Working on the “driving” part of the “drinking and driving” equation

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, June 24, 2010 22:38 EDT
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Matt Y. and Atrios both commented today on one of the most ludicrous examples of how car-centric culture and laws are out of control—mandatory bar-parking. For instance, Long Beach, CA requires 20 parking spaces for every 1,000 sq. ft. of tavern floor. Unless you’re a complete Pollyanna, there is no doubt that the more that people use cars to get to and from bars, the more drunk driving there will be.


[A]nyone who drives and drinks, no matter how well-intentioned, is at least occasionally going to drive after drinking more than they should.


Obviously it’s possible to go to a tavern, not consume alcohol, and drive home safely. I’ve even served as a designated driver in my day. But in general, public safety demands a very low ratio of “people driving home from the bar” to “customers drinking at the bar” so there’s clearly something absurd about the idea of regulating bar-related land use so as to encourage and facilitate extra driving.

And of course beyond the specific case of mandatory bar-parking, it’s always worth emphasizing that part of the cost of an auto-dependent built environment is to massively increase the number of people on the road who’ve got at least a drink or two under their belt.

The fetish for “personal responsibility” that supersedes any attempt to write policies that actually encourage better choice-making is particularly irritating when it comes to straight up public safety considerations like reducing drunk driving. It’s just not enough to tell people not to drink and drive, and then make it difficult for them to drink without driving. Wagging your finger and telling people not to drink will, like Atrios noted, get you to a certain point, but after that, good luck. There will always be a whole bunch of people on any given night and especially on the weekends who have their reasons to be at the bar drinking. And while a lot of them are too overconfident, belligerent, or wingnutty (or all three) to take seriously the dangers of drinking and driving, a lot of people drink and drive when they’d take the drink and use public transportation option if it was available to them. I’ve always thought that reducing drinking and driving should be a centerpiece in trying to find ways to make cities less car-centric.

The project of reducing how much I drove in Austin, coupled with my now living completely car free in New York, has really caused me to think about the various things that encourage driving over walking and using public transportation. Obviously, most of it is that there’s no infrastructure to make going car-free or at least not driving possible—stuff really is too far away. But I also noticed a lot how the culture of driving everywhere causes people to hop in their car mindlessly and drive to places that are totally walkable. Things like mandatory bar parking just reinforce this notion. Even just a few places in a neighborhood that don’t have parking and subsist on foot traffic can help create a culture where people think of doing things like walking to the bar. I’ve noticed that once people start walking here and there a few times, the habit kicks in and they start doing it more and more. Certainly, the commitment we made in Austin to walk to places if at all possible made the transition to New York a whole lot easier.

Now, this only works in terms of stuff that really is walkable, and in most places in the U.S., that’s not much. But a lot of bars exist strictly to be neighborhood bars, and I’ll bet in many of these cases, 80% of their customers live within a mile. In fact, I think a lot of people drink close to home to minimize the amount of time they spend behind the wheel. They could easily be nudged into reducing that time to zero minutes, if they start to think of bars as places you walk to instead of drive to.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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