Saturday, January 15, 2011

Coercing People Out of Their Cars

The road to hell is paved with bike paths
Fred Barnes

The Weekly Standard
Have you heard about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s “tabletop speech” at the National Bike Summit? Probably not, but it’s legendary in pro-bicycle, anti-car circles. LaHood got a wild standing ovation in March when he climbed on a table in a congressional hearing room, touted his department’s “livable community program,” and talked about getting people “out of their cars.”

“We’re going to put affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths,” LaHood said, amid cheers. “I’ve been all over America and...I’ve been very proud to talk about the fact people do want alternatives.” You’ll never guess what that alternative is. “They want to get out of their cars,” he said, prompting more cheers. “They want to get out of congestion.” Still more cheers.

LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.

Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation.

That the department has fallen away from its primary mission isn’t LaHood’s fault alone. The law that funds the large federal share of road and bridge construction expired last year. The 18-cent per gallon tax on gasoline still flows into the Highway Trust Fund, but it’s not enough. The fund is insolvent...

The administration’s obsession with high-speed rail presents a funding problem all its own. Such rail projects have three attributes: Their projections of high ridership and gains for the economy are pie-in-the-sky; they fail every cost-benefit test; and their price tag is low-balled, leading inexorably to steep cost overruns.

Yet a paper issued by the president’s economic advisers makes the dubious claim that high-speed rail is a way to keep America economically competitive with Europe. The stimulus included $8 billion for high-speed projects, again not “paid for.” Now the administration is taking “the next step toward realizing its vision for high-speed rail,” the Department of Transportation said in June, handing out “$2.1 billion in grants to continue the development of high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors.”

On top of that, there’s talk in Washington of spending $50 billion more on high-speed trains. Where the funding would come from is anybody’s guess, but LaHood is fully on board. High-speed rail between cities is needed “so people can get out of their cars,” he said in an interview last month with Grist magazine. “They can take a train ride to see Grandma rather than doing it in a car.”

LaHood repeats a common fallacy about intercity rail (and often about light rail too). It doesn’t replace the car. Unless Grandma lives close to a railroad station, her offspring will have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to her house. Or Grandma will have to drive to the station to pick them up.

Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.

But it’s hardly an answer to traffic congestion. Most people, most of the time aren’t going to ride a bike to work or walk. They’re going to drive, even in the face of disincentives erected by LaHood.

As a solution to congestion in the foreseeable future, this leaves us with building more highways, repairing existing ones, and maintaining them. The question is how to pay for this. The current gas tax won’t suffice. It hasn’t been increased since 1993, and it’s lost one-third or more of its value since then through inflation.

Republicans—conservatives especially—get red in the face when they hear of raising the gas tax. It makes more sense, however, than cutting back on the highway program or paying for it out of general revenues. Presi-dent Reagan understood this when he backed a 5-cent increase in 1982. It “will make truck transportation more efficient and productive for years to come,” he said in a radio address. “We will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world.”

The days of envy are gone. What’s required to restore a great highway system is a hike of 10 to 15 cents in the gas tax. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? The gain—more and better highways, less congestion—makes the trade-off worthwhile.

The Obama administration, with its priority on ejecting people from their cars and its embrace of an environmental ethic that regards highways as evil, is unlikely to champion a higher gas tax. Any other tax increase you can imagine, yes. This one, no. That means Republicans will have to step up. They can insist the revenues be used solely for highways and bridges. Local governments would then be free to spend on bikeways.

In his tabletop speech, LaHood said he and his wife take their bikes to the path along the C&O Canal and “ride as far as we possibly can.” That’s nice. But it’s interesting, and perhaps telling, that the canal, as a major mode of transportation, has been obsolete since the 1880s—a lot like bicycling and walking.

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At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was thinking that the other day while sitting at lunch. "Why am I in here eating lunch? I'd much prefer to be in my car!"

10 cents extra a gallon? If all of CA residents additional contribution to the Federal Gas tax were redirected back here, it wouldn't pay for the Bay Bridge for several years. Try a dollar. And if you put gas at $5 a gallon, you betcha they'll want to figure out another way to get where they're going...

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Radio Edit Rob...

You omitted this...

