Saturday, September 19, 2009

Forcing Americans out of their cars

Smart Growth Must Not Ignore Drivers
by Joel Kotkin

For the time being, battles over health care and energy seem likely to occupy the attention of both the Obama administration and its critics. Yet although now barely on the radar, there may be another, equally critical conflict developing over how Americans live and travel.

Right now this potential flash point has been relegated to the back burner, as Congress is likely to put any major transportation spending initiative on hold for at least a year, and perhaps longer. This also may be a symptom of mounting concerns over the deficit. Financing major changes in transportation, for example, would probably require higher federal fuel taxes, which would not fly amid a weak economy.

These delays could prove a blessing to the administration, providing a pause from indulging in yet another policy lurch that might thrill the “progressive” urban left but infuriate much of the country. Initial House proposals on transportation have sought to cut dramatically the share of federal gas taxes — paid by drivers — going to roads while sending more to already heavily subsidized transit. Another large chunk of transport spending would go to a very expensive, and geographically limited, high-speed-rail network.

This kind of radical shift reflects the preferences of ideologues within the administration. President Barack Obama has clustered an impressive array of “smart growth” devotees around him, including Housing and Urban Development Undersecretary Ron Sims, an early climate change “evangelist,” Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz and the Environmental Protection Agency’s John Frece. Their priority is not better roads for suburbanites but, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put it, to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into a denser, more transit-dominated future.

This approach can expect strong support from the influential “green team” in the administration, including climate czar Carol Browner and science adviser John Holdren. Browner’s hand was shown during the Clinton years when as head of the Environmental Protection Agency she threatened to cut transportation funds for the Atlanta region unless it adopted a smart-growth policy. The threats became moot after the change of administration in 2001.

It is not difficult to imagine such bureaucrats intruding on how communities and families function on the most basic levels. Traditions governing local land use that have existed since the beginning of the republic would be overturned. The preferred lifestyles of most Americans would come under siege.

This agenda has been widely promoted for decades, first by the Carter administration and, more recently, by both environmentalists and new urbanists. The recent concerns over global warming have provided an additional raison d’être for a policy promoting both higher transit use and denser housing patterns. The president himself has embraced this agenda, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

The administration can expect strong support for such policies in the mainstream media concentrated in New York and Washington. These areas boast both the highest proportion of transit riders and the largest percentages working in the central core. Many among the young, single and childless couples working in media in these communities see no reason why other Americans should not live similarly.

Politically, such a remaking of America may prove difficult to pull off. Overall less than 6 percent of Americans ride public transit, a percentage that has barely changed for decades. In many states, the transit share is only 1 percent. It’s difficult to imagine a policy that disses roads, small towns and suburbs could pass Congress, 80 percent or so of whose constituents don’t live in the favored dense urban environments. And what about the 95 percent or so of Americans who get around by car? More likely, any spate of new transit and land-use regulations will be enforced through the apparat. In one scenario, administrators at the EPA could simply oppose any transport project — for example, new roads — on the basis of carbon emissions and potential pollution. States and cities with projects not deemed “smart” enough by administrators at the Department of Transportation or HUD might be threatened with loss of funding.

Yet even this approach risks engendering a backlash. Once again, the administration could be seen as imposing a true-blue policy on a largely red, or at least purple, nation. To be successful, the administration needs to address the needs of suburban, small-city and rural residents as well as those of big-city denizens.

This is not to say the administration should not address pollution and congestion concerns head-on. But this needs to be done in ways that make both political and practical sense. Mileage requirements on cars are an excellent first step that follows this playbook, getting results without trying to remake a car-driving electorate.

In addition, the government could develop incentives for increased telecommuting and more flexible work schedules in order to reduce unnecessary driving to work. There is also room for expanded, more economical bus and jitney services that could work in some suburban and small-town locations. Instead of building light rail systems that will never get large ridership, mass transit funding should flow to successful existing systems or to a handful of dense corridors emerging in places like Houston.

All this speaks to a kind of pragmatism that may not please either the road-building zealots or the smart-growth aficionados. Such an approach would be far preferable — and more politically sustainable — than the current attempt to drive a 21st-century country back to a transportation model more appropriate for the 19th.



