A War On Cars? Let There Be Peace!

Todd Litman's picture

Our job as planners is ultimately to manage change, which is often fun but occasionally ugly. A good example is a current debate over a supposed "war against the car."

Current demographic and economic trends (aging population, rising fuelprices, increasing urbanization, changing consumer preferences, and increasing health and environmental concerns) are raising demand for alternative modes. People increasingly want to walk, bicycle and use public transport, provided these modes are convenient and comfortable to use. Meeting this demand can help achieve various planning objectives, including congestion reductions, road and parking facility cost savings, consumer saving, and improved public health, to name just a few. It therefore makes sense to shift a portion of resources (road space and money) currently dedicated to automobile transport to support other modes, and to reform land use policies to help create more multi-modal communities.

But some Americans fear these changes. Many lead automobile-dependent lifestyles and have never experienced an efficient, multi-modal transport system or an attractive and successful urban neighborhood. As a result, they assume that such changes will harm them overall. Some people and groups exploit this fear by claiming that a war exists against cars and suburbs. According to this narrative, motorists are victims of unfair attacks on their rights and freedoms, and are therefore entitled to defend themselves from a devious enemy.

Is there really a "war on cars," that is, a coordinated effort to unjustifiably restrict automobile use? Evidence of a war consists of exaggerated objections to policies such as traffic calming (which increases traffic safety), busways and bike lanes (which improve transport options, reducing traffic congestion and motorists' chauffeuring burdens), and more efficient road and parking pricing (which reduces traffic and parking problems, and helps finance facilities). These policies, which critics call "anti-car," are often the most effective solutions to transportation problems, and ultimately benefit motorists. These are no more "anti-car" than a healthy diet is "anti-food."

Truth is often the first victim of war, real or percieved. There is plenty of room for legitimate debate about transport policy issues, but describing it as a war changes the nature of the debate. It makes the issues ideological and absolute, and implies that motorists are justified in defending their interests with dishonest and destructive tactics.

This issue affects me personally because my research has been caught in the crossfire. It was attacked, inaccurately I believe, by Wendell Cox in his paper, Washington's War on Cars and the Suburbs: Secretary LaHood's False Claims on Roads and Transit. Cox criticises the USDOT's liveability initiative and my research which LaHood cited in support of policy reforms. His analysis misrepresents issues and data, violating basic principles of fair debate.

My research, published in the report Rail Transit In America and various articles, evaluated the transport system performance of 120 U.S. urban regions categorized according to their public transit system quality. It found that the regions with the highest quality transit had significantly lower per capita traffic congestion delays, accident rates, transportation expenses and energy consumption, plus more cost effective transit service. Other studies using different methodologies and datasets reach similar conclusions. Cox attacks these findings with clever but inaccurate arguments.

Much of this debate hinges on analysis details. My research shows that residents of communities with high quality public transit drive fewer annual vehicle-miles on average, which provides benefits that are only percieved when impacts are measured per capita. Cox only compares energy consumption per passenger-mile, which ignores most of the energy savings provided by high quality public transit.

Cox claims that rail transit systems have failed to attract ridership, which is sort of true since transit mode share declined in most North American cities during the last half-century, but the decline was much smaller in cities with high quality transit systems.

Cox claims that public transit travel is inefficient and unfairly subsidized, based on comparisons that ignore a host of differences between automobile and transit cost profiles. When these factors are considered it turns out that transit commuters typically receive less subsidy per capita than urban motorists, and that public transit service improvements are often the most cost-effective way address urban transportation problems. 

A particularly egregious example of Cox's misrepresentations is his analysis of consumer savings. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey, I found that households located in areas with high quality transit spend about 20% less on transportation (vehicles, fuel and transit fares) than elsewhere. This indicates that consumers receive a high financial return on their transit investments. Cox used a different dataset, the American Chamber of Commerce Research Association's Cost of Living Index, to argue that the cities with high quality transit have higher transport costs, but that dataset is totally different; it compares the purchase price of a standard bundle of goods typically consumed by higher income households (it is designed to help businesses set executive wages), it does not account for differences in consumption and therefore the savings provided by high quality transit. Cox either did not understand these differences or intentionally misrepresents this issue in his attacks.