Meanwhile, we’re trailing China, India, Europe, and Brazil—Brazil!—in investing in “surface transportation.”

This deficit on our part is because those countries are spending vast amounts of money on RAIL. But that doesn't fit your argument, does it now? It doesn't fit Barnes' either, but his readers are the Sarah Palin Brigade and are too stupid to realize he's trying to fool them into thinking "Surface transportation" means "roads"

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

We're not just talking about "rail"; we're talking about high-speed rail, and anyone who looks at the numbers---that evidently doesn't include you---can see it's not a sensible way to spend limited transportation money. Every transit agency in the state is in the red---Muni has a $21 million deficit this fiscal year---and the Feds give $3 billion to the CHSR boondoggle, which is counting on another $19 billion from the Feds, $10 billion from the state, and another $10 billion from cities and counties! Not going to happen. I hope Governior Brown can cancel the project until it can come up with a sensible business plan to get all that money. The state's voters got conned by the HSR boosters.

"Surface transportation" means just about everything, inlcuding buses, which is where I think the money should be spent, since they're cheaper to buy and maintain than rail systems.

The notion that we're in competition with Third World countries on transportation just seems dumb to me---in an otherwise nice piece.

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta admit... Barnes makes a lot more sense than LaHood does.

LaHood ignores human behavior. He thinks everybody lives in his dream world. Hopefully, Congress will wake up to his shenanigans before he wastes much more money we don't have.

At 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HSR is more expensive here than China - if some bunch of Chinese were petulant whiners like the Menlo Park NIMBYs then the Chinese government would shoot them.

Bike Lane? Bucket of paint. No no no! You need to do an EIR!!! EIR? shoot that man! Maybe I would like China.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Pretty dumb about both China and the Bicycle Plan, which involved a lot more than a "bucket of paint." It involved/involves taking away more than 50 traffic lanes and 2,000 street parking spaces to make bike lanes, which, as the EIR on the Plan says, is going to have "significant impacts" on traffic and Muni on a number of city streets.

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irony - someone sourcing the Weekly Standard calling anyone else dumb.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You never read the conservative press? That's real dumb. The Weekly Standard is a lot more conservative than I am, but they aren't always wrong. And then you have those who call other names from the safety of anonymity, which is pretty lame.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

By the way, an important issue conservatives are right about is high-speed rail. Debra Saunders at the Chronicle, for example, and Randal O'Toole at the Antiplanner.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Dav8or said...

Yes, the so-called "progressives" don't think it's valuable to read or make any attempt to understand conflicting views. They're content to smugly sit back and jab at those with whom they disagree, from a position of complete ignorance. But that's okay, because they're always right.

(And this is why they lost the Board of Supervisors...)

At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's very annoying about this is that in their drive for "Livable Cities" - whatever that hogwash is - the anti-car movement is INCREASING PEDESTRIAN FATALITIES!

As can be seen in this report

"For the first six months of 2010, pedestrian fatalities increased by seven, from 1,884 to 1,891. If the second six months of 2010 also show no significant change, this will be the first year of increase or no progress after four years of decline."

"A growing national focus on walkable communities and “get moving” health and fitness efforts may cause pedestrian exposure, and thus risk, to increase."

Adding things like sidewalks and other pedestrian hoohah incentivizes people to walk - an inherently dangerous activity. And of course this growing national focus is led by the queen of the progs herself, Michelle Obama, with her "Let's Move" campaign. Let's move in a CAR. If you want to walk, move to Ho Chi Minh City.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

This paragraph in the news release you link may provide part of the explanation, along with the fact that more people may be walking:

GHSA Chairman Vernon F. Betkey Jr. notes, "...One factor may be the increased distractions for both pedestrians and drivers. Anyone who travels in a busy city has seen countless pedestrians engrossed in conversation or listening to music while crossing a busy street. Just as drivers need to focus on driving safely, pedestrians need to focus on walking safely---without distractions.”

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They're all distracted. Far easier to get them off the sidewalks and into a car than to get them off their cellphones.

At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watch how they are gonna screw up cesar chavez once the bike lanes are implemented. watch the traffic congestion then..and oh yea, watch ALL of the bikes lanes fill up packed with cyclists.

yea, right.


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