COLUMBIA — When Ian Thomas’ kids, Jack and Emily, want to be driven somewhere, they know by now not to ask their dad.
Ian Thomas has only driven a car about 20 times in the last year.
“And I did get a speeding ticket one of those times,” he said, laughing.
Now when the kids ask for a ride, he likes to pretend that the ticket resulted in a lifetime driving ban.
He always says he’d be happy to bike with them instead.
And he often does. A typical destination is Jack’s soccer practice at West Boulevard Elementary School. It’s about three miles from his family's house, which Thomas and his wife, Ellen, bought specifically for its proximity to the MKT Trail.
“Most journeys are five miles or less,” Thomas said. “And that's a very reasonable distance to walk or bike.”
Thomas and others founded the PedNet Coalition about nine years ago. The nonprofit organization promotes walking and biking in Columbia and works with the city and state in an effort to make the environment safe for people to do so.
Two of its programs, the Walking School Bus and Bike Train, pair adults with small groups of children as they walk or bike to school. During the school year, Thomas leads a Bike Train to Fairview Elementary School once a week.
“They love it," he said. "They act like they’re the cool kids because they get to bike and all the other kids have to come in a car or a bus.”
Thomas grew up in various parts of England. During college in London, Thomas rode his bike and used public transportation exclusively. He didn’t get his driver’s license until after college.
“In Europe, cities are much better designed for all modes,” Thomas said. “Many of those cities were already developed before the automobile came along. Here in America, a tremendous amount of city development has happened since the invention of the automobile, so it’s become the primary mode.”
He came to the United States in 1990 as a physics researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he met his wife, Ellen. They married soon after and eventually moved back to Columbia, her hometown.
Thomas says most people are aware of the environmental and health benefits of walking or biking instead of driving, but many are unaware of the economic benefits.
“Local, state and federal governments spend enormous amounts of money building and widening and maintaining roads, which are then hammered by very heavy SUVs and trucks often performing extremely short journeys that could easily be accomplished by walking or bicycle, in many cases,” he said.
Thomas doesn't expect everyone to give up driving altogether but wants to give Columbia residents more choices about how to get around.
“I just think it makes more sense, especially for short journeys, to walk or ride a bicycle,” he said.