The pandemic has reaffirmed a lesson that should have been taught by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack: the importance of having a resilient society that can withstand all kinds of unexpected events. The most resilient form of transportation we have, which works through hurricanes and wildfires, pandemics and recessions, and all sorts of other stresses, is motor vehicles and highways.
This makes it all the more distressing that in Colorado’s largest metropolitan area, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) wants to cancel planned highway expansions for fear they would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Partly for the same reason, the city of Denver is turning roadway lanes now open to all vehicles into exclusive bus or bike lanes. Fifty years of experience shows that such policies do more harm than good to both the economy and the environment.
Fifty years ago, American cars were gas guzzlers that darkened urban skies with pollution and killed 55,000 people a year in accidents. Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responded by ordering auto manufacturers to make cars cleaner, safer, and more fuel-efficient.
The EPA also urged state and local governments to promote alternatives to driving. Cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle embraced this idea with gusto. Instead of building new roads, they spent billions of dollars improving mass transit.
Today, the results are in and they are astounding. The EPA says that, as of 2019, total highway-related air pollution had fallen by 89%. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says average fuel consumption per mile of driving has dropped by more than 50%. Since 1972, highway fatalities declined by as much as 42%.
All of these gains were due solely to improvements to automobiles. Safer autos reduced fatalities per billion miles of driving by 80 percent. Cleaner autos reduced emissions per mile of driving by nearly 98 percent. Fuel economies grew enough that, in some years, total fuel consumed declined even though Americans drove more miles.
Transit an ongoing failure
Meanwhile, efforts to reduce driving failed miserably, as total miles of driving nearly tripled between 1970 and 2019 while transit trips per urban resident declined by 25%. Not only did cities fail to get people out of their cars, attempts to do so actually hindered other goals because the increased congestion from not expanding highways wasted fuel that produced more pollution.
We can see this in the Denver area. In 2000, 8.4% of workers in the city of Denver took transit to work, while in the wider Denver-Aurora area the figure was 4.8%.
Since then, the region has spent nearly $8 billion building light-rail and commuter-rail lines. Despite this, the share of workers commuting by transit in the city of Denver fell to 7.6 percent in 2019, while the share in the metro area was unchanged at 4.8 percent.
Transit proponents claimed these projects would reduce congestion. Instead, the Texas Transportation Institute says that the amount of time the average metro-area commuter wasted in traffic increased by more than 40% between 2000 and 2019. The amount of fuel wasted due to congestion grew by nearly 60%, adding hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Spending money on transit did little or nothing to relieve this congestion.
Congestion declined in 2020 due to the pandemic. But the latest data from the Federal Highway Administration say that urban Coloradans drove almost 15% more miles in June 2022 than June 2019. Colorado transit, however, carried less than 64% as many riders in June 2022 as in June 2019, demonstrating transit’s low resilience to change.
The DOE says that people living in dense cities drive a little less than people in low-density areas. This is largely a matter of self-selection: people who want to drive less live in areas where they can do so. After taking self-selection into account, says economist David Brownstone, the link between driving and urban design is “too small to be useful” to those who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, DOE data also show that people who live in congested cities drive slower and in more congested conditions, which uses more fuel. This means they end up emitting more greenhouse gases per capita than people who drive more miles in less congested areas. Conveniently, DRCOG’s transportation models fail to take speed or congestion into account when estimating greenhouse gas emissions.
Mandating more congestion
Behind these policies is the notion of induced demand, a popular claim that we shouldn’t build more roads because they will simply lead people to drive more. Conversely, reducing road capacities for automobiles, as Denver is doing, will supposedly reduce the amount of driving people do.
In reality, this is a totally ridiculous idea. No one can seriously believe that adding lanes to Nevada’s Highway 50, also known as the loneliest road in America, will double the amount of traffic on that road.
Instead, it is more accurate to say that traffic congestion suppresses demand, forcing people to travel on inconvenient routes, at inconvenient times of the day, or to skip traveling altogether. Relieving congestion allows people to reach more economic opportunities at lower cost, which is entirely a good thing.
