On the Road Again: What Holds Us Back

Welcome to the first On the Road Again, my blog commentary where I let you in on some of my observations spawned by the sheer boredom of enduring several hours each week of I-405 gridlock.  My basic premise for this feature is to loosely relateI405 Traffic 1 these observations and opinions to kindle a discussion about little known or interesting parts of our waste reduction and recycling programs or our environment in general. Good luck, right?  For me it will be therapeutic; for you the reader, I hope it will be educational, thought-provoking, and perhaps even a bit controversial.

For this first foray, I’d like to kick things off by answering a question that this commentary begs asking:

“John, part of your job is to encourage others to be responsible stewards of their environment and here you are writing an article about sitting in traffic.  Don’t you think spending over two hours a day in your car, idling in traffic, spewing carbon and exhaust into the atmosphere is just a smidge hypocritical?  Have you ever heard of mass transit, buddy?  What’s wrong with you?”

That’s a fair question, self.  I do think riding the bus or the train is a great commuting alternative – for some of us.  And that’s the problem: it should be a great alternative for most of us.

Strike One:  Cost.  It’s actually cheaper for me to buy the gas and pay overhead such as insurance and maintenance than to pony up the daily bus fare.  At about $90 a month in bus fares, it just doesn’t pencil out for me.  To see if the math works out for you, calculate your commute cost at metro.kingcounty.gov/ridertools to see if you can save money by riding the bus.

Strike Two:  Convenience.  There’s no direct route without transfers from a park and ride near my home to Kirkland.  The daily journey would take me almost twice as long to get to work and back home again.  On top of that, if you’ve ever had to endure an afternoon crawl on southbound I-405 from Kirkland to Renton and points south, you will have noticed that traffic in the restricted commuter lane used by buses is often moving slower than traffic in the unrestricted lanes.  Check out Metro Transit’s Online Trip Planner to find out about your routes and ride times.

And Strike Three, I’m out:  I’m selfish.  I admit it.  I cherish the time alone in my car to decompress and prepare myself for an evening with my dear wife, my neurotic dog, and my exceptionally well-behaved and responsible teenage boys who give me absolutely no trouble at all and haven’t contributed a bit to any of the gray hair on my head, high blood pressure, or night sweats.  But it’s more than just selfishness.  It’s my misguided attitude that riding the bus is for the “other guy” and not me.

Interestingly enough, these same systemic and psychological barriers keeping people in their cars are similar to the barriers to waste reduction and recycling that Kirkland and most of our municipal neighbors recognized and began tearing down about a decade or so ago.  We made recycling cheaper, more convenient, and accessible to everyone.  In 2003, Kirkland included the cost of its recycling services in its garbage rate so our residents and businesses were able to recycle to their hearts’ content at no additional cost.  We also made recycling more convenient by providing weekly collection and by commingling everything in the same container.  No more sorting and no more separate bins for paper, plastics, and glass.  We continue to make curbside recycling easier by adding new items to the mix such as plastic bags and clamshell containers.  By addressing the cost and convenience considerations, we began to see a change in attitude from “recycling is just for hippies and greenies, man” to “recycling is for everyone, man.”  It changed my attitude, for sure.

So what happened? The amount of recyclables collected in 2004 increased by 38% and Kirkland’s combined recycling diversion rate that includes single family and multifamily residents and businesses increased by 24%. Many cities followed suit or had already hopped on the same track, and the region as a whole began to see substantial increases in the amount of recyclable material diverted away from the metaphorical “big hole in the ground” where our trash goes, a.k.a. the Cedar Hills Landfill near Maple Valley (It’s actually a big mound of garbage and I strongly encourage you to take a guided tour).  This regional effort extended the life of our last landfill by many years and consequently held the inevitable increase in disposal costs at bay.  You may not realize it, but Cedar Hills was slated to be closed about now and its life has been extended until at least 2026.  (If you think your garbage bill is high now, take a look at it after our landfill closes and we have to export our waste via railcar to a faraway landfill or issue bonded debt to pay for a 500 million dollar waste-to-energy incineration facility.)

So it seems that it has been much easier for the region to get people like me on board with recycling than on board a bus.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying because the payoff is huge for us all in terms of conserving our energy resources and extending the life of our transportation infrastructure.  We’re certainly not going to stop trying to increase recycling. If we’re able to reduce fares, increase convenience and accessibility, and change attitudes as we did with waste reduction and recycling, I think mass transit can become, for most of us including me, the preferred alternative to cars that it should be.

If we’re able to accomplish that, you’ll see me at the front of the line.