Tuesday, August 20, 2013


In the state of Alaska there are 951,485 vehicles registered as of 2012. This includes cars, trucks, commercial vehicles, snowmachines, buses, and trailers. What that number does not include are boats, motorcycles, ATVs, or other vehicles that are not street-legal, but which inevitably are rode on road in this great state. Oh, and it doesn't include planes, either.

So, in a state that has a 2012 population of 731,449, we have enough vehicles for every man, woman, and child, and then some. I'm sure this is the same for any state in the union. Americans in general and Alaskans in particular love their vehicles.

I'm constantly reminded of this when I ride through my neighborhood and see that almost every house has at least three cars in the driveway, an ATV, a trailer, an RV, or motorcycle. In the driveway. Who knows what's in the garage.

And I'm coming to understand more and more why Alaskan's love their motor toys. There are simply some things that it is nearly impossible to do in this state without having a motor involved, places it is nearly impossible to go. ATV's and motors make it possible, even enjoyable, to travel into some backwoods areas.

We are a state that is spread out. Outside of the big towns here, it is often not realistic to walk or bike to the places we need to go. Heck, much of Palmer/Wasilla isn't really walkable or bikeable. This means that cars and trucks are very much a way of life here. And people still fetishize their vehicles here. We are a culture where your vehicle is as much a statement of who you are as it is a way to get from point A to point B. Alaska is, on so many levels, a big oil state of the top tier.

While driving in my Jeep the other day during a family outing up Archangel Road to pick berries, I listened to a brief story on NPR about the decline of car culture in the US and how so many young people look at the car as either a necessary evil or as an unnecessary luxury that they can do without and how the car companies are trying to combat this.

This has all gotten me thinking about things, thinking about when I was younger and how I interacted with cars.

I started dreaming about having a car of my own when I was twelve or thirteen. I had a cousin who was a year or two older and lived on a farm. He'd be driving since he was ten and I wanted to have that same type of freedom. I obsessed about cars, read all the magazines, had read the driver's license handbook multiple times, and taken all of the practice written exams. I was ready to get my learner's permit the day I turned fourteen.

My parents made it clear that that wouldn't happen, that I couldn't drive until I was sixteen and had taken driver's ed. So, I rode my skateboard everywhere and dreamed of cars.

My first car was a 1986 Nissan pickup truck. Two wheel drive, standard cab, vinyl interior, manual transmission. A basic vehicle, but in the end, mine. As soon as I got my license I got a job in Sioux Falls, about fifteen miles from the town where I lived, just to pay for gas. From that moment on, I was a slave to the wage and the gas pump. Essentially, I worked all through high school to pay for gas, insurance, and maintenance. Well, I'd still of had to have a job to have spending money and all, but the lion's share of my paycheck when into the car.

But I loved driving. To the point where I would often spend Friday nights driving around my town by myself, just cruising and listening to music. And even into my young adulthood, there were times where there was nothing better to my mind than driving in the country on a humid summer night with the threat of a thunderstorm in the distance.

But that was then and this is now. So, I have a 15 year old and a 13 year old and neither of them has yet started on the "I want to drive" thing. Does this serve as support for the claim that young people these days are not as interested in driving as they once were? I don't know. Maybe.

But in this land of multiple engines for every household, really piss-poor traffic planning, and the worst roads in the union, how do we get people to look at their cars differently? How do we move beyond the vehicle as personal identifier and into means to an end?

Maybe that's not the question we should ask, though. Maybe, as this story on NPR asked, we need to ask how do we get people to go car-lite? How can we make the idea of using alternate forms of transportation appealing and lessen the use of the car?

In Anchorage, as in many towns I guess, there is a summer commuter challenge - get people moving to and from work via bike, bus, or foot. And there is a growing segment of the population who takes part in this each year. Year over year it has grown, at least in the three years I've been doing it. The thing is, though, looking at the team rosters, many people sign up, but there is always a handful on each team who never record a single alternate transportation commute. Sure, they might just decide to not record their trips. But I think this speaks to something else.

We are creatures of habit and we become so entrenched in our standard daily routine that maybe those folks who don't try an alternate commute method simply don't see how they can do it, how they can get around without their own, personal car. How do we get those people motivated to at least try?

At my company we've tried a number of ways of doing this. We've offered some cool prizes for alternate commuters. We've had barbecues. We've tried a number of things and sometimes we get a few more people trying alternate transportation, but not everyone. And here's the thing, during the bike commuter challenge, the folks whom we are targeting are those who have self-identified as being interested in the challenge. Not those who have no intention or desire to try an alternate form of commuting. Not those who are wholly opposed to seeing bikes on the street. Not those for whom the bus is the epitome of loserville.

So if we cannot even motivate those who self-identify as being interested in alternate commuting to actually do it, how can we expect to get the vast majority of the populace to seriously think about it? These are the questions on my mind right now.

What are your thoughts? How do we get people to really think about how to go car-lite? Drop a line. Tomorrow I'll discuss some of the ideas I have about this.

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