• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Thinking about motion

Travel around campus creates a teachable moment.

February 3, 2015

One of my projects at Greenback U is the creation of a viable bicycle sharing system.  We already provide students, faculty and staff with free shuttle service around campus, free ridership on bus routes near campus, car-sharing (short-term rental) options, and a ride-matching system to promote carpooling.  And, of course, a lot of our students already  bring bikes to campus.  But every additional emission-free transportation choice is still a win in terms of bringing down Greenback's greenhouse gas inventory.  And every additional opportunity for students to experience a sharing economy is a win in even larger terms.

So my mind was already somewhat in the "low-cost, low-emissions transportation" space last week, when I happened to hear parts of two related -- and very different -- pieces on NPR.  The first had to do with an organization in Sweden that actively encourages people to evade paying fares on public transit.  Promoting the ideal that the best way to get folks out of their cars is to provide a free alternative, Planka.nu (for those of you who speak Swedish) pools monthly membership dues and pays members' fines if they're caught evading fares.  It's collective action, it's certainly non-violent, and it expresses a certain sensibility about how societies can best address the needs of low-income workers (and others) to commute daily in support of economic and other activity.

A very different sensibility was on display later, when Diane Rehm hosted an hour-long discussion of how subprime auto loans were  becoming both more common and (arguably) more abusive.  Proponents of the loans argued that they provided a means for low-income (less than optimally credit-worthy) people to obtain transportation in support of economic and other activity.  Opponents pointed out that the interest rates charged were far above what actual credit risk would justify, that perverse incentives pervade the system by which these loans are created and sold, and that the market in auto loans and the securities created from them was beginning to resemble the market in subprime mortgages that triggered the recession of 2008. 

Once our students graduate, their access to free transit will probably evaporate.  With luck, they won't have to settle for a subprime auto loan -- most car manufacturers offer incentives to recent college grads in hope of building life-long customer relationships.  So perhaps the specifics of the two discussions aren't directly relevant to current Greenback students.  But juxtaposing the two situations can create a learning opportunity.  Why is it that Swedes can promote free public transit with a straight face (and some Estonians actually live with it every day), while the very proposal would seem ludicrous here in the USA?  Why are we, in this country, so comfortable with requiring folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder to take on financial risk merely to maintain their current positions much less aspire to possible advancement?  (Lack of reliable transportation is one of the biggest impediments to steady employment, much less advancement.)  Is it significant that the Swedish focus is on public transit while the American focus is on individual mobility?  What social and demographic and historical patterns might underlie this difference?  Which putative means of providing affordable transportation is better for the individual?  For society?  For the planet?  How?  Why?

Transportation topics are easily introduced into engineering, business and social science courses.  But a learning opportunity may exist outside the classroom, for students of all disciplines.  It may, that is, if I can get this fool bicycle sharing system to critical mass and then help students be more conscious of transportation needs and options, and of the patterns that underlie them.


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