Why Anti-Car Measures Keep Failing

Bureaucrats can’t change the way we drive … but they keep trying

By: Fred Barnes
Weekly Standard

For most Americans—make that most of mankind—the car is an instrument of mobility, flexibility, and speed. Yet officials in Washington, transportation experts, state and local functionaries, planners, and transit officials are puzzled why their efforts to lure people from their cars continue to fail.

The Obama administration is only the latest to be bewildered. It has proposed every alternative it can think of to the car – high-speed rail, light rail, mass transit in general, bikeways, bus lanes, walking paths, the return of streetcars. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has embraced the “livability” movement, which is anti-car.

Those are just the positive attractions. There are punitive policies, too, both active and passive. Urban growth boundaries have put a virtual wall around cities like Portland, Oregon, to prevent sprawl and the cars that come with it. Limits in many locations on parking lots and on-street parking discourage the use of cars.

Refusal to ease traffic congestion by building more roads and inertia in the face of rising gasoline prices make driving a car less appealing, even if those policies are not pursued with that purpose in mind. Restricted lanes for buses and bikes often infuriate urban drivers.

President Obama and LaHood have also tried persuasion and hype. In his State of the Union, Obama touted high-speed trains accessible to 80 percent of Americans, as if the country should be clamoring for them. LaHood envisions soothingly “livable” neighborhoods with “affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths.”

None of this has worked. Nor did President George W. Bush’s warning about a nation “addicted to oil” or the Clinton administration’s support of technology-driven ideas like “smart highways,” which became a code for building fewer roads or lanes.

The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it’s convenient, which mass transit rarely is. They can go from place to place directly, choosing their own route and schedule. They can do so day and night. They can stop as frequently as they wish for any reason (do errands, drop off kids, etc.). This phenomenon has a name: freedom.

Subways made sense decades ago—in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago—when jobs were concentrated downtown. Now 90 percent of jobs are outside the downtown in the top 50 urban areas, where mass transit can’t compete with cars. Now the average commute by car takes half the time of mass transit. And the supposed cost benefits of mass transit, based on the old center city model, aren’t applicable to decentralized metropolitan areas.

Since 1982, when the Highway Trust Fund began to pay for non-highway projects, more than $200 billion in federal dollars has been spent on urban mass transit. Total spending at all levels of government has reached $1 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars).

The result: Transit’s market share of urban passenger miles has fallen from 2.5 percent to 1.6 percent. In Los Angeles—where two subway lines, three light rail lines, and one busway have been built—the ridership on mass transit is lower than it was in 1985.

The story is similar in Washington, Baltimore, and San Francisco, each having built a modern, high-quality rail system in the 1970s and ’80s. Here again, the share of passengers on mass transit in those metropolitan areas has declined.

Washington is a special case. Roughly 19 percent of the jobs in the Washington urban area are downtown. Not surprisingly, the Metro rail system experiences high ridership and, according to transportation consultant Wendell Cox, “represents transit’s best chance for removing cars from the road.” Despite massive traffic congestion, few have been.

But Metro isn’t at fault. The transportation plan for the Washington area, drafted in the 1960s, called for one or two more beltways outside the one that was built. They would have diverted traffic on I-95, the major artery along the East Coast, from merging with Washington traffic. Opponents insisted the beltways would lead to development in pristine rural areas. Neither of the outer beltways was ever built. The development occurred anyway.

More broadly, there’s no evidence anywhere in the United States—or the world, for that matter—that investment in mass transit in recent decades has reduced congestion. At the same time, the price of mass transit goes up.

The price tag on the proposed high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles has risen from $43 billion to $65 billion over the past two years. No wonder three governors—Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Scott of Florida—have cancelled high-speed train projects.

So who’s to blame for the overwhelming preference for automobiles over mass transit? Do Americans have an irrational love affair with cars? No. A car not only saves time, it’s safe, increasingly fuel efficient, and less polluting than ever. True, emission standards are a government intrusion loathed by conservatives. But they work.

Cars and drivers, sad to say, don’t function in a free market world. Both are highly regulated, sometimes for good, sometimes not. If the law of supply and demand were operative, we’d see a smarter approach to improving transportation in America.