Some of Cox's claims indicate that he simply repeated a standard set of arguments without actually analyzing my research. For example, he claimed that my results were dominated by New York, but I'd heard this criticism before so several year ago I ran the analysis excluding New York, and the results hardly changed, indicating that any city can benefit from high quality public transport. He also claimed that my analysis is intended to "demonstrate the ineffectiveness of buses as a mode of transport", which is wrong. My analysis actually concerns transit service quality: frequency, relative speed, comfort, and the degree it is integrated into a community. This applies to both rail and bus. I am actually a great supporter of Bus Rapid Transit, as discussed in previous Planetizen blogs. 

One particularly ironic criticism by Cox is that my work lacks peer review. In fact, summary versions of my analysis were published in two leading professional journals, the Transportation Research Record in 2005, and Transport Policy in 2007. In a typical year I publish about a dozen peer-reviewed papers and articles, to my knowledge Cox seldom or never does. After I made these points Cox reversed his position, arguing that peer review is no indication of analysis quality. 

These are difficult but important issues for planners. We work at the intersection between objective technical analysis and ideological debates. We therefore must be prepared to carefully evaluate and respond to inaccurate cciticism in a dignified and professional way. Please let me know how well you think I've done this in my recent report, The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War.


For More Information 

Wendell Cox (2010), Washington's War on Cars and the Suburbs: Secretary LaHoods False Claims on Roads and Transit, Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org); at http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2010/pdf/SR0079.pdf.

Wendell Cox (2011) Urban Transportation Policy Requires Factual Foundations, Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org); at http://heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/02/Urban-Transportation-Policy-Requires-Factual-Foundations.

Eric De Place (2011), "War On Cars": A History, Sightline Institute (www.sightline.org); at http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2011/01/03/war-on-cars-a-history.

Sarah Goodyear (2011), "The Latest Battle in the Nonexistent ‘War on Cars'," Grist (www.grist.org), 23 March 2011; at www.grist.org/article/2011-03-23-the-latest-battle-in-the-non-existent-war-on-cars.

Ray LaHood (2010), "Public Transportation Delivers Public Benefits," Welcome to the Fast Lane: The Official Blog of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Department Of Transportation; at http://fastlane.dot.gov/2009/06/public-transportation-delivers-public-benefits.html.

Todd Litman (2004), Rail Transit In America: Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/railben.pdf.

Todd Litman (2008a), Evaluating Rail Transit Criticism, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/railcrit.pdf.

Todd Litman (2008b), Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth, VTPI (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/sgcritics.pdf.

Todd Litman (2011), The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War: Evaluating Claims of Unjustified Restrictions on Automobile Use, and a Critique of 'Washington's War On Cars And The Suburbs', Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org); at www.vtpi.org/carwars.pdf.

"Transportation Secretary Endorses Anti-Car Agenda," The Newspaper: A Journal of the Politics of Driving (www.thenewspaper.com/news/27/2789.asp).

Edward Niedermeyer (2010), Review of "Carjacked: The Culture Of The Automobile And Its Effects On Our Lives" for the car enthusiasts' website The Truth About Cars (www.thetruthaboutcars.com); at www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/book-review-carjacked-the-culture-of-automobiles-and-its-effects-on-our-lives.

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



double-post deleted


Pot versus Kettle

"........Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, I found that households located in areas with high quality transit spend about 20% less on transportation (vehicles, fuel and transit fares) than elsewhere. This indicates that consumers receive a high financial return on their transit investments. Cox used a different dataset, the American Chamber of Commerce Research Association’s Cost of Living Index, to argue that the cities with high quality transit have higher transport costs, but that dataset is totally different; it compares the purchase price of a standard bundle of goods typically consumed by higher income households (it is designed to help businesses set executive wages), it does not account for differences in consumption and therefore the savings provided by high quality transit......"

