Americans won't abandon their cars

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The Way We Drive Now

There’s a reason Washington can’t get Americans out of their cars.

Fred Barnes

Weekly Standard

March 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24
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 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.