Last night I watched “The Amazing Mrs. Prichard,” a British television series about a grocery store manager who become prime minister of the UK because of that longing many of us have for our leaders to use common-sense governance.
As one might expect, much of the drama comes from home-grown logic colliding headlong with the complexities of how things work in the developed world.
In this episode, Mrs. Prichard is frustrated that a G-8 Summit (eight leaders of the world’s economic powers) has come up with nothing concrete to deal with global warming. So after insulting the U.S. president, she proposes her own stab at the problem: On every Wednesday, no one in Britian drives.
I’ve actually seen this happen in a developed country. On Yom Kippur in Israel, 5.5 million citizens forgo driving. There is no traffic, and children ride their bicycles on the freeways. Exceptions are made for ambulances, and even those are famously attacked in Ultraorthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I got to see this first-hand when my wife ran out of gas on the eve of the holiday and parked our company car on the side of a freeway some 15 miles from where we lived.
But hardly anybody works that day either. The fictional Mrs. Prichard asks all citizens to take public transit (carpooling isn’t mentioned in the story), much to the dismay of some of her more realistic ministers.
Argues one, the system of public transport just won’t carry the weight of all those people who normally drive on Wednesdays. I won’t spoil the surprise outcome, but remember this the story is set in Britian, not California.
The story got me to thinking: What if we determined that such drastic action were required? Could our system handle it?
The no-duh answer for most people would be, simply, no. This nation, state and region are built upon personal vehicles as the primary mode of local travel.
A few others might soften their pessimism by pointing out that the fiery collapse April 29 of a ramp on the MacArthur Maze, feeding Bay Bridge traffic eastward, proved that Bay Area commuters can make big changes and avert disaster.
I was among those who believed that commuters would not rise to the occasion. I was wrong. There was no massive gridlock problem, and people rode BART in record numbers. The Friday the Bay Bridge was shut down for 3 1/2 days on Labor Day weekend set another all-time ridership record, as people who didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the bridge switched to public transit.
But in both cases, the seemingly miraculous disaster-averting transformation was quite small. All you had to do was drive to work on this Veteran’s Day observed and see what a small decrease in driving does to improve traffic. When 10 or 20 percent of commuters decide not to drive, it can make a huge difference in congestion.
For one thing, freer-flowing traffic means many more vehicles get through much faster. That little bit of traffic that tips the scales in favor of stop-and-go reduces the capacity of a freeway network by many more times that marginal number of vehilces represents.
So when we had a ramp down, and even the Bay Bridge closed, we only needed a little relief to avert disaster. Making everyone stay home or use public transit is another matter.
Many of our transit systems, especially the big ones, are already hard-pressed to handle the ridership that they already have. Moving just solo drivers — who represent 70 percent of Bay Area commuters — to transit would mean increasing ridership by a factor of seven. We simply don’t have six more BART systems, six more Munis or AC Transits.
To many people, this is just an academic, or even whimsical discussion. People are going to drive their cars and that’s just the way it is. You can nibble around the edges, but there is neither the need for or the possibility of taking all those cars off the road.
But there are two things going on right now that I belive militate for considering Mrs. Prichard’s challenge: What do we do with all of these commuters if they give up driving?
The lesser of these things is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s new crusade to promote at aggressive regime of charging solo motorists up to five times what it currently costs them per mile to operate their vehicles. The commission, local governments and even the Bush Administration, are seriously looking at congestion charges for entering busy areas during rush hour, parking surcharges and even a new local gas tax.
These would combine to put the screws to motorists and raise money to improve our transportation network or simply fleece commuters, in the eyes of some critics. Transportation officials believe they might be able to sell some of this to the electorate as a way to fight global warming.
While a lot of work goes into that effort, it pales in significance to the other factor that’s going to make people ask how they, too, can fit onto our buses, trains and ferries.
That’s the very likely reality of $4-a-gallon gas, not just during price spikes, but all the time, with even higher spikes. Oil is close to $100 a barrel, which is a third again what it’s been for most of 2007. So far, we’ve not seen the worst of this phenomenon, but when we do a lot of people will start looking for other ways to get to work. People will still drive their cars to get their groceries and take weekend trips, but regular commute travel will reach a tipping point for the average Bay Area resident.
By this time next year, unless the Iraq war is ended and we open an embassy in Tehran, the train I try to ride every day to work won’t have extra seats to spread out on during rush hour. BART will be bursting at the seams and transit agencies will be struggling to operate more buses on their transbay and cross-suburb routes.
There is one bright spot in all this: Carpools. People who live out in the suburbs where public transit just isn’t that workable will start carpooling in droves. People will start quizzing their neighbors about where they work and making deals to halve their gasoline tab.
Once all of this comes to pass in my little made-for-TV movie, something like Mrs. Prichard’s solution won’t seem so draconian. Back during the 1973 oil crisis, I used to babysit my dad’s car in line at the gas station while he got ready for work, because you could only buy gas on odd or even days, depending upon the last number of your license plate.
In two days, I’ve waited in line twice to buy gas — not because of rationing or a shortage — but because of motorists swarming stations with the cheapest prices.
If things get really tight, we might return to rationing as a way of reducing our nation’s huge appetite for oil. We could accomplish the same thing, however, by instituting an odd-even driving prohibition. Not only wouldn’t we be able to buy gas every other day, but we’d stop using it half the time, too.