Todd, why is Cox's failure to account for "differences in consumption", any different to your failure to account for the difference between "average" vehicle running costs which includes a large discretionary component, and the potential "lowest cost" case for running a vehicle?

And what about the marginal new household in every city where property prices have been inflated by the presence of an UGB? The bigger the inflation of property prices, the bigger the contribution to the "total" cost, is made by "Housing" compared to "Transport". Even Anthony Downs in "Still Stuck in Traffic", 2004, spells all this out very clearly. In fact, he calculates a "trigger point" for median home values, above which "transport" costs become less significant than "housing" costs - his trigger point median home value was $171,000.

Lesson: drive your median home price over $171,000 (with regulation-induced price bubbles), and you will be driving people AWAY from efficient locations, and TO inefficient locations at or beyond the fringe, where they can "afford" to exist at all, regardless of longer commutes.

This is "Nemesis" for UGB advocates, Todd. You can't escape it.

Todd Litman's picture

Responding to Wodehouse

For those readers unfamiliar with this forum let me explain that Wodehouse frequently responds to Planetizen blogs to argue with considerable passion a single point: that urban growth boundaries are harmful. I find such monomaniacal advocacy difficult to appreciate because it is counter to my own philosophy, that good planning requires comprehensive analysis of all objectives and impacts.

I am very concerned with housing affordability. However, I believe that the best way to provide true affordability is to integrate this with other planning objectives, as discussed in my paper “Affordable Accessible Housing in A Dynamic City” (www.vtpi.org/aff_acc_hou.pdf ). That provides the greatest overall benefits to users (the residents of affordable-accessible housing) and the rest of society. By reducing per capita vehicle travel it reduces consumer transportation costs, facility costs, accidents, energy consumption and pollution emissions, plus it improves accessibility for non-drivers, public health and the cost efficiency of various public services (see "Understanding Smart Growth Savings" http://www.vtpi.org/sg_save.pdf ). Such policies respond to housing location demands of an increasing portion of households (see “Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth” at www.vtpi.org/sgcp.pdf ).

Wodehouse mistakenly assumes that smart growth consists primarily of urban growth boundaries (they are actually one of many smart growth policy instruments) and he makes various criticisms often based on nothing more than speculation. For example, he claims here that the transport cost savings I find in more transit-oriented communities do not really reflect affordability (i.e., savings skewed toward lower-income households) since a portion of transportation expenditures are discretionary, such as the purchase of luxury vehicles. That is an interesting point, but since lower-income consumers tend to be particularly price sensitive I expect that, if we had household expenditure data disaggregated by income at the municipal level, we would find that lower-income households save proportionately more in transit-oriented communities providing significant affordability benefits.

Wodehouse also claims that smart growth imposes terrible economic harms, but as I’ve pointed out previously, the empirical evidence shows the opposite: per capita GDP tends to increase (see “Are Vehicle Travel Reduction Targets Justified?”, http://www.vtpi.org/vmt_red.pdf, figures 8-11) and housing foreclosure rates tend to decline in smart growth communities (see “Reducing Foreclosures and Environmental Impacts through Location-Efficient Neighborhood Design,” at www.nrdc.org/energy/files/LocationEfficiency4pgr.pdf ).

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Smart Growth And Transportation Savings

Supporting Todd's point, there is an article in today's NY Times about a group that has published a study of how much income it takes to "meet basic needs."

For a two person family, they estimate a basic minimum transportation cost of $11,724 per year, over 25% of their total budget of $42,504 and more than any other item in their budget. (They budget $8,256 for this family's housing, showing that transportation cost is an even greater burden than housing cost on lower income households, as Todd suggests.)

They say that they calculated commuting costs "assuming the ownership of a small sedan" and that the income projections do not take into account frills like gifts or meals out: 'It’s a very bare-bones budget.'

Contrast this with the fact that, 100 years ago, the average American family spent about 2% of its income on transportation - at a time when per capita GDP was about one-seventh of what it is now.

