Is it so wrong to offer a safe alternative?
I’ve been saying this for years, and I’m glad that it’s finally catching on as part of the argument for why the federal government should make a huge investment in making American cities more walkable—they reduce drunk driving. Drinking is right up there with butt sex in topics that policy-oriented people don’t like to talk about, because talking about makes people think that maybe you do it, and god forbid people think that, because then you won’t be considered a serious person anymore. I don’t think the taboo that’s grown up around it is such a good thing, though, because it does create these situations where people hypocritically avoid talking about realistic ways to push for more responsible drinking, and teetotaler groups like MADD dominate the conversation. And since their solutions are all punishment oriented, I think there’s a limit to how much good they can do. Stiff fines for drunk driving work up until a point, but if you don’t offer people a realistic alternative, you’re still going to have a whole lot of people playing the odds that they won’t get caught, and thus a whole lot of drunk drivers who are risking accidents.
Austin on the whole isn’t a walkable city, but central Austin is pretty good, with lots of buses and cabs downtown, and so I’m never even remotely tempted to get behind a wheel if I go downtown and drink. Bus downtown, cab back, because sadly, unless you go home before 11 PM, you can’t take the bus back, at least to my neighborhood. They’re smart enough to have late night buses running from downtown to neighborhoods that have the highest concentration of college students. Which is smart, because a lot of college kids who don’t want to spring $10 for a cab back will drive downtown just so that they have a car to drive back with. Yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m aware that if they have money for booze, they should have money for a cab, but I suspect that grousing and scolding isn’t going to change this calculation any time soon, so it’s time for us to work with the kids that we’ve got instead of the ones that we want.
Of course, I suspect the late night buses aren’t being used as much as they should be, but a large part of the reason why is the mental block of growing up in a car culture. Making it easy on people is only half the battle. The other half if getting people to realize how easy it is, which sometimes feels like an insurmountable problem. (One effective strategy I’ve found on a person to person basis is wait until someone is circling around looking for a parking space, and point out that if you’d taken the bus, you wouldn’t have this problem.) For some reason, this is why I think trains are more successful than buses in converting people over to public transport. Trains just seem to be easier for most people to grasp, probably because they go so fast and they come by more regularly, so you feel like you have more control, even if that is an illusion.
Maybe one thing cities could do is invest more money into public awareness campaigns that openly link avoiding drunk driving and using public transportation. Like side by side pictures of one individual either riding the bus or getting ticketed for drunk driving and some language about how you have a choice. It doesn’t have to be clever or anything. Direct seems to be the best bet, actually. I can’t for the life of me figure out why this sort of thing isn’t happening, or isn’t common if it is. Is it the same taboo issue? Are we afraid to show images of drunk people making sensible choices and arriving safely at home, unpunished for their drinking? I fear that may be the problem. Even though we know for a fact that needle exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV, for instance, it’s nearly impossible to get such programs off the ground because it violates the taboo against talking about these things in any way outside of absolute condemnation. Perhaps encouraging people to make responsible choices while they indulge in drinking is considered some kind of “permission” to drink. My attitude is that it’s obvious that people are going to drink whether they have some sort of official permission or not, and it’s time we ask ourselves if we’re willing to do what it takes to make sure that negative effects are minimized.