GUEST OPINION: Dude, Where’s My Car?

By on December 29, 2015

Trading your car keys for a seat on the bus could ultimately result in more housing options.

Jackson, WY – One of the most striking things I notice while walking (and yes, driving) around Jackson is how much land is dedicated to parking cars. Restaurants, grocery stores, retail shops, churches, and many other local commercial entities have set aside large amounts of the most valuable real estate in North America for the purpose of occasionally parking vehicles.

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a grossly inefficient use of a scarce and valuable resource. In an era in which Jackson has a severe shortage of affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents (while we contemplate building an additional 5.1 million square feet of additional commercial space), this is an issue we should address.

We all love our cars and no one (least of all this writer) is proposing their abolishment. That’s not a realistic option short of some massive breakthrough in teleporting technology. But when we use them for cross-town driving, we’re not only exacerbating our traffic problems, we are driving the need to keep large pieces of land dedicated to parking.

Of course all driving is not the same. When we drive to Idaho Falls or Curtis Canyon or pretty much anywhere out of the county, we are not contributing to our parking problem, and having a bus route to those places isn’t very efficient. And sometimes you need to drive across town; maybe you’re picking up something that’s too big to fit on the bus, or there’s an emergency, or you aren’t capable of walking to the nearest bus stop.

But I believe that for the vast majority of our in-town transportation, a bus ride would work just fine. In many cases, it’ll be easier.

I’m as guilty as the next person of driving when I don’t need to. Why do I do this? Well, habit is one reason. Being too lazy to look up the bus schedule is another. And the lack of truly comprehensive bus transportation is a big one, though that excuse is becoming less and less valid each year.
I just opened Google Maps on my phone and asked for directions to Lucky’s. I can walk out of my front door on Glenwood and be at Lucky’s in 11 minutes, and Google Maps gives me step-by-step directions to the bus stop and then tells me which bus to get on. It takes me longer than that just to warm up my car in this weather. START has recently signed on with RouteShout, an app that gives you real-time bus updates and scheduling. And START has also added a new town shuttle, as well as a weekend late-night shuttle.

But we need more. No reasonable person can imagine a future in Jackson where we build another 5.1 million square feet of commercial space, have housing for workers, and yet continue to dedicate large amounts of land so that people can drive their cars from East Jackson to West Jackson. We are going to have to lower or eliminate many of our parking requirements (google “Review of Minimum Parking Standards” for a 1:26 video explanation of why that needs to happen); install parking meters in downtown areas, and most importantly, continue to build a convenient, reliable and comprehensive transportation system in town.

Convenience might be the biggest hurdle. We are very accustomed to being able to go wherever we want, whenever we want. If we want to grow START usage, we’re going to have to make START competitive with cars on a convenience basis. The biggest impediment to doing this might not be technology or even money, but people who believe public transportation is some sort of communist plot, and revel in underfunding the system so they can then point out its flaws.

But public transportation has a long and important history in the United States. In densely populated areas with extremely high real estate prices, it’s the preferred method of transportation for most people. Spend an hour in gridlock in a car in downtown San Francisco and you’ll quickly wish you’d had the foresight to take the BART. And there is no possible future in Jackson that doesn’t involve a drastic increase in density.

We can talk about the need to widen Highway 22 all we want, but that isn’t going to solve our in-town traffic problems; if anything, it’ll just make them worse. If we continue to grow (and we clearly will) we’re going to need to drive less.

I should reiterate what I said above so that it’s clear. I’m not proposing, nor would I ever, that we take away people’s cars, or prohibit them from driving, or limit their ability to drive in any way. If you like driving, or are morally opposed to riding buses for some reason, you’ll love the conveniences of having other people riding transit. You’ll find reduced traffic and better parking at your destination.

But if we create a convenient and comprehensive transportation system, people will voluntarily and happily use it. It will do wonders for our traffic problems, and eventually help free up land that we so desperately need for housing. START has done some great things and has made great progress; let’s give them the support they need to finish the job.

Happy New Year! I’m hopping on the shuttle to grab a burrito. PJH

Pete Muldoon is a 15-year Jackson resident, a small business owner, writer and musician.

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