Driven To Extinction

How transportation wonks can make your city rank.

Here’s an interesting ranking. For each major US city, the list-happy editors at Men’s Health calculated the negative effects of driving. They aggregated scores on transit ridership, air pollution, fuel consumption, and driving miles. (Presumably, the data are for metropolitan areas, not city limits.) Northwest cities do exceptionally well: Seattle ranks number one, Portland ranks third, and Spokane is eighth.

Men’s Health doesn’t appear to include a methodology on the web, but I’ll take a stab at the explanation. First, a minor point. Seattle and Portland benefit from a felicitous geographic situation: prevailing westerly winds tend to keep our air some of the cleanest in the country, so we do relatively well on air pollution scores. But second, and more importantly, the list illustrates that urban areas control their own destinies. Smart policy matters, even if it’s relatively small-caliber.

Little things add up: the Northwest leads in bus service, commute trip reduction programs, carpools, vanpools, parking cashouts, bicycle infrastructure, transit-oriented development, and other innovative strategies. And it’s here that next-generation tactics get their first airing: congestion pricing, pay-as-you-drive car insurance, and so on. These are not the kind of things that make their debut in Arlington, Texas—dead last in the rankings. 

If this sounds like stuff that transportation wonks dream up, that’s because it is. (And that’s probably a good thing.) When it comes to transportation, Northwest cities don’t have much that’s big-ticket and flashy. So while there aren’t many ribbon-cutting ceremonies or photo-ops for politicians, it’s still true that a hundred good ideas, implemented locally, can add up to an emerging success story.

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