The supply of cars would create a demand for more roads and bridges to accommodate them, just as food lines outside a grocery store create demand for more grocery stores. Instead we get more mass transit, demand for which is imperceptible, and fresh rounds of confusion among officials whose plans are destined to come to naught.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

17 replies
  1. Keri
    Keri says:

    The car isn’t the core problem. The core problem is lack of stewardship — inability (or unwillingness) to self-limit for sustainability.

    The instinctive behavior pattern has nothing to do with the car. The car is merely the most recent tool we are misusing.

    Just as with animals, human populations were once limited by food supply. Abundant food (and lack of predators) leads to abundant reproduction. When food supply decreases, population decreases. The advent of agriculture disrupted this equilibrium and allowed humans to escape the controls and limits of natural resources. This severed a key connection between sustainability and immediate survival.

    The resulting pattern of behavior is seen in everything: food production; land use; air pollution; clear-cutting; waste production/disposal; fossil fuel consumption… on and on.

  2. NE2
    NE2 says:

    “The price tag on the proposed high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles has risen from $43 billion to $65 billion over the past two years.” I’m pretty sure I read that this is because they changed from 2000 dollars to 2020 dollars or something like that.

  3. Scott
    Scott says:

    “Do Americans have an irrational love affair with cars? No. A car not only saves time, it’s safe, increasingly fuel efficient, and less polluting than ever.”

    Agreed, except for the “safe” part. Public transportation is many, many times safer than traveling in a private automobile.

  4. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Be careful with framing the issue. Remember that for half a century or more, federal, state and local governments have been implementing PRO-car laws, codes, policies and projects. Using the term “anti-car” implies that government used to be neutral on cars, and now it’s “anti-.”

  5. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    This looks like the sort of article that typically comes from certain kinds of “think tanks”, the sort that doesn’t like government very much, except for publicly-built roads.

  6. khal spencer
    khal spencer says:

    Cars made perfect sense to a whole lot of people through most of the last fifty years and if you are financially comfortable, still do on the individual scale. Gasoline was and still is relatively inexpensive in inflation adjusted dollars, the U.S. at one time was oil-rich, and the nation had the money to both build suburbs and run roads out to them. Car sales drove the economy, so to speak. It sucked to be in the path of an expressway, as many found out (including me and my wife as kids), but in any paradigm-shift, there are winners and losers.

    So its not surprising that cars would be and still are popular and as a kid who grew up in car-culture America in the sixties and seventies (yep, I’m old) I saw that culture first hand in its gravy years. The problem, as Keri so clearly states, is sustainability. We simply cannot sustain that lifestyle. We are well into Peak Oil, the nation imports more than 50% of its oil, our balance of trade is in the red, it becomes increasingly expensive to move 300 plus million Americans in single occupant cars, and the Chinese want to drive. Does anyone else see a train wreck coming?

    The problem with the free market is that it is a lagging indicator of events (i.e., one will not want a fuel-sipping car until after gas is in short supply), while the problem with government intervention in advance of a crisis is that the public sees what it is being denied but doesn’t see the problem that is being solved. As an academic who owns CycleItalia likes to say, “people are stupid”.

  7. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Nothing like some bozo getting his facts wrong in the very first sentence. “Most of mankind” doesn’t have a car.

    The world’s population is about 7 billion, and the number of cars about 750 million. Not surprisingly, car ownership is concentrated in the minority of people who live in rich countries, with the majority of the human population having zero access to a car.


    Or what are we to think of an ignorant statement like:

    “…there’s no evidence anywhere in the United States—or the world, for that matter—that investment in mass transit in recent decades has reduced congestion.”

    Hey, bozo, there are lots of places where investment in mass transit has enabled car-free zones that reduced congestion to zero. In cities like Toronto and New York, the number of people carried on the subway physically cannot be transported by cars. London’s tube strike unleashed gridlock congestion.

    He did say one thing that I do agree with. “Cars and drivers, sad to say, don’t function in a free market world.” That’s true. If drivers were required to pay for the true costs of their behaviour, there would be a lot less cars on the road.

