Pass ebike legislation, reward car-lite living

Once a person buys a vehicle, it's very hard to convince them to give it up

THE STATE Legislature and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation  need to keep their eye on the real transportation goal for the state – maintaining and increasing the number of people and households that are living car-independent lives – as we sort through the T’s long-predicted crisis, The state’s economy, the people’s daily welfare, and the world’s climate depend on it.

At least one T rider intends to start commuting by bike, as announced to a Boston Globe reporter. That is the best case substitution for bad transit frequency. The worst case is people buying cars. With that switch comes more congestion, worse air quality, more traffic injuries and fatalities, and more low-income car-burdened households forced to spend 30-plus percent of their budget on a car, instead of on food, housing, health, or child care.

Once a person buys a car, it is really hard to get them to go back to being car-less. I know, because I founded and ran Zipcar for years. I’ve also talked to cities that struggle for years and at great expense to shift residents from cars to transit, celebrating just a few percentage points of mode shift.

Boston is at enormous risk of this becoming our future too: a long expensive slog to get back to what we once had, an imperfect but dependable transit system allowing as many as one-third of metro households to live without a car. Instead, we’ll become a metro-region where those who can’t afford a car and those without a drivers license –  schoolchildren, essential workers, the elderly – are forced into punishing commutes or just not going at all. Not only should we not forget about them, we should remember that this “subset” is close to half the population.

Others, more qualified than I, have weighed in on how to get the T back to decent service by September, and then begin to make the long-overdue system maintenance and staffing improvements. I argue for the state to start tracking and prioritizing a larger system shift, car-independence. In the immediate term, the state Legislature must pass pending legislation that classifies electric bikes as bicycles, and subsidizes electric bikes, especially for low-income households. Why would anyone vote against this?!

Electric bikes are the cheapest,  most space-efficient, and most accommodating (no drivers license or special athletic powers required) way to get around. They also deliver the greatest CO2 reduction per government dollar spent on vehicle subsidies. Ebikes (and bikes) also provide reliable mobility to workers getting to or from late night and early morning shifts, and giving older students the ability to get to school and activities themselves.

If we are going to keep metro-Boston a desirable place to live, work, and play, we must focus on, prioritize, budget for, and reward enabling car-lite living. This means that all the other ways of getting around – walking, biking, transit – are considered as complementary and not competing services. There is more to say about how zoning and development patterns are critical elements too.

But for this piece, there are actions to be taken today – pass the bike legislation, fund the MBTA, plan for improved walk and bike infrastructure to be built with the impending federal infrastructure dollars.

Robin Chase was co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and served on the MassDOT Board.