Or contrast it with my own transportation costs:

For many years, I commuted by bicycle, and my total transportation cost was about $100 per year for occasional tires, brakes, and overhauls. (I have had the same mountain bike for over 10 years and got it used.)

Now, I have a long commute by public transit, which costs $4.30 each way. I work at home some days, but if I commuted to work every day, transportation would cost me $2,150 per year. I still bicycle for my non-commute transportation, and that still costs about $100 per year. Even with a long commute, my transportation cost is less than 40% of their estimated basic minimum transportation cost.

This poverty budget for transportation does not look "bare bones" compared with the budget for transportation of someone like me, who lives in a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Of course, most low-income households do live in places where you need to drive to get around. These numbers give you some idea of how much they could save if we built smart growth that did not require them to drive.

The extra cost of transportation that sprawl imposes on low-income families is far greater than any possible added cost of housing. Let me repeat the figures:

--basic minimum transportation cost: $11,724 per year
--basic minimum housing cost: $8,256 per year.

Charles Siegel

Oh, come ON, Charles; basic

Oh, come ON, Charles;

basic minimum housing cost: $8,256 per year. Blind Freddy's dog can see that that is nonsense.

This supports my point. In cities where the median house price has gone up to $250,000 plus, where are the $8256 per year homes?

Atlanta or Houston, perhaps?

And in response to Todd; yes, I do say that urban growth boundaries force up the price of urban land. It is absurd to claim the contrary, and absurd to fail to recognise that this will affect the trade off between housing and transport.

Let's look at the figures.

From the study you cite, Charles. It is evident that that minimum housing cost is "per worker". It is based on HUD "Fair Rent" figures, involving a percentile where Federal Rental Subsidies apply.

The report notes that "where a person lives" will make quite a difference to the various costs. I would suggest that the costs will be very much higher in "growth constrained" cities.

The report assumes that a 2-earner household owns 2 cars.

It also states: "Transportation costs for drivers include fuel, maintenance
costs, insurance, finance charges (not down
payment or purchase costs), license and registration
fees and DEPRECIATION (the largest cost of car ownership)". - my emphasis.

Depreciation is the largest cost in car ownership IF you buy a newer car. By far the lowest overall running costs are to be had if you buy an older but still reliable car.

"Automobile insurance costs are the National Association
of Insurance Commissioners’ national average
automobile insurance expenditures per car."

This obviously skews the cost upwards by including the insurance cost of Cadillacs, Ferraris, etc.

While depreciation and insurance and other "fixed costs" are significant, it is the cost PER MILE that counts in the comparison I am talking about above: people living further away from the urban centre, to save more on housing costs than they pay in transport costs.

Here is one of the first tables from the report:

Monthly Expenses for: 1 Worker
Housing $688
Utilities $149
Food $244
Transportation $495

Where did you get your figures, Charles? OK, I see it.

Monthly Expenses; Housing:
1 Worker: $688
1 Worker, 1 Infant: $821
1 Worker, 1 Preschooler, 1 Schoolchild: $821
2 Workers: $688
2 Workers, 1 Preschooler, 1 Schoolchild: $821

What a curious assumption. 2 workers housing costs are the same as 1 worker, yet the 2 workers will have 2 cars. (Transport costs are double on the table, for 2 workers).

Charles, it is obvious that THESE figures have no validity in the issue we are discussing. Have you talked to ANYBODY in the real world, in a "growth restrained" city with high land costs; with children (or an intention to have them); who has been "house hunting" for their first home? This may be the big advantage I have over you and Todd - I have a lot to do with such people all the time.

Even studies of aggregate "transport costs" and "housing costs" for a nation, State, or city; fail to capture the really vital information for LONG TERM effects of inflated land prices. That is, what are FIRST HOME seekers doing? Of course transport costs in the aggregate will include Cadillacs and v12's. Of course housing costs in the aggregate will include people who bought their first home 30 years ago and are now debt-free. But the long term changes will come from what the new entrants into the market are doing and the "choices" they are facing.

