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Mobility Justice

What We Can Learn From the 30 Percent of Americans Who Can’t Drive

...and why even that number is likely an undercount.

Most American communities don’t even bother to count what percentage of the population can't drive. In the handful of states that have tried, though, the answer has been around 30 percent – which is just enough to create a real movement for change, if we'd all just band together 

On today’s episode of The Brake, we're presenting an extended audio version of our conversation with author Anna Zivarts, who has been quietly building that movement of non-drivers through her work with groups like Disability Rights Washington and America Walks. And in her new book, "When Driving is Not an Option: Steering Away From Car Dependency," Zivarts outlines what you can do right now to to center the needs of people who are the least well-served by our auto-dominated transportation system — and how that shift would benefit even those who are able and willing to spend much of their lives behind the wheel.

Here's a partial excerpt of this conversation:

Streetsblog: Let’s just start with the genesis of this project. How did you decide to write “When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away From Car Dependency,” and, broadly speaking, what's it about?

Anna Zivarts: I came to this work, first of all, through my own personal experience as someone born with a condition that reduces my vision, so I don't see well enough to drive. Growing up in a semi-rural area in the exurbs of Washington State, I didn't know adults who didn't drive — and I just couldn't picture a life for myself as an adult without driving. I tried as a teenager to drive; that didn't go well. I tried to take the vision test couldn't pass it. 

And so I moved away from Washington State to New York City. It was a chance for me to experience what it would be like to live somewhere where my disability wasn't such a barrier, and that was wonderful. But then when I had a kid, I really wanted to be closer to my folks and closer to my in-laws [where I would] have that support. So I moved back to Washington State and took a job for Disability Rights Washington. 

Through that job, I started meeting lots of other folks who couldn't drive, and I realized that I wasn't alone. I started really trying to figure out: how many other people are there out there who can't drive? How many people with disabilities? How many people who can't afford cars? If we talk about young folks, or folks who have their licenses suspended, and folks who are undocumented, and folks who are aging out of driving — how many of us are there? 

That really was the genesis of this book; both trying to figure out a number, but then also, to help people understand some of the stories of the [non-drivers] whom I was meeting through my work. [I wanted to explore] the reasons they couldn't drive, the ways they were navigating the world, and some of the difficult choices they had to make — or choices they couldn't make, because so much of our country is so car dependent.

Streetsblog: Since the title of the book is “When Driving is Not an Option,” I wondered — do you include people who don't drive by choice under the “non-drivers” umbrella? I mean people who have enough money to drive, and they have the ability to do it physically, cognitively, or legally, but for moral, political, or personal reasons, they decide it's not for them. Why is it important to center the needs for of people who for whom not driving really isn't a choice? 

Zivrarts:  There definitely are lots of folks in our communities who choose not to drive — increasingly younger folks, which I think is really exciting and encouraging. But so often in advocacy spaces around biking and walking infrastructure, and even transit advocacy in larger cities, the folks who have the time and the resources and the energy and the skills, and feel comfortable in those spaces are folks who are non-drivers by choice. And then their perspectives end up dominating these conversations. 

Often, [non-drivers by choice] can be aligned with people who are not driving because they don't have options — but not always. And I think we lose some of the knowledge of non-drivers who are doing it because they don't have other options, when choice non-drivers are, filling that those spaces, [and when they’re] seen as representative of all non-drivers. They’re definitely part of the broad coalition of non-drivers that we need to push for change in our communities. But we also need understand and have the awareness to reflect on the privilege of that choice, versus people who don't have that choice.

Streetsblog: When some folks think about non-drivers — and particularly the non-drivers with disabilities — they think that these folks could just get a ride with someone who can drive, either on paratransit, taxi or just with a friend. Your book had one of the best descriptions of why that doesn't quite work that I’ve ever read; could you just kind of walk me through it?

Zivarts: Well, to start, paratransit is great  — where it exists. But it only exists where we have transit systems. In a lot of rural areas, paratransit just doesn't exist [at all].