  8. Laura M
    Laura M says:

    Where to begin?

    It’s not so much about getting people out of their cars as much as it is offering a choice. I wish the subsidy provided for cars were picked up by the media or that our elected officials were more aware of the costs of doing business as usual. When a roadway “improvement” results in a Level of Service F (failure), should we really be spending the money on that imrpovement?

    At least with large scale mass transit projects (anything over 50 Million), the project has to go through a rigorous cost/benefit analysis and is required to get a specific rating in terms of ridership, environmental, economic, land use etc. As far as I know, roadways don’t have to get such a rating from the federal government. The choice to spend the money (1.2 Billion for Wekiva Parkway for instance) is considered a ‘local decision’…and it’s the local Metroplan Board (ie elected officials) that makes the determination for this region. Look at the prioritized project list for proposed roadway projects for Metroplan, it’s quite telling.

  9. khal spencer
    khal spencer says:

    I think it is hopelessly naive to think that Americans would somehow object to building roads. Unless, of course, the road digs up their own backyard. These projects are hopelessly political.

    Also, I suspect that auto use is actually less subsidized than transit because the Highway Trust Fund is paid into by dedicated gasoline taxes. Sure, the fund doesn’t pay the whole bill. But it pays a substantial part of it. I’ve seen some numbers that suggest transit is actually subsidized far more than car use in many, many cities that do not have high transit demand. You can play the numbers game any way you want in terms of externalized costs to make a point. But once you get down into stating “my subsidy is more worthy than yours” you end up with a lot of infighting and not much good getting done.

    The Rail Runner here in New Mexico is massively subsidized. Frankly, a lot of wishful thinking went into that project’s “rigorous cost benefit analysis”. Our new Governor would like to do nothing more than kill it, but it has taken on a political life of its own.

    The author of that piece actually did a pretty rational job of explaining why people drive and he, like Cliff Slater, actually does criticize the system for making various transportation costs to some degree artificial. But just one example. To get to the Sunport in Albuquerque from Los Alamos takes a whole day if you use transit. It takes less than two hours by car. Slightly more time if you contract with a private van company. If you can afford a car anyway, which mode are you going to use? If you want to leave the car at home, chances are you will use the vanpool. Public transit is the least efficient choice.

    • MikeOnBike
      MikeOnBike says:

      Regarding the highway trust fund and subsidies: I don’t think it’s quite that simple. For one thing, I believe the HTF is largely directed toward the Interstate system. It’s not a universal fund for every street. Roads are funded in part by a bunch of non-motorist taxes (property, income, sales, etc.)

      Since transportation is a public good, we tend not to be too picky about where the funding comes from, except we tend to assume motorists are largely unsubsidized because they have a couple of specific taxes.

      The subsidy argument also breaks down when we talk about sidewalks. Pedestrians pay no walking-specific taxes (shoe taxes?) but I can’t recall much complaining about pedestrians being subsidized.

      There’s a tendency to build some large projects (roads, transit, bridges, etc.) that are highly efficient generators of construction jobs for private contractors. Whether a particular project provides useful transportation for the price can sometimes be beside the point.

      Transit projects are supposed to be rated on cost per new rider. I’m not sure road projects are necessarily rated that way.

      • khal spencer
        khal spencer says:

        I agree completely its not that simple and furthermore, I actually don’t buy into the narrow arguments of the motorist lobby. I think things get ugly simply because we use gasoline taxes to fund so much of transportation. Apparently Winston Churchill saw the problems separating road (transportation) funding from other government responsibilities decades ago.

        The bickering starts because the HTF, a Federal fund paid into via gas taxes, was designed to fund roads for gas consumers, i.e. motorists. That is what a lot of the public wants to see it continue to do. The diversion of some of this money to pay for other transportation costs while the HTF is running a deficit has of course raised the hackles of motorists and politicians.

