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Review: Everyone making transportation policy decisions must read ‘When Driving Is Not An Option,’ out today

The author, a white man with a black beard, holding a copy of When Driving Is Not An Option while giving a thumbs up.
Seattle Bike Blog’s photo review of the book.

“When I share the fact that a third of people in the United States can’t, or can’t afford to, drive, usually my audience is incredulous,” writes Seattle resident Anna Letitia Zivarts in her book “When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency” out today from Island Press. Zivarts will be speaking 7:30 Monday at Town Hall Seattle’s Wyncote NW Forum on First Hill with Barb Chamberlain and Tanisha Sepúlveda. Sliding scale tickets are $5-$25.

That one-third estimate is almost certainly an undercount since it does not fully account for people who still have a driver’s license but can no longer drive for a variety of reasons such as a new or progressing disability, aging, or an inability to keep up with the costs of car ownership. But despite nondrivers making up such a large percentage of our population, urban planning and transportation policy decisions have largely been made under the assumption that driving is the primary form of transportation, and those policies have created a sprawling web of problems for nondrivers living in communities across Washington State and the U.S.

Zivarts was born with nystagmus, a neurological condition that prevents her from passing the vision test needed to obtain a driver’s license, and she shares some of her personal struggles as a young person unable to get a license like many of her friends. Her work for Disability Rights Washington took her to meet people in all 49 state legislative districts in Washington State who had their own unique stories to tell about the challenges they face navigating their communities with a wide range of disabilities. In her book, Zivarts punctuates the hard data and research with people’s personal stories, creating a deeply humanized analysis of the scattered and often dangerous state of nondriving transportation in our nation and how we can make things better.

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The book is focused on nondrivers, specifically people who cannot drive whether they want to or not. So, for example, it’s not focused on people like me who have a driver’s license and the ability to drive but choose not to. It should also not be misunderstood as being anti-driving because driving is not even an option for the primary subjects of the book. The book discusses important problems to address within accessibility-specific programs like deficiencies in paratransit service, but even people who drive will likely find most the solutions suggested here would also make their communities safer and more accessible for themselves and their families. Just like many web designers, media creators, retail store designers, landscape architects and people in many other industries have discovered, universal designs created thoughtfully with accessibility for everyone in mind are also better for people who are not disabled. Complete networks of sidewalks, safe crosswalks to transit stops, predictable and frequent transit service, rural transit service, safer vehicle design standards, affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods, remote access to jobs, remote access to services like healthcare, these are some of the main solutions Zivarts suggests in this book. The book is full of stories of people who are forced to struggle every day to accomplish basic tasks not because they are disabled but because streets are missing basic features that should not be missing, like sidewalks and safe crosswalks. Or bus routes that don’t run on Sundays. Or rural, intercity transit service that has been cut completely. Improving these streets and services would make communities safer and better connected for everyone, but for people who cannot drive they are more likely to be needs rather than nice-to-haves.

The book also contains great examples of projects and people who are doing good work to change things, and many of them revolve around a deceptively simple solution: “The key to creating communities that work better for nondrivers is to listen to nondrivers,” Zivarts writes. This means hiring nondrivers (“stop requiring driver’s licenses for jobs where driving is not an essential function”), making sure there are non-drivers on relevant decision-making positions such as transit agency boards, including non-drivers in professional instruction settings like civil engineering degree programs, and more. Zivarts also includes many lessons in the book for people working or volunteering in transportation advocacy who are already focused on relevant issues such as this poignant section:

“Question who is not in the room or who isn’t being taken seriously in a decision-making process. Even when you may feel relatively powerless as a junior staffer or as a volunteer advocate, it’s important to examine who will be impacted by the work you’re doing and if the people most impacted by those decisions are having meaningful input. Noticing who isn’t in the room is the first step. Next you can ask, What would it take to change this?”

One example of when this might be important is if you are advocating for a “quick fix” to a safety problem. While it is primarily the city’s job to make sure a new street design is accessible and that changes are communicated clearly to everyone, advocates can take notice of whose voices seem to be carrying the most weight throughout the process and be intentional in organizing around the goal of creating a safer street for everyone. Fixing an issue for people on bikes while causing a new issue for chair users would not be a good outcome, for example. And advocates can’t ignore that rentable scooters and bikes are still regularly blocking curb cuts and sidewalks. The city’s past efforts to increase dedicated bike and scooter parking seemed to be making things better in the places it was created, but progress all but stopped during the pandemic and remains largely stalled. If we support the idea of bike and scooter share, then we need to advocate for parking/docking solutions that actually solve the problem.

There’s so much more in this book I haven’t touched on in this review. In case it isn’t obvious, the book is a must-read. I’ll leave you with this instructive passage:

“What nondrivers need isn’t groundbreaking, and it doesn’t require new research to the development of new technology. What we need is the organizing power and the coalition-building skills to demand that we stop prioritizing the mobility of cars over the health and connectivity of our communities.”

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One response to “Review: Everyone making transportation policy decisions must read ‘When Driving Is Not An Option,’ out today”

  1. Tizzle

    Is this a textbook? It’s expensive! I’m considering it anyway.

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