And then there's the whole scheduling piece. … Even with newer technology, [paratransit] is not fully on demand. You have to schedule it a day in advance, usually, sometimes more, especially if you're transferring between different counties and different systems. That can get really complicated — just qualifying can get really complicated. And then, say, your needs change; say your appointment finished early. You're kind of stuck.

And then [there’s] Uber and Lyft and other ride rail. Many people who have the resources to afford those systems and don't need wheelchair accessible vehicles — because [app taxis are generally] not wheelchair accessible — and they would prefer to use those then paratransit. But that cost has gone up a lot lately, because it was artificially low for a long time. And then in more rural areas, and especially during the pandemic, we saw  a lot of those services just disappear. … And there's no public accountability there when people start to rely on it.

But at the end of the day, people rely on most often on informal networks of friends and family for rides, or more formalized volunteer drivers, or medical transport systems when you're outside of where paratransit can serve or it's not meeting your needs. But [then] your choices about where you want to go at any given point in time have to be validated by someone else to get that ride. They're evaluated for whether that's a valuable use of their time — not just your time. That's a barrier, and a lot of people feel a lot of angst about it; it's hard to ask other people every time you want to go somewhere, to get that sort of permission. 

Streetsblog: At the same time, you talk in the book about how urbanist ideas like the 15-minute city aren’t a silver bullet either, because it doesn’t actually take everyone the same amount of time to travel the same distance, even if you increase the proximity of destinations in their neighborhoods. Are there other examples of ways that the dominant urbanist conversation could do better at recognizing those kinds of blind spots around the full diversity of non drivers and their needs? 

Zivarts: I can only speak from my own experience and some of the experiences of folks who I've interviewed. … [That’s why] I think, ultimately, that having other voices in rooms is so important, [especially] voices that normally don't get to be there. But one other example that comes to mind is conversations around bus rapid transit and bus stop consolidation. The convenience [of] slightly faster travel times versus what it means to people when they no longer can get to a stop because it's too far away for them to move, or because of the speed at which they move — I don't think we weigh that enough. I think there's so much emphasis on efficiency in many of our systems; the piece that’s often overlooked [is] thinking about things from more of a disability perspective, and focusing instead in prioritizing inclusion [and] access. 

Streetsblog: Playing Devil's advocate: I think there's some people who are hearing this, and saying, "Well, I understand the struggle that non drivers face. But why is transportation reform the lever we need to pull here? If people can't drive because they're poor, we just need to increase their wages or make cars cheaper; if they're immigrants, and that's why they can't drive, we need to reform immigration policy; if they're disabled, we need to modify vehicle designs to get them to work for them, or speed up that autonomous car situation." Why is ending car dependency the fundamental thing for you, when car dependency is knotted up all these other societal problems? What do you say to people who think, "Shouldn’t we solve all those other problems first?"

Zivarts: We [do] need to address poverty; we need to address immigration reform; we need to address policing practices that make communities of color end up with more fines and fees and tickets, [which then] results in more suspended licenses; all of those things need to be reformed. But at the end of the day, there are going to be folks who still can't drive and can't afford to drive — and there are still going to be a lot of us.

There are many [people] who just aren't [ever] going to have that option to buy into car mobility — whether it's because we have a disability where it's just not safe to be able to drive, or because we're aging out of driving. Or young folks; a big chunk non-drivers are actually folks who are under the age of 16. And young folks are sort of promised, "Okay, well, when you're older, you'll have this freedom and this mobility." But it doesn't have to be like that. Younger folks can have mobility and freedom before they turn 16. And they [already] do in many places with great transit, and safe biking and walking infrastructure.

And then there's the flip side to the question: how much is car dependency really serving everyone else? At the end of the day, when we think about how much vehicles cost, the environmental costs, the climate costs, the public health costs of your air and noise pollution, the public health costs of crashes —  these are all significant. Perhaps we'd all be better off if we start to think about transitioning away from car dependency? It's not going to happen overnight; there's a whole economy built around the way we've designed our communities, and around the auto industry. But how do we start to make changes and transition to something that doesn't have such high costs, and doesn't exclude so many people?

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