Paul Andersen: Challenging the tyranny of the car in Aspen

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Cars have been ruling American roadways ever since Henry Ford’s assembly line ramped up production in 1913. The rise of automobiles has been a long and storied play for power and dominance that has defined American culture, industry and the way we view life.

Americans in particular associate cars with their individual freedom, as if private, motorized mobility is more important than a deeper sense of spiritual freedom, as defined in the Constitution by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Those deeper values, however, are blurred today by the religion of materialism in which the automobile is divine and automakers are the high priests.

A welcome change is in the air, at least according to a recent article in The New York Times co-authored by Aspenite Hal Harvey. “Cars are ruining our cities” identifies the well-known urban ills of traffic jams, congestion and the fallacy that building more highways is always the answer.

“Three pathologies emerge,” the article states. “First, every car becomes the enemy of every other. The car you hate most is the one that’s right in front of you. As cars pile in, journey times and pollution rise.

“Second, after a certain point, more cars make the city a less congenial place for strollers, bicyclists and people who take public transit to their destinations. The cars push out frolicking kids, quiet afternoons reading on a bench and sidewalk cafes. So we give up our public space, our neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and ultimately our personal mobility for the next car, and the next one.

“And then there is the odd fact, counterintuitive as it is, that building more roads does not really cure congestion and can even make it worse. The problem is that as soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity. The phenomenon is so well understood that it has a name: induced traffic demand.”

Aspen is a case study of all three pathologies. Drivers fume while circling their cars in an automotive musical chairs where winners dodge into limited parking spaces downtown. The four-laning of Highway 82 has loaded more and more cars into Aspen where they queue up during rush hour on Main Street, often in gridlock, and then fill lanes with the stop-and-go slinky effect all the way to Glenwood Springs.

“The good news,” the article announces, “is that more and more cities are deciding to wrest control of their streets back from the tyranny of the automobile — and to put people, and other modes of transportation, on a par with the auto.”

It’s happening in London, where a “congestion charge” is being levied to discourage cars in the city core. That charge funds public transit and bike lanes.

It’s happening in Asia, where wannabe drivers pay in auctions as much as $13,000 for license plates or enter a lottery. This after a 60-mile traffic jam in 2011 that took 11 days to sort out.

“People who drive into a crowded city are imposing costs on others,” the article says. “They include not just reduced mobility for everyone and degraded public space, but serious health costs. Asthma attacks are set off by the tiny, invisible soot particles that cars emit.

“The bottom line is that the decision to turn our public streets so completely over to the automobile … nearly wrecked the quality of life in our cities.”

In Aspen, opportunity to free the city from auto dominance is knocking. Anyone can see that there are too many cars for a small, intimate city in the mountains. Anyone can see that alternatives are many.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses ply most city streets where city routes are free. The Aspen-Snowmass buses are free, and downvalley runs are efficient, relatively comfortable and usually on time.

The We-cycle bike program recently announced free bicycles for any use under half an hour. That’s plenty of time to run an errand around town or in the midvalley — without a car.

Thanks to taxpayer funding, we have free bikes and an excellent bus system as part of a community-wide effort to reduce car traffic, improve community and personal health and break free from auto tyranny.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at