Car-less In Memphis 

America's love affair with the automobile is being reexamined by urban experts.

I sold my car last week, choosing to rely on public transportation and my bicycle. To show support for my decision, the man at the bike shop gave me a pair of black socks emblazoned with the motto "carsrcoffins.com."

The Web site is one of a growing number of voices criticizing America's love affair with the automobile. Cars kill 40,000 Americans every year in accidents, cause pollution, and lead to urban sprawl and a reliance on foreign oil.

Public transportation, carpooling, and cycling can alleviate many of these problems, but in Memphis, where a recent study found 91.8 percent of work trips are made by automobile, changing transportation habits won't be easy.

Our reliance on cars is a significant factor in Memphis' air pollution problem, says Carter Gray, an administrator of regional services for the Department of Planning and Development. The city has been ranked in the top 12 of the nation's worst air by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and seven times last summer the health department warned Memphians to stay indoors to avoid dangerous ozone levels.

Ozone is created when automobile exhaust is heated by the sun. It can lead to inflammation of the lungs, asthma, and a host of other chronic health problems. New federal ozone regulations are set to take effect in the next few years. At its current emission levels, Memphis wouldn't meet the new health regulations, Gray says.

"We have to meet this higher standard and money doesn't enter into the picture," Gray says, "because the Clean Air Act says we have to use an absolute scientific standard rather than cost to set the requirements. It's like the American Lung Association says: 'Breathing is not optional.'"

Since cars contribute about 25 percent of atmospheric ozone -- along with 180 other air toxins, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter -- the federal government is looking to public transportation to help reduce the number of cars on the road. The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) has received federal money to increase the efficiency of its bus system and lengthen downtown trolley lines into the medical district.

I wanted to attend a meeting on a planned Memphis light-rail system, so I called MATA (274-MATA) for bus information and learned that a bus heading downtown passes a stop near my house in Vollintine-Evergreen about every 20 minutes. Right on time, a bus cut through the haze of auto exhaust. It took about half an hour to reach Central Station. The cost was $1.50.

"As old and as disabled as I am, public transportation is the best way to get around," says sculptor Luther Hampton. He says the buses run on time and the drivers are helpful and friendly.

Tom Fox, MATA director of planning and capital improvements, says for the last six months MATA has been less than five minutes late for 97 to 98 percent of its stops.

Fox says MATA plans to have a light-rail system up and running in about 20 years. The preliminary plan would consist of three loops: north, serving downtown, north Memphis, Frayser, and Millington; southeast, serving downtown, Midtown, East Memphis, Germantown, and Collierville; and south, serving downtown, South Memphis, Whitehaven, Horn Lake, and Southaven.

Specific routes and technologies are being studied with local funds, Fox says, but the federal government's transportation budget should provide about 80 percent of the project's cost. Fox says only about 20 percent of the federal transportation budget goes to public transportation but the percentage is increasing every year. Fox says MATA is also working on suburban transit centers and mini-bus stations in the city's outlying areas, which are designed to make routing more efficient.

"There is more and more interest in public transit as it becomes more difficult and costly to build roads," Fox says.

Another alternative to an automobile is carpooling. The Memphis Area Ride Share program (379-7840) hooks up commuters to help reduce the number of cars on the highway. The service costs from $45 to $70 per month, depending on the route.

Denny Henke has another idea, and it wouldn't cost millions or take 20 years to implement. Henke would like to see the city treat bicycles as a serious transportation option. The city has no bike lanes and few businesses provide racks where bikes can be parked.

"Central Avenue has an extra shoulder and it wouldn't take much to paint in a bike lane if the desire was there," Henke says. "There is no education for bikers or cars. I see bikers riding against traffic and that's not the way to do it."

Increasing infrastructure costs, higher pollution rates, and wasted commuting time are waking some Americans up to the problems of car-based cities, says David Ciscel, a University of Memphis professor and urban-sprawl researcher.

Urban sprawl began in the 1950s with the creation of suburbs accessible only by automobile, Ciscel says. In the 1990s, low energy prices and general prosperity compounded the problem. In Memphis, as the city grew geographically the population remained fairly constant. In a recent study, Ciscel found 91.8 percent of Memphians use a car to get to work. Suburban dwellers commute into town for white-collar jobs while city dwellers travel to the suburbs for service jobs.

"'New urbanism' is a way of thinking that calls for integrated living," Ciscel says. "Which means having housing, work, and commercial destinations all within a short distance, so we can get away from the automobile. It took us half a century to create this problem and it will probably take just as long to fix it."

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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