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In talking with friends over the past week, two made comments that stuck in my craw and have been fermenting there ever since. One comment had to do with getting older and being worried about reaching a point where my friend wouldn’t be able to drive. She said that if that happened, “I’d lose all my freedom.” And the other friend was worried about her teenage daughter who, because of a medical issue, isn’t able to drive a car. Although she’d probably qualify to use Dial-a-ride, her mom worries about the stigma that would put on her. Uber is an option, but then there are safety concerns.

The design of our city, especially in areas that were built after World War II, requires the use of a vehicle. Although some people have the time, strength, and desire to bicycle across sizable distances on a daily basis, not everyone is able to do that. Freedom of mobility for them rests squarely on motorized transport. But if, due to disability or time of life, they’re not able to drive, then alternatives are necessary. We have a local transit system, Dial-a-ride, Saint, Uber and Yellow Cab Taxi Service. But there’s not a culture of using these services. (There are also other issues, like infrequent or inadequate service. But it’s the whole accepted culture vs. stigmatization that I’ve been cogitating on.)

In New York City, calling a cab or hopping on the subway is just how things work. No one thinks twice about it. But in Fort Collins, cars remain the default — not just in terms of use, but in terms of how we think. Multimodal travel options are just not on our collective radar as a city. When most people are getting ready to go out they don’t start the mental dialogue in which they think through which travel mode makes the most sense for where they’re going and what they’re doing. They just hop in the car. It’s the default. Any deviation from the default requires some sort of activation and advance planning (often used during events like New West Fest, when families will come pedaling downtown — their inexperience and fear showing plainly on their faces). The knowledge that a big event will lead to lack of parking activates their thought processes to look for alternatives.

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There are all sorts of reasons why Fort Collins does not have a multimodal culture when it comes to transportation. (Having six bus lines that only run once an hour, and several more than drop to once an hour on evenings and weekends, certainly doesn’t help. But this is a chicken-and-egg kind of problem.) Things are changing. The introduction of our first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the form of the MAX line along Mason/McClelland has been a great first step towards encouraging non-bus users to give it a try. But more needs to be done to encourage multimodalism among residents. There are some specific steps that can be taken to make this happen, but I tell you what, adding parking structures isn’t the answer. And widening streets to fit more cars isn’t the answer. If anything, those things can just end up adding to the problem.

With a predicted 100,000 people moving to Fort Collins in the next few decades, we need to be planning now for a multimodal community. City Plan is slowly turning us in that direction. And beginning steps are being taken with some recent new development. But the shift needs to be happening in our minds and hearts as well. And that’s something that happens socially. As we get together with friends, we need to instigate that conversation of “how will we get there?” Will we carpool? bike? walk? take the bus? For friends who might not have even realized there were options, just asking these kinds of questions will get the ideas to start percolating through their minds. It doesn’t always have to be the car. There are alternatives. And sometimes they make the most sense — not just during big event weekends downtown, but throughout the year.

Ask the question. Plant the seed. Help to sow a different kind of transportation culture in Fort Collins — one where leaving the car at home doesn’t stigmatize a person, but shows them to be thoughtful, careful residents of our community.