Thursday was Car-Free Day. That’s the day you’re supposed to ditch your ride and discover all the other ways you can commute and run errands. And this is Try Transit Week in Virginia, which has a similar goal — except, you know, it’s a week. And we’re closing in on the Montgomery County Walk & Ride Challenge, a 20-day corporate competition that kicks off Oct. 10.
I’m all for days that celebrate my favorite ways to get around, especially when participation is rewarded with stuff. If you pledged to take part in Car-Free Day, for instance, you could have won an iPad, a bicycle, a SmarTrip card, a Capital Bikeshare membership or Nats tickets.
And did I mention the free slices of Flippin’ Pizza just for taking the pledge? Sorry you missed that.
But while prizes are awesome, it’s hard to believe that people behind the wheel are so easily swayed by swag. To figure out what makes this driver demographic tick, and what would make them really consider quitting their cars, I stationed myself outside of a few downtown lots and garages.
It turns out, most folks aren’t so into their wheels — or Washington’s wretched gridlock and pricey parking options. It’s that they don’t see a viable alternative. (I also learned that parking attendants don’t take too kindly to reporters asking their patrons why they insist on driving.)
“For me, it’s because I have a 4-year-old to drop off, and his school isn’t anywhere near a Metro station,” 30-year-old Shilonda Waller told me as she hopped into her car near Chinatown. The Landover, Md., resident said that even if her son were in a Metro-accessible school, she’d worry about the flexibility of transit.
That’s been the problem for Plen Smith. “I’m car-free 90 percent of the time, and I want to be at 100,” promised the 33-year-old Petworth resident. But when his job calls for a day of meetings with clients, he knows he needs his car.
Just-released U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that folks in the D.C. area face the second-worst commute in the country. Drivers here don’t need iPads and pizza. They need additional train stations, more bus routes and shorter wait times.
That’s why the most important event this week was Don’t X Out Public Transportation Day. In recognition, rallies were held across the country (although not in Washington) on Tuesday to fight proposed cuts in federal funding that could lead to transit price hikes, even more crowding on trains and buses, and fewer options for people who don’t want to drive.
Of course I support increasing awareness of public transportation, and there must be people out there who don’t realize how simple it could be to take a bus to the office, or to use a bike trail. But if we want to make every day Car-Free Day, what we really need is a better system.