At 5:49 PM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Rob, climate change has nothing to do with ideology, but with the physics of the way the global atmosphere works. If those physics indicate that continuing to emit CO2 and related greenhouse gasses will lead to disaster, then neither references to "ideology" nor totally content-free attitudes about what forms of transport "fit" the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century have any relevance. If we have to reduce emissions drastically or risk a very unpleasant end to our civilisation, then we have to massively change the car. Cue the electric. But GM plans to sell the Chevy Volt for $40,000, a civic for the price of a Mercedes. Unless GM or some other car company can sell zero-emissions electric cars for less than that, the rate of car usage has to go down, because plenty of people cannot afford to replace their car with a volt.

At 8:06 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

"Initial House proposals on transportation have sought to cut dramatically the share of federal gas taxes — paid by drivers — going to roads while sending more to already heavily subsidized transit. Another large chunk of transport spending would go to a very expensive, and geographically limited, high-speed-rail network."

More sleight of hand. Roads are not fully paid for by gas taxes - a large chunk of non-gasoline taxes go to our "already heavily subsidized roads"

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As if cars COULD be ignored!

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Kotkin makes a couple of good points about the "smart growth" fad among progressives---that it's inherently elitist and that consequently it's not politically sustainable. That won't stop SF progressives from continuing to push the stupid "transit corridors" theory that holds that we can encourage unlimited population density along our major streets. Why do we want to encourage population density in our already densely populated city? To save the rest of Northern California from suburban sprawl! The smart growth folks also want to punish car drivers because, well, they shouldn't be driving so much! Naturally, there's a lot of overlap between the smart growth folks and the bike nuts.

Of course the price for electric cars will go down once production gears up and the economy of scale kicks in. Bike nuts like Spragge and Murph hate the idea that cars, trucks, and buses will eventually run on something other than fossil fuel. How will they then be able to maintain their sense of moral superiority when that happens?

At 11:30 PM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Rob, by current medical estimates pollution, largely from road traffic, kills at least 400 people, mostly old people and asthmatic children, in the city where I live. I don't want to feel superior; I want the pollution, and the deaths, to stop. And so yes, I welcome the electric vehicle (electric trucks and trains will probably help with pollution even more than electric cars).

I ride my bike because I don't want to suffer from obesity, heart disease, type II diabetes, depression, and alzheimer's, all of which doctors have connected to inactive lifestyles, which include a car (and to a lesser extent a transit) centered lifestyle.

Because of the demonstrated health problems associated with car dependency, I claim that nobody has any more right to force me to drive my car than they would have to force me to smoke. For that reason, I insist on my place on the road on my bike. If you want to avoid the supposed impediments that bike lanes offer to large vehicle traffic, then go for the alternatives, such as setting the standard for operating a motor vehicle high enough to improve road safety for all users, including cyclists.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Both your scoutmaster and your doctor congratulate you, John, though not as much as you congratulate yourself.

"If you want to avoid the supposed impediments that bike lanes offer to large vehicle traffic, then go for the alternatives..."

As you confessed some time ago, you don't even live in the US, let alone San Francisco. All your comments demonstrate is that the bike nut phenomenon is international. The EIR on the city's Bicycle Plan tells us that the Plan is going to impede traffic and our bus system on a number of busy streets on behalf of a crackpot minority of cyclists. Hard to see how that can be good public policy.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Big Ed said...

when gas prices go up again, you'll be hoping for some decent transportation alternatives.

At 2:34 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

That's a chickenshit little thought from a guy who calls himself Big Ed.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Rob, good public policy doesn't aim for a smooth flow of motorized vehicles; it aims for a healthy, productive, and dare I say happy population. The inactive lifestyles fostered by car dependence directly conflict with that goal; the percentage of overweight children in the United States has nearly doubled since 1980, and studies have implicated inactive lifestyles in a range of illnesses, from depression to heart disease. These diseases shorten life, reduce productivity, and boost health care costs. So while reducing the number of vehicles on the road may or may not make good public policy, making public space available for active forms of transportation, including cycling and walking, certainly does.

Other potential solutions beside bike lanes exist. I prefer the idea of better education for drivers, and removal from the roads of homicidally reckless or drunk drivers. As someone who drives from time and frequently has one or more kids in my car, I would personally rather enhance the safety of cyclists by educating drivers and the getting the dangerous ones permanently off the road. Apart from anything else, such a policy wouldn't keep the cyclists safe; it would also keep pedestrians and other motorists and their kids safe, too.


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