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Mobility matters: Why planners should stop trying to get people out of their cars

An anti-auto urbanist named Brad Meacham wrote a blog post that offers a typical “we-have-to-get-people-out-of-their-cars” diatribe. When Meacham’s post was picked up by a San Antonio on-line magazine, someone asked me to comment. While my response speaks for itself, I’d like to add a few comments here where I don’t have to worry so much about word limits.

Meacham’s case against cars stands on four legs:

  1. Congestion is only going to get worse
  2. The cost of driving is increasing
  3. Fiscal reality will force cuts to highway budgets
  4. People are hungry for community

The first claim is almost certainly false. As the Reason Foundation recently showed in the case of Denver, if an urban area truly wants to reduce congestion, it can do it and do it in a cost-effective manner. Reason’s plan for Denver would cost less than half as much as Denver planners are already planning to spend on transport, but because Reason’s spending is targeted on congestion-reduction rather than social engineering, it actually can relieve congestion.

icon_blog_noteThis is just one illustration of the sad truth that most of the huge increase in congestion over the last 30 years has been a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of those who say, “Congestion is only going to get worse, so let’s not try to do anything about it.” As I showed in a 2007 report, when San Jose dedicated congestion-reduction funds to highways, traffic congestion declined despite rapid economic growth. When it rededicated those same funds to transit, congestion rapidly grew again.

This doesn’t mean we have to pave over America. As I recently noted, technological improvements such as adding adaptive cruise control to as little as 25 percent of cars on the road will make a lot of congestion go away without any infrastructure improvements. But cities and states should make an effort to fix bottlenecks and provide new capacity in growing areas of their regions.

Meacham’s claim that the cost of driving will keep rising is amusing at a time when gas prices are falling. I saw gasoline for $1.79 a gallon in Austin last week, and if I’d looked a little harder I might have seen it for $1.62 (your results will vary depending on when you click on this link). Of course, these low prices won’t last forever, but the availability of new sources of oil mean that oil prices are not likely to rise much above $100 a barrel, which corresponds to about $3 a gallon, for the rest of this century.

The truth is that it is transit costs that are rising fast. Between 1992 and 2002, transit operating costs per trip grew by 28 percent (after adjusting for inflation). When capital costs are added, transit costs per trip grew by 40 percent. Fares per trip grew by 24 percent, which means the share of costs covered by fares declined from 27.7 percent in 1992 to 24.5 percent in 2012. (All of these numbers, except for the adjustments for inflation, are from the historical tables in the American Public Transportation Association’s Transit Fact Book. Adjustments for inflation are based on GDP price deflators.)

Meacham’s argument about fiscal realities is even more amusing. We live in a country with a socialized transit system in which 75 percent of the cost of transit is paid for by taxpayers and a socialized highway system in which less than 5 percent of the cost of driving is paid by general taxes. The Antiplanner is all for ending the subsidies, but doing so is not going to get many people out of their cars.

Finally, Meacham’s claims about the demand for community are just irrelevant. Does community mean getting your face squeezed against the glass of an overcrowded railcar? Does it mean getting assaulted while you are taking the bus home from work? In what way are automobiles incompatible with a sense of community?

As I have noted in the past, communities aren’t necessarily geographically based. Instead, they are based on people’s interests and backgrounds. Building a town square does not create a sense of community. But transportation technologies (such as cars) that offer more mobility allow people to reach more people who have the same interests and/or background as they do.

Cars are cleaner than ever before and getting cleaner all the time. They are safer than ever before and getting safer all the time. Americans consistently spend about the same share of their personal incomes on transportation over time, but because cars are getting less expensive to drive, at least relative to incomes, that fixed share means greater mobility.

What it comes down to is that there is really no reason to try to get people to stop driving in either urban or rural areas. Instead, we should focus on providing the most cost-effective mobility for everyone. For some people, that may mean bicycles or transit, but for most people for most trips, it will continue to mean cars.

Randal O’Toole is transportation policy center director for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  This originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.

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