Fearer: Car culture has created a Silicon Valley public health crisis
The painting "Paris Street, Rainy Day" (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte, remixed by Jonathan Fertig.

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I don’t hate cars, and I’m not a soldier in the supposed “war on cars.”

Yes, I support building wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes, even if it takes space away from cars. Yes, I’m a proponent of public transportation and believe that in the long run it makes far more sense to invest in transit instead of widening our roads and highways over and over while expecting traffic congestion to suddenly subside. Yes, I strongly believe that we all benefit from the opportunity to walk, bike, and roll more instead of having to rely on driving or catching a ride everywhere. And, yes, I drive a car.

What I hate is the public health crisis that our car culture has created.

Some may wonder, “What public health crisis?” My response: Motor vehicular traffic is literally killing us. Transportation is the leading cause of death for children, primarily as occupants in cars. Annually we lose about 40,000 of our family members, friends, and neighbors in car crashes.

While the odds for surviving a crash if you’re inside a vehicle are slowly improving, the statistics are alarming for people walking, and last week we learned that 2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians since 1990. Just as grim are the numbers around the second-hand effects of our auto-dominated transportation system, one of the leading causes of the air pollution that kills around 70,000 people annually in the U.S.

What is possibly more jarring than the statistics is the fact that car culture has also elevated victim blaming in such a way that too often deflects the responsibility inherent in piloting a multi-ton vehicle at speeds that the human body simply cannot withstand.

Instead, we must acknowledge with humility that we all make mistakes and that we shouldn’t suffer serious injury or death due to our mistakes. But can we acknowledge that it’s imperative that we work together to tackle this public health crisis by focusing our energy and resources on improving our transportation systems, including the design of our roadways, to make our streets safer for everyone across all modes?

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian recently proclaimed 2019 to be the year of public health, and I thank him for highlighting transportation safety, including the perils of distracted driving, in his recent State of the County address. Solving these issues takes a steadfast commitment, political will, and tangible resources.

Each of us — and all of the hats we each wear as community members, advocates, elected officials, public servants — has a role to play in shifting the consequences of our unhealthy car culture to outcomes that support and celebrate our families, our neighbors and our communities.

So, no, I’m not here to take away your car.

I am here to have the complex and necessary conversations about how transportation intersects with health, climate change, housing, equity, sustainability, economic vibrancy and more — and how all of these affect the quality of life here in San José. I look forward to you joining me.

San José Spotlight columnist Jaime Fearer is deputy director of California Walks, the statewide voice for pedestrian safety and healthy, walkable communities for people of all ages and abilities. Her columns appear every first Thursday of the month.

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