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What If 78,000 Central Ohioans Stopped Driving, For Good?

Central Ohioans always are being encouraged to take alternate modes of transportation, be it the bus, a bike or just walking. And this Thursday, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission wants people to abandon their car for the day. WOSU takes a look at what would happen if people really abandoned their cars in Central Ohio, for good. As many as 788,000 people commute each day in the Columbus Metro area. And The US Census Bureau says they’re lonely – riding alone, no one in the passenger seat. For years, MORPC has pushed different campaigns to promote less driving, like this week’s “Car Free Day.â€? The commission does not have a specific goal as to how many cars it would like to take off the roads. But what if, say, 10 percent of us stopped driving alone. So what would happen if 78,000 Central Ohioans permanently parked their cars? Right away we’d see... "Less congestion." Melissa Ayers speaks for the Ohio Department of Transportation. She said taking nearly 80,000 cars off Central Ohio’s state roads like Route 315 and Interstates 70 and 71 might make the drive to and from work a little easier. But would it save ODOT any money? Would fewer commuters extend the lives of the highways? Only if big trucks joined them. "If you’re looking at cars volume is definitely a part of it, but when it comes to wear and tear on our roads it really the heavy vehicles that contribute to it," Ayers said. So ODOT would not necessarily save any money if fewer people decided to stop driving. Actually, ODOT could lose money. But we’ll come back to that in a minute. Cars take fuel. And fuel provides money to state and local coffers from the gas tax. Last year, the state collected more than $1.6 billion in gas taxes. Columbus got nearly $24.3 million of that. Gary Gudmundson is a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Taxation. Gudmundson said taking nearly 80,000 cars off the roads in Columbus would have minimal affect on the money Columbus receives. “The impact will be, it will be felt, of course, everybody likes every dollar they can get. But it will not be that profound," he said. It’s worth noting, simply reducing fuel consumption would have a minimal affect on Columbus’ gas tax dollars. But if the number of cars registered in Columbus drastically declined – by say 80,000 – then gas tax revenue could take a bigger hit because gas tax dollars are distributed based on registered vehicles. So, the state and Columbus would fare OK if 80,000 of us stopped driving tomorrow. But if 80,000 people in cities all over Ohio boot their cars, ODOT might actually feel the change in transit habits. And ODOT’s Melissa Ayers said there’s already uncertainty in funding. “Cars are already fuel efficient. With the sluggish economy people are already driving less. So we’re seeing those decreases. Our goal here is to get the most value out of every dollar we spend so we’re definitely keeping tabs on that," she said. What about the air quality and asthma sufferers? Surely taking 78,000 plus cars off the roads would help. The short answer is yes. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said getting 10 percent of Columbus area drivers to stop driving would not hurt, and it would definitely help on ozone alert days. But the agency said it’s difficult to quantify just how much of a difference 80,000 fewer cars would make. Barbara Hickcox coordinate’s the Ohio Department of Health’s asthma program. Hickcox also said it’s hard to say just how much relief Columbus-area asthma sufferers would get from a 10 percent decline in drivers, but it certainly could not hurt. “I would like to see enough taken off the road so we don’t have these air quality alerts," Hickcox said. OK, so we’ve covered how such a decline in drivers would affect traffic congestion, tax dollars, air quality and respiratory issues, but commuters have to get to work some how. What about the bus? Could COTA handle a quick increase of 78,000 new riders? "We would be severely strained to handle that in a very short period of time," COTA President and CEO Bill Lhota said. Lhota said they already serve 35,000 riders a day. He said COTA would need more lines, buses and drivers. But he said if that increase happened over time, COTA could handle it. He said they’re already planning to add service. “If we were to get 78,000 riders tomorrow morning we would be in a world of hurt. But incrementally, we can monitor capacity and as capacity fills up we can add additional service. As I think realistically I think that’s the way it’s going to happen. I don’t think 78,000 people are going to show up on our doorstep tomorrow," he said. Bob Lawler directs transportation at MORPC. He’s the brains behind “Car Free Dayâ€? and other campaigns. Lawler said there are up sides and down sides to choosing not to drive. But he argues fewer cars means fewer road expansions. “So I think the benefits outweigh the costs. And I don’t think anyone is expecting people to just give up their cars. I think that you know all over the country and all over the world people value the personal, the ability to travel. And we’re anticipating that would continue to be the major way people move," Lawler said.