Invest in smarter communities

This op-ed originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was co-authored by Grant Ervin, Western Pennsylvania director of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania.

How are we going to deal with gas prices? Pennsylvanians are paying about $3.70 per gallon and a recent Rasmussen Poll found that 72 percent of Americans think gas might cost $5 per gallon before long.

High gas prices depress other sectors of the economy, push up the cost of food and shake consumer confidence. This isn’t a new problem; it is one we faced as recently as 2008 and at various times since the 1970s. Will we finally demand real solutions?

It is time to get off the gas-price roller coaster. Calls for domestic drilling and other quick fixes to increase supply have dominated the conversation, but we know that ever-increasing global consumption of oil will quickly outstrip our capacity and continue to drive up prices. Alternative fuels have a long way to go. Real, long-term solutions must address our individual and national dependence on finite fossil fuels, which means we need to invest in infrastructure that gives communities better transportation choices.

AAA estimates the cost of owning and operating a car this year at $8,776. The average American household is now spending approximately 20 percent of its after-tax income on transportation. It would be a logical time for budget-conscious households to turn to public transportation, but here in Allegheny County, the Port Authority just cut service hours by 15 percent and many routes are overcrowded.

Addressing the demand side of the gas-price equation and the impact on our wallets requires a physical transformation. The long-term solution requires investing in neighborhoods where walking, biking and public transportation are safe, affordable and convenient. To achieve this, we need leaders to stand up and make transportation a priority.

Several transformative projects in the Pittsburgh region are great examples of the type of infrastructure investments we need to move forward.

Recent improvements to Market Square create a better central gathering spot and walkable area for Downtown residents and workers, giving them easier access to restaurants and stores.

In East Liberty, the reestablishment of the old street grid is leading to a resurgence in commercial and residential investment, giving consumers easy access to goods and services.

Local universities such as Point Park, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon are improving their campuses to make it easier for students and employees to get around. Point Park’s Academic Village project will soon transform the cavernous Boulevard of the Allies and Wood Street area into a hub of activity.

And don’t forget that our growing network of trails and safety improvements to our roads are making it easier for people to bike around town.

All of these local examples and a growing list of others throughout the region demonstrate three things: There is a growing demand for places where we can meet many of our daily needs on foot or by bike; investing in existing infrastructure can allow us to meet our needs at relatively low cost; and while we cannot control the cost of oil, we already have some tools to increase our transportation options.

Whether we can continue to effectively deploy these tools is a question for our federal, state and local leaders. Will they make infrastructure investments that use our resources more efficiently, reduce household costs and build better communities? Or will our families and businesses be left to find their own ways through the crises ahead?

Invest in smarter communities: We need more places built for walking and biking [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/14/2011]