrest their aging and disabled citizens. The implications for Ohio’s economy could be catastrophic because many competing states and nations do provide real choices to driving.

   “By 2020, the combination of younger people driving less and (Baby) Boomers retiring will cut mileage driven in the U.S. by half,” reported Advertising Age, May 31, 2010. Yet Ohio continues to build a transportation system for a growing, car-hungry state. That state hasn’t existed in decades.

   In 1978 no less than 92 percent of 19-year-olds had a driver’s license; by 2008 that number slipped to 77 percent, the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey reported in 2010. Both age groups are part of the two largest generations in America history: the Baby Boom has 75 million people; but Generation Y has 80 million.

   “I don’t think the car symbolizes freedom to Gen Y to the extent it did Baby Boomers,” said Sheryl Connelly, manager of global trends and futuring for Ford Motor Co., as reported in Advertising Age. To many young people, driving represents pollution and wasted time by preventing full use of the smart-phone revolution.

   “Almost everything about digital media and technology makes cars less desirable and public transportation a lot more relevant” to younger people, says William Draves, co-author of “Nine Shift,” a book which tracks lifestyle changes as the result of technology. “Time becomes really valuable to them. You can work on a train. You can’t work in a car. And the difference is two to three hours a day, or about 25 percent of one’s productive time.”

   Meanwhile Kasich gave back 16,000 jobs and $400 million in no-match federal funds for an introductory level of passenger rail service linking Ohio’s largest cities. Then his ODOT Director Jerry Wray, former president of the state’s asphalt industry lobbying association, killed all state-appropriated federal funds ($51.8 million) for the Cincinnati Streetcar. It was the state’s highest-ranking transportation project. Also, 85 percent of University of Cincinnati students said in a survey that streetcars are cool.

   “We’ve got to make Ohio cool,” said Kasich during an April 13, 2011 press conference on the need for more jobs. He cited the state capitals of Austin, TX and Raleigh, NC as examples of cities that are cool for young people.

   Here’s a tip for our un-hip governor: trains and transit are more than just cool. They’re essential to avoid becoming a state dominated by retirees and poor people. When asked if Cincinnati could be cool like Portland, OR by having a streetcar, our dear governor responded: “We’re not living in Portland. And by the way, I don’t want to live in Portland.”

   Still, his choice of cool cities was ironic. Austin in 2010 opened a starter, 32-mile, nine-station commuter rail service on existing freight tracks. And it’s building dense, vibrant districts around transit stops. So is Raleigh which gained a third daily round-trip Amtrak train to Charlotte in 2010. All three round trips are sponsored by the state.

   Meanwhile Ohio’s state capital is the most populous city in the U.S. without passenger rail service of any kind. And no city in Ohio has state-sponsored intercity trains or regional commuter rail. Ohio does have lots of sprawling, cookie-cutter, drive-everywhere suburbs surrounding neglected urban centers, however.

   So its doubtful Gov. Kasich will appreciate the importance of having travel choices – other than his state plane. But the man sure is quotable.

END

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