        Victoria Transportation Policy Institute has a lot written on the subject of how to tally up the externalized costs of transportation. Todd Litman makes for pretty good reading. The problem is we don’t pull in total costs in most things we buy and sell. I may buy an overpackaged piece of junk at the store. I end up paying again for that product when I pay my refuse bill and have to dispose of all the junk that came with my product. Same for pollution costs of electrical power, etc. Its hard to quantify, so we externalize them.

        Yeah, if it was straightforward, we wouldn’t be agonizing about it.

  10. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Usually forgotten in discussions of why people choose cars over the alternatives is the enormous supply of “free” parking. The estimated value of all those parking spaces exceeds the value of the cars they serve, and there are far more parking spaces in most areas than everybody needs (except in big cities like NYC and Chicago).

    Why do we have so many parking spaces? Decades ago, various local planning agencies started setting minimum parking requirements. These codes often required much more parking than would ever be needed. Why? They didn’t want overflowing parking lots to back up into the roadways. (What’s more, their numbers were based on very limited observations of usage.) Urban and suburban planners, usually understaffed and pressed for time (and thus unable to question the validity of those codes set by others), simply adopted them.

    Now, decades later, businesses and developers are habituated to having more parking than they’ll ever need, and like drug addicts they get almost violent when someone threatens to cut into their stash.

    The excess of parking undercuts the effectiveness of transit, and increases the distances of all trips, which is especially damaging to walking.

    UCLA researcher Donald Shoup has done the most compelling work in this area:
    He writes: “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.”

  11. khal spencer
    khal spencer says:

    On the other hand, I rarely saw the very expensive parking going empty in Downtown Honolulu, and the parking structure at UH Manoa, not exactly cheap for students or faculty, was usually full by ten a.m.

    My old buddy Cliff Slater in Honolulu often argued that the best way to encourage other modes was simply to let the free market decide on the highest and best use for land rather than having zoning ordinances mandate a certain number of slots per business and then subsidizing rail and transit to pry people out of convenient to use cars. It was a wasted effort. Anyone who could, drove. Except for the likes of Mighk, Keri, or me, perhaps.

    But all that doesn’t take away from the fact that getting in your car and driving to a shop is often more convenient than taking transit, at least if you are struggling out the door with a week’s worth of grocieries, etc. I concur that if parking were cut loose and let float in a free market, some would choose other modes. But not sure there would be a stampede to other modes. In fact, perhaps it would cost more to park but cost less to buy goods and services, because the cost of all that parking lot land being wasted storing cars would not have to be paid for by the cash flow of the local shopkeeper who pays the rent for the strip mall land under the lot.

    In the final analysis, these zoning ordinances aren’t handed down by some Ayatollah. They are handed down by elected bodies. People want this shit because they still want to drive. Fertility drugs perhaps, but we are after all a nation of pill poppers. We simply need driving to become far less affordable.

    Personally, I think a lot of cycling advocates lose far too much sleep being anti-car. One has to be pro-bike.

  12. tOM Trottier
    tOM Trottier says:

    The problem is that the car has been heavily subsidised in North America for the last 100 years. Gas taxes don’t pay for all the roads, nor the land under them, nor the effects of the pollution cars cost, of the air, nor the tens of thousands killed each year, the injuries and lost time of the survivors. They don’t even pay for the billions of $ of subsidies Big Oil gets to search for new oil, nor all the asphalt your city and town has put down to serve the automobile.

    Put in an escalating tax on greenhouse gas emissions – and other harmful emissions – stop building roads and parking lots, start taxing car movements and parking. That will get the ball rolling.

    Back it up by upping taxes on building and owning big homes and big lots in sprawling suburbs. We need high density developments along transit corridors, not homes, garages, and driveways on farmland which could be producing food.

    Even in an internet age, we need to distribute products even if we work at home.

    While transit may be failing in most of North America, it works in many places. Only 25% of people in Manhattan own cars. In urban (even suburban) Denmark and Holland, about 40% of trips are made by bike, 10% by foot, 25% by transit, 25% by car – and they don’t have the same weather as California or Florida.

    Check out http://hembrow.blogspot.com/ – he commutes by bike at an average 33kph.


    • Keri
      Keri says:

      People here who commute on the Cady Way trail are also able to achieve their top bike speeds for much of the trip.

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