Here are some obvious off the cuff figures for everyone to chew on. Automobile transport costs CAN be less than $3,000 per year "fixed costs" and less than 50 cents per mile variable costs. In a growth constrained city, a fringe home will cost around $350,000; land being more expensive than structure. An efficiently located home will cost around $1,000,000. Possibly 90% of that, can be land value. (Check out "Crack Shack or Mansion", a photo analysis of Real Estate in Todd's poster city, Vancouver). A tiny apartment, efficiently located, will still be around $350,000 plus.

In a NON growth constrained city, the fringe home will cost less than $200,000, and most of that is structure, not land. Efficiently located homes, because the "structure" is older and the land still cheap, might be LESS than $200,000. Tiny apartments? Maybe there is no demand for them because real houses are so cheap. But young singles often "double up" (and more) in the rental of a budget house. This will represent by far the cheapest accommodation for "single workers" to be found anywhere in the USA.

There you go. There is the "case to answer". You and Todd. I have been waiting months for some serious engagement with reality. No amount of character assassination from Todd alters the facts that any third party reading my arguments cannot fail to note with respect. Many young "planning" students actually have a fair idea of the reality confronting their generation, and are rapidly tiring of all the religious cant from urban containment advocates, which is more and more coming to resemble the kind of stuff Galileo had to contend with.

I am also appalled that so many studies being done into "poverty" etc, fail to observe the massive inter-city differences in house prices and accommodation costs, and the reasons why. The aforementioned study is typical. There is no way their typical poorer worker will get accommodated at the prices they suggest, in a growth constrained city, unless perhaps they "double up" in already tiny apartments. But Houston or Atlanta, no problem.

The biggest cost of Smart Growth so far

From the NCPA June 2, 2011

The Housing Crash and Smart Growth

There is general agreement the financial crisis that began with the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was worsened by the bursting of the U.S. housing price bubble. It is also generally acknowledged that some of the fuel for the housing bubble came from a relaxation of mortgage loan standards that allowed many families to purchase homes they could not afford with loans on which they subsequently defaulted.

However, the U.S. housing bubble varied substantially by geography, says Wendell Cox, adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis. Many metropolitan areas with prescriptive land use restrictions were not able to respond to the increased demand for homeownership caused by the greater availability of mortgage credit. The result was higher prices, which encouraged speculation and increased house prices even more. From 2000 to 2007, among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan markets:

In the 10 markets with the greatest rise in prices compared to income, the cost of a house rose by an average of $275,000, relative to incomes.
Among the second 10 markets with the greatest price escalation, house prices rose $135,000.
By contrast, in the major markets with the least rise in prices, houses increased only $5,000.

For the nation as a whole, house values more than doubled from 1999 to the peak of the bubble. From the peak in the fourth quarter of 2006 until the end of 2010, homes values fell more than $6 trillion. Losses after the bubble burst were even more concentrated than house price gains. Consider:

From the peak of the bubble in 2006 to the Lehman Brothers' collapse on September 15, 2008, more heavily regulated metropolitan markets accounted for 73 percent of aggregate value losses.
All prescriptively regulated markets (more heavily regulated markets) accounted for 94 percent of losses, or an average of $97,000 per house.
Responsively regulated markets (less restrictively regulated markets) lost just 6 percent of their value, or an average of $12,000 per house.

If the prescriptively regulated metropolitan areas had instead had responsive land use regulations, prices likely would have escalated at a much lower rate during the housing bubble.

Source: Wendell Cox, "The Housing Crash and Smart Growth," National Center for Policy Analysis, Policy Report No. 335, June 2011.

For text: http://www.ncpa.org/pub/st335

(Note from Wodehouse: I agree with Todd that using "Smart Growth" as a handy phrase to represent "urban growth containment", is not helpful. Most of the rest of "Smart Growth" principles are unquestionably beneficial. However, I do stick to my grounds, that those beneficial features are themselves hindered in their effectiveness by urban boundaries and other fringe containment measures, and would have worked more effectively had the fringe growth containment NOT been included as part of the policy package. It is much easier to influence urban form when ALL land prices are low, compared to when they are high).

