My Turn: It's time for a transportation experiment

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

The most dangerous thing most of us ever do is drive an automobile on the public roads. The danger comes from the race-car speeds and maneuvers we permit and practice.

Our inclination is to blame other people and other factors for the appalling damage, injury and death rates Juneau people have to deal with.

Four methods have been relied on to try and stem this mayhem: 1) buy safer cars, 2) build safer roads, 3) write more regulations, 4) exclude more drivers for perceived incompetence. About one-third of adults are excluded now.

Accidents do not decline because better cars and roads translate into higher speeds. More regulations and the exclusion of the young, the old and the perceived incompetent do not address the reckless speed problem.

We are told that the rates of death and destruction on other parts of our road system are within "acceptable levels." They are not acceptable to many of us.

The Assembly needs to adopt a no-accident policy.

Things the Assembly could do to implement a no-accident policy include:

1) Adopt and enforce a maximum 45 mph speed limit. This is the strategy of the multinational oil companies at Prudhoe Bay that have a no-accident policy. If accident rates fail to decline, then the maximum speed limit should be reduced to 35 mph, which is the maximum speed limit on our major military bases where they have a no-accident policy.

2) Make it easier for people to get around without a car by demanding that any road rebuilding and any new roads built with public funds include sidewalks and bicycle lanes. No excuses accepted. Cities all over America are finding that such efforts to become "pedestrian friendly" reduce urban decay and enhance the tax base.

3) A no-accident policy will require reducing the number of cars on the roads by providing practical and enticing alternatives. The Assembly needs to arrange for a public transit system study to be done by a public transit system specialist. There are numerous transportation systems that do reduce personal injuries of the traveling public while also reducing the need, expense and congestion of ever more automobiles. I like the Personal Rapid Transportation system (PRT) in Morgantown, W.Va., a town that is smaller than Juneau, has a large number of transients and is confined to a narrow river valley between steep hills. Their PRT is a sort of horizontal elevator where small, driverless, electric cars connect three college campuses with the city center. Largely elevated, the PRT does not interfere with any of the existing infrastructure of the city's historic old town. Most appealing, the stations are off the main line so when you punch in a destination your car does not make any intermediate stops. The system has carried some 55 million passengers over a 25-year period, without a single passenger injury. How many injuries do we expect from 55 million trips on Egan Drive? A Morgantown-style PRT here could reduce the trauma associated with accidents and reduce the problems of the growing number of those unable or not allowed to drive. It could also reduce personal transportation costs for residents, improve the experience for tourists, most of whom arrive here without a car, and enhance the statewide and national image of Alaska's capital city.

A no-accident policy would be within the scope of the mission statement of our recently approved Area Wide Transportation Plan.

A no-accident policy could put Juneau at the forefront of the transportation innovation the country will need as the U.S. population doubles in the next few decades. We have a congressional delegation in the right place to help. That's what Morgantown had when their senator, Robert Byrd, decided to design a prototype for the future.

Juneau is in the right place at the right time for a grand transportation experiment, if we just have the nerve to ask for it. Lives can be saved.

Jim King Sr. has been a resident of Juneau for 38 years.

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