Mormons and Public Transportation

Recently an article in the Salt Lake Tribune raised the timely question, Is air pollution a moral issue? In it faith leaders from a variety of communities in Utah answered the question from their particular perspective.

This is what the LDS church said:

“While LDS Church leaders have not spoken specifically to issues of air quality in Utah, the church teaches that all humankind are stewards over the Earth and should gratefully use what God has given, avoid wasting life and resources and use the bounty of the Earth to care for the poor and the needy.”

I stand firmly behind this statement. It isn’t an easy thing to understand how to apply it in particular circumstances, but it would seem to me that we ought to be able to identify in LDS culture a strong commitment to life practices that reduce air pollution. I say this because we know that air pollution is bad for the heart and for the lungs. Inverted air in Utah is so polluted that living here is the equivalent of being a lifetime smoker. And it seems we are against that. Indeed, it is especially dangerous to young children and to the elderly—the most vulnerable among us. In addition to these important public health risks, we all know that car-dependency is an inherently risky lifestyle. It creates economic risks as we spend an enormous amount of our money and time maintaining the machines that transport us. It presents significant risks to our physical safety, leading to close to 35,000 deaths a year in our country (even though it is such a normal way of life that these deaths are more often considered acts of God than as the natural result of the risks we ourselves assumed when we made ourselves dependent on the car). It presents risk to the environment, not just through direct air pollution, which is as bad for plant and animal life as it is for us, but it increases noise pollution, paves up land, and it creates emissions that endanger the ozone, the climate, and watersheds. Cars kill twice as many animals a year (almost 400 million) than hunters do. Average car trips per day increase in suburban communities where public transportation is either unavailable or inefficient and unreliable. With increased frequency of short car trip there is an increase in the risk of accident, in the risk of heart and lung disease and in the risk of obesity. The automobile is an inherently anti-social, anti-body, and anti-environment machine, separating us from our neighbors and from our environment that we might otherwise have a chance to get to know by walking and traveling with others where we live and work. The car isn’t good for children, for communities, or for the environment, but we all know that its selling point is its convenience.

This is why there is such an urgent need to make public transportation more convenient. When it is more convenient, transportation makes travel safer, easier on the pocketbook, better for our air quality, and better for our safety and health. Given this and given our doctrines of stewardship, you might expect that LDS communities would be clamoring for the chance to get more public transportation. And that’s not to mention the Mormon thirst for meeting and talking to strangers about the gospel. Missionary work comes to a virtual stand still in communities utterly dependent on the car where homes are more distant and people can only be seen whizzing by behind closed windows and in controlled climates in their individual transport machine. We like the meet strangers, to welcome them into our lives. Or so you would have thought.

Our enemy is suburban growth. As suburbia grows, it replicates over and over again a way of life that is, in the long run, unsustainable. We expect to be able to all live in large homes spread out across sufficient area to have space to ourselves, to be able to enjoy privacy and separation from the masses. It has almost become an expected American middle class right that you should be able to transport yourself and your family quickly, cheaply, and with as little interruption as possible to stores, schools, and recreation, but we should also be able to retreat and enjoy the quiet life without interruption. But it isn’t cheap. We pay for it in car maintenance, gas bills, insurance, not to mention the health problems that come with the car. But for some reason we count a tax increase as more onerous than the private expenses we already pay that far exceed the public costs of civic life. And as we grow, we find we run into more and more people like ourselves, all on their way to good and decent activities, just as important as our own, that require yet another brief but costly and risky day trip in the car, whether it be getting the kids to school to soccer practice, to their piano lesson, or to a friend’s house. I myself find this almost hourly need to make a car trip the most maddening aspect of life in Utah Valley, a place of over 600,000 people and exploding in population. I am not without sin. I want to repent.

So recently when my city proposed a Bus Rapid Transit route that would pass near my neighborhood, I was elated. I was out of the country during some of the neighborhood’s most intense conversations about the proposal, so I missed my chance to express support for the proposal early on. I would add that I was in London, on my second stint as a director of a Study Abroad program, and where for the second time my family and I enjoyed the benefits of being car-free for months at a time. My kids walked more. They interacted with more different kinds of people. They saw more of the world from a safer and cleaner vantage point. Each time when I have come home, it shocks me how little we walk, how often we have to get in the car to get something done, and I can see more clearly what this costs us in terms of air quality, safety, and a sense of broad community that is available in places where public transportation is more heavily used.

The opposition in my neighborhood to the proposal has been strong. I love this neighborhood and these people, and I don’t want to undermine their earnest and honest efforts to make sure that the city finds the best solution to the problem we all have. Many, if not most, want BRT, but we can’t seem to agree on the right route. In the discussions, I have seen much good will and energy for civic good, and I am grateful for a proactive mayor and a concerned city council and engaged neighbors. It is wonderful to see democracy at work. There are some things, too, that I have found disappointing. In addition to valid concerns about how public transportation might lead to unwanted development and urbanization on our streets, I haven’t heard an unambiguous recognition of the dire need for and measurable positives of public transportation. Some instead have criticized the very idea of public transportation and have expressed excessive fears about potentially dangerous transients who might be gaining greater access to our streets as a result. Surely whatever dangers inhere in bringing public transportation closer to a neighborhood, they pale in comparison to the risks we already willingly assume with our car-dependent way of life. One neighbor stated at a recent city council meeting that he found the very idea of rapid transit distasteful, simply because “families and children don’t ride buses.” I know he doesn’t represent the majority of people in the neighborhood, but I would have hoped such a view would have been widely criticized and shamed as wrong for the 21st century. This attitude denigrates public transportation users as a ‘certain kind’ of undesirable for two reasons: one is clearly based in class prejudice and the other based in custom. If poor people are the only ones riding public transportation, we as a culture have completely misunderstood the importance and need for public transportation. Its greatest benefits accrue when we value public transportation for everyone—families and singles, elderly and young, rich and poor. This requires a cultural transformation, and the reality is, it also requires making public transportation more convenient and accessible.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the fact that the poor need public transportation nor that a bus might bring a mixed crowd of various backgrounds together. This is noble. It means the poor can benefit from increased mobility. Given our exceptionally religious and ethnic homogeneity as a community here in Utah Valley and given the wealth of the middle class life, why aren’t more of us eager to welcome the chance to rub shoulders with those different than us, with the poor, with students, young families, or youth who could benefit from increased mobility? And why shouldn’t those of us who do have cars, who can drive, voluntarily choose instead to reduce our car usage? Wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to advocate for measures that will help us change our car-dependency? Why should we want to continue to depend on the automobile when we have a chance to clean our air, increase our safety, and build a stronger and broader community? Is my access to resources such as an automobile and all the riches that it brings me into contact with—food and clothing, education for my children, entertainment and culture, materials for my home—did the Lord intend all of it for me and my family alone? LDS doctrine teaches otherwise. Is it moral to assert the privilege to pollute the air and endanger life even though my way of life comes at the cost of the well-being of the rest of the community? I think not.

I am hopeful that we can find an adequate solution. I hope we all are acting on this out of proactive desire to improve air quality in the valley, not merely because we are trying to protect something that is ours. I do not believe we will find an adequate solution until we make getting more cars off the road our top priority. Fighting to change our car culture is a view, in my mind, that is consistent with the fundamental principles underlined by the church’s statement. In the end, generosity toward the poor and conservative and prudent stewardship over our resources must overcome naked self-interest.

 

 


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