It is widely accepted that our dependency on automobiles is a potent contributor to the climate crisis. What is not so well understood is how auto dependency initiated a new phenomenon: transportation poverty.
Prior to the automobile revolution, walking was how both rich and poor got around. The walking mode of transportation determined urban land use. As long as you could walk, you had access to jobs, stores, school and recreation. Beginning in the late 19th Century, streetcars created a small transportation gap, as a nickel fare was not affordable for some people as an everyday expense. Although streetcars expanded the urban layout, walkable neighborhoods remained intact and new development occurred within walking distance of streetcar stops.
The automobile revolution, and the frenzy of road building that made it possible, created a huge transportation gap. It expanded the distance between homes and jobs, stores and services, making car ownership a practical necessity.
The Housing + Transportation Index finds 0% of Watsonville neighborhoods to be “location efficient,” meaning “compact, close to jobs and services, with a variety of transportation choices.” The Index finds 100% of San Francisco neighborhoods to be location efficient, not surprising for a city that grew up around streetcars.
In Watsonville a third of the people who need to get around are not drivers: youth aged 10-17 (13%), disabled (9%) and households without a car (9%). METRO has no bus service in Watsonville that is considered “frequent” by state standards. Only 2% of commute trips are by bus.
The practical difficulties of getting around without a car result in high car ownership rates in Watsonville, at 1.9 cars per household. The large expense of car ownership means the average Watsonville household spends 20% of income on transportation. In San Francisco the average household owns 1.1 cars and spends 9% of income on transportation.
The automobile impact on pedestrian safety has been truly revolutionary. In 1922, 10,000 children marched in the streets of New York to protest pedestrian injuries. A thousand of the children marched in a group symbolizing the number killed by autos the previous year. In 2020 Watsonville scored #1 out of 106 California cities of similar size in rate of injuries to pedestrians under 15 years of age.
By reducing walking exercise, auto dependency increases our risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In our county, only half of Latino children score in the Healthy Fitness Zone by body mass index.
On Aug. 26, the public is invited to the Transportation Justice Conference at the Unitarian Church on Freedom Boulevard in Aptos. Speakers from the Bay Area will join local advocates to address the topics: Prioritize Transit; Safe Streets; and Transit Oriented Development Without Displacement. For more information and to pre-register, visit CampaignforSustainableTransportation.org.
Rick Longinotti is chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation that advocates for measures to reduce auto dependency. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.