Prolixity does not equal truthiness.

Sheer number of words doesn't sway anyone. Especially when one depends upon Wendell Cox for evidence. But keep the comedy coming! Yer a hoot, son!



Todd Litman's picture

Response to Coxs' analysis.

Wodehouse posted these comments on my "Stupid Attack on Smart Growth" blog in June. You can read my response at http://www.planetizen.com/node/49772 .

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Inebriated by the Exuberance

Wodehouse, you are so inebriated by the exuberance of your own verbosity that you ignore the obvious.

Since they are talking about people who are living on a bare-bones budget, they are talking about people who are renting housing, not buying. Your talk about people "house hunting for their first home" is totally irrelevant here.

You also miss the point completely when you write:
"What a curious assumption. 2 workers housing costs are the same as 1 worker, yet the 2 workers will have 2 cars."

They are thinking about a working individual who lives in a small apartment and has one car vs. a working couple who live in the same sort of small apartment and have two cars. These are both common situations among low-income people in auto-dependent parts of American cities: you can have the same cramped one bedroom apartment with either one or two people sleeping in the bed, but if you have two people, you need two cars.

If I may give you a bit of advice about writing style, let me suggest that you would be more effective if you would think through what you want to say before you start writing, and then write what you want to say as concisely as possible - rather than free associating as you go along and writing things like:

"Where did you get your figures, Charles? OK, I see it."

You just lose readers when you write this sort of amorphous diatribe, then respond to yourself to write even more, and then respond to your response to yourself to write even more. I guarantee you that no one gets through that third post.

You would be more effective if you limited yourself to one concise post in a day, rather than writing as many as five long, rambling posts in one day.

Charles Siegel

Attacking the messenger, they must be rattled.

Yep, they've resorted to attacking the messenger and his writing style.
They've got nothing to say in response to my perfectly valid observation, based on real life experience, and engagement with the best academic literature, that "the price of real estate" and of course, accomodation rentals, vary across metropolitan areas and affect people's location decisions by the simple criteria of "what they can afford".
I will try and say it more concisely in future.

You have the cheek to say "Since they are talking about people who are living on a bare-bones budget, they are talking about people who are renting housing, not buying." As if I did not know that. It was YOU who threw that report in as a "rebuttal" to my argument, when it was no such thing.

People on a bare-bones budget are the LAST people who will be able to afford to live anywhere in any city where your planning ideals have inflated land prices, let alone at locations that command a price premium due to their proximity to jobs, amenities, transit, or whatever.

It is interesting that the people who did that study tacitly assume that people on a bare bones budget will actually have to own 1 car per worker. They might not realise it, but transit subsidies are mostly a subsidy of upper middle class workers who can afford to live on the routes.

The people are not happy once they know the truth about their treatment as pieces on a gameboard by utopian urban planners.

Victim of DKE, surely

They've got nothing to say in response to my perfectly valid observation, based on real life experience, and engagement with the best academic literature, that "the price of real estate" and of course, accomodation rentals, vary across metropolitan areas and affect people's location decisions by the simple criteria of "what they can afford".

Dunning-Kruger Effect much?




You honestly think so?

I said that planners are unwilling to let the fact bother them, that more and more people can't afford to buy or rent homes, especially in the efficient location, as the prices get forced up - by the planners - and you allege that it is ME who is out of touch with reality?

"Experience beats in vain apon the congenital progressive"
- C S Lewis

I do it for the floating audience. I know I can't convert a true believer. But as I say, many of the young planning students who follow this blog will "get it". There is nothing like real life experience.

You don't own a portfolio of investment properties by any chance, Dano? I am starting to realise that that can be the underlying problem with some of my most dedicated opponents. Another problem, often is which wealthy patron funds the "chair" of Real Estate Economics or whatever at the various Unis.

Not Rattled

I'm not rattled. I am just tired of reading posts that are so verbose that no one can get through them.

"People on a bare-bones budget are the LAST people who will be able to afford to live anywhere in any city where your planning ideals have inflated land prices."