In other words, the true goal of anti-auto policies is to suppress mobility. The impacts of these mobility-suppression policies fall hardest on low-income workers who are least likely to be able to work at home and most likely to have inflexible work hours that force them to commute during the busiest times of day.
Transit proponents say that more subsidies will help provide mobility to low-income people. But transit is a poor substitute for automobile travel. The University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory estimates that a typical resident of the Denver area can reach more jobs in a 20-minute auto drive than in a 60-minute transit trip. For trips of any given time span — 10 through 60 minutes — auto users can reach six to 12 times as many jobs as transit riders.
Denver transit is so slow and inefficient that bicycle riders can reach 1.5 to 9 times as many jobs as transit riders in trips of 10 to 60 minutes. This reduces transit to third-class transportation. Those who want low-income people to ride transit while medium- and high-income people drive are promoting both economic and geographic immobility.
Low-income people know that driving will get them to work faster and more efficiently than transit. Census Bureau data show that, in 2019, less than 6% of Denver-area workers who made less than $25,000 a year took transit to work, while 81% drove or carpooled.
In Colorado Springs, it was less than 1% on transit and nearly 85% by auto; for Colorado as a whole, it was less than 4% by transit and more than 80% by auto.
In the Denver area, more transit commuters in 2019 earned more than $65,000 a year than those who earned less than $25,000 a year. This means that the 94% of low-income workers who don’t ride transit are disproportionately paying the regressive sales taxes that subsidize transit rides that are predominately taken by high-income commuters.
Nor does mass transit help protect the environment. Calculations using the National Transit Database reveal that, in 2019, Denver transit used more energy and emitted more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average light truck (meaning pickups, SUVs, and vans) and much more than the average car.
The pandemic underscores these numbers. More people are working at home, and studies show that telecommuters actually drive more miles per day than when they commuted to their jobs. People are riding transit less, so dedicating lanes to buses will be a complete waste.
Increases in the number of people working at home have an outsized effect on transit. Census Bureau surveys found that Colorado telecommuting increased by 121% in 2020. This reduced the number of people taking autos to work by 15%, but it reduced transit commuting by 44%.
Highways are there when we need them
Transit will never again be an important form of transportation and certainly doesn’t deserve the billions of dollars in annual subsidies that it receives. Highways are subsidized too, and those subsidies should end, but Colorado highway subsidies are less than a penny per passenger-mile while Colorado transit subsidies averaged $1.38 a passenger-mile in 2019 and more than $2.50 per passenger-mile in 2020.
Highways are more resilient than transit because they don’t require billions of dollars in operating subsidies. During the pandemic, transit agencies demanded and received almost $70 billion in federal subsidies to keep operating even though they were carrying less than half as many riders as before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, highways needed and received almost no supplemental operating subsidies. Highways are there when we need them, and when we use them the gas taxes we pay cover most of their maintenance costs. This makes them far more dependable than systems that only work if they get giant subsidies.
Those who seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions need to learn the lessons of history. Past attempts to reduce air pollution by suppressing mobility have been an economic and environmental disaster. Instead, just as we reduced toxic air pollution by making better cars, we can best reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making more fuel-efficient cars. This may mean electric vehicles (if sources of electricity don’t themselves generate greenhouse gases) or it may simply mean making vehicles lighter and more aerodynamic.
Automobiles are also equitable transportation. Someone driving a used Honda Civic gets the same access to highways as someone driving a new Rolls Royce. Some low-income households don’t have access to an automobile, but the main obstacle for them is not the price of a used car or the cost of gasoline but the finance charges.
While some auto manufacturers are still offering 3% loans to new car buyers with good credit, used car loans to people with poor or no credit can be 20% or more, nearly doubling the cost of the car. People who care about in transportation equity should support non-profit groups that help low-income families get low-interest loans to buy a car and enjoy the same first-class transportation as the rest of us.
The war on the automobile is over. The automobile and those who use it won. It is time for those fighting this war to recognize that they should instead put their efforts into making automobiles and highways safer, cleaner, and more fuel efficient than ever before. One of the ways to do that is to build new, safer roads that can relieve overall traffic congestion.
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