A week to ponder how much we drive and alternatives to getting around
This story appeared first in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter, which is out Thursdays. Sign up at WFAE.org/newsletters.
Think about this: Could you get around for a week without a car? That's the idea behind the first nationwide Week Without Driving, which runs through Sunday.
Groups in Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham are joining cities across the country in promoting the week, which got its start in Washington state to raise awareness about the difficulties of transportation for people with disabilities or who lack access to cars. That can mean taking public buses or trains, walking, cycling or using ride-sharing services.
"It's really meant to help the average person, and especially elected officials, understand some of the challenges that people who do not drive a car face every day getting to and from just their daily destinations, whether that's jobs, medical appointments, shopping, for food, dining, getting kids to and from school, and activities. All of these things often are not really understood by those of us who have cars," said Meg Fencil, director of engagement and impact at Sustain Charlotte, which advocates for smart growth including transportation alternatives.
It's also about addressing climate change, she said. Transportation is the largest source of the heat-trapping pollution that causes climate change, both nationally and in North Carolina.
Yet, Fencil said, "We have failed to invest in more environmentally sustainable forms of transportation that really would make it time-efficient, safe, (and) inviting for people to walk or ride bikes, or ride public transportation or even to carpool."
An estimated one-quarter to one-third of the population doesn't drive, including children, seniors, people with disabilities and those who can't afford it, according to organizers of Week Without Driving, including Disability Rights Washington. The Federal Highway Administration estimated that 30% of Americans did not have driver’s licenses in 2021, the most recent year available.
In the Charlotte area, 12% of Charlotte households don't have a car, including 29% of people in the bottom income quartile, according to a report by WFAE's Steve Harrison last year.
Taking a step back and looking at our transportation practices is a key goal of Sustain Charlotte, Fencil said.
"An activity that really encourages people to step outside of their usual way of traveling is meant to inspire some thought and reflection about the ways that we have invested in transportation choices and failed to invest in transportation choices, as a community," Fencil said.
She said it's a good time to think about "basic mobility as a human right" and whether the way we've built our community supports that right.
Charlotte's 2022 "Strategic Mobility Plan" has a goal of getting us out of our cars and into other forms of transportation. It seeks to reduce one-person vehicles to half of all transportation trips by 2040. It's currently about 75%.
"We are facing the continuation of the climate crisis being exacerbated by our over-reliance on driving alone," Fencil said.
Cutting the number of solo car trips would also reduce the need to keep widening roads and drastically reduce carbon emissions.
"The real question is: Is even 50% of people driving alone in their own cars too high to fight climate change and to reverse the impacts that we're seeing now?" Fencil said.
"We've all seen the record high summer temperatures this year. Climate change is happening much faster than even many scientists have predicted. And we have a limited amount of time to make an impact on the climate. If we don't make choices now that make it easy for people to get around without a car, we are locking ourselves into automobile dependence, and we're really locking ourselves into contributing to climate change," she said.
And she notes that both the lack of transportation access and the risks of climate change tend to disproportionately affect people of color and lower income.
"Many of the same people that are suffering most now from not being able to drive a car, whether that's because they don't have the financial resources or they're older or they're in poor health, are also going to be the people that suffer most from the impacts of climate change," she said.
It's not clear how many people in Charlotte have been participating in Week Without Driving. Sustain Charlotte has discussed the event with members of the Charlotte Area Transit System's Transit Services Advisory Committee and promoted it through its newsletter and social media. Fencil said they hope to expand Charlotte's participation in 2024.
As for Fencil, she is a car owner and sometimes rides public transportation. This week she has been walking a few blocks and taking CATS' No. 16 bus to work.
"I was able to take it early in the morning when there was very little traffic. So I got to go and work out at the gym. And I think it took me about the same amount of time that it would take me to get there in my car," she said.
The bus also avoided worries about driving and parking and gave her time to read a book.
She said the non-car trips are also a reminder of work still to be done.
"In order to really be able to walk and bike and ride public transit safely, we need to have a built environment that supports that. So that means having sidewalks and bike lanes that support people of all ages and abilities, safe ways to cross the street, buses that come frequently and reliably.
"If any of those pieces are missing, then we don't have a complete network," Fencil said.
It's an uphill battle for advocates like Fencil, who said it would take "a transformational investment in our mobility network" to achieve a complete network.
Charlotte has a $13.5 billion plan to expand public transit and build more sidewalks, greenways and bike lanes. That would require federal and public money, but with Republican legislative leaders pushing for more spending on roads over transit, it's probably not going anywhere soon.