Once again, you miss the point, which is that transportation prices are also a huge economic burden. People on a bare-bones budget are the last ones who can afford to live in suburbs where you can't leave your house without driving a car.

Charles Siegel

Car Wars and the Dark Side

I am very happy Mr. Litman took the time to respond to Mr. Cox, whose false claims and misinterpretation of data render him an unintended ally to Litman rather than an adversary in the latest "Car Wars" redux.

Cox's implication, in mentioning what he calls "seemingly" impressive figures cited by Secretary LaHood, is worthy of resentment on several levels. Certainly Cox didn't mean to imply that the widely documented social and financial costs associated with automobile-use and infrastructure are outweighed by the benefits that such a system provides. Because said costs are largely unaccounted for due to a lack of appropriate user-fees, it is probably very easy for Cox to look through the window of his hybrid cross-over and see nothing but benefits when compared to the relatively painless costs of gasoline, insurance, and occasional upkeep--just don't ask him when he's sitting in a mid-afternoon traffic jam or endlessly circling in search of parking; According to him, these are not the results of a flawed transportation mode, but rather, are "artificial" problems brought on by militant anti-car policies wrought by extremist insurgents known as transportation planners, whose only goal is to kill the American way of life.

As Litman skillfully lays bare, the effort to bring about balance in transportation, both in mode options and in terms of appropriate user-fees for motorists, is no more a "war on cars" than efforts to curb gender- and race-based discrimination are a "war on white men."

The graphic at the beginning of Cox's piece showing the ubiquitous suburban cul-de-sac in the cross-hairs of a gun is fitting. I don't think anyone out there can argue, with a straight face, that this type of auto-dependent mono-culture, so dominant for the past 60 years, has proved healthy for people or communities.

Cox should leave the dark side and join the ranks of our rebel alliance.

Aaron Detter
Master of Regional Planning, 2012
The University at Albany

re: War on Cars

Jeff Stivenson
I am not an academic or an intellectual, though I have a Master's degree in Urban Planning. I am disabled: ambulatory but not able to walk far or often. The most convenient mode of transportation for me is the automobile. It comes closest to getting me door to door. An alternative is paratransit systems, but I don't want to be ghettoized.

Many of the prevailing trends in urban planning are oblivious to the needs of the handicapped, none more so than the demonization of the automobile. To not use a car, unless I wanted to take paratransit, means getting myself to a bus/train stop, or walking, or riding a bike, which is very difficult for me.

This emphasis on transportation alternatives to the car, just like the fashionability of New Urbanism, is mindless of the handicapped.

Todd Litman's picture

War on Cars?

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for your comments. I respectfully disagree with you on the following points you raise.

You claim that "many of the prevailing trends in urban planning are oblivious to the needs of the handicapped." I think this is statement is quite wrong and I challenge you to prove it. Current urban planning places a high value on Universal Design (www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm69.htm ) in the design of paths, streets, public transit vehicles and terminals; in efforts to improve transport options available to non-drivers; and in efforts to create more compact and mixed land use development and to locate more affordable housing in accessible locations. All of these improve accessibility for physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people. I can tell you from personal experience that cities such as my home of Victoria, BC, which incorporate contemporary urban design principles, are much better places for people with disabilities than automobile-dependent communities which often lack sidewalks and public transit services.

You seem to argue that since some some travel by people with disabilities is best made by automobile, efforts to improve alternative modes are necessarily harmful and unfair to people with disabilities. While you may not recognize the value of improving walking, cycling and public transit for your own use, I can assure you that many other people with disabilities do depend significantly on these modes and benefit from improving them. Even if you never walk, ride a bike or use public transit, you benefit from improving these modes, both because they help reduce the traffic and parking congestion, and accident risk that motorists face, and because sometime in the future you may want or need to rely more on alternative modes.

This brings us back to the theme of my blog. Like others who claim that there is a "war on cars" you criticize the "demonization of the automobile". What specific evidence do you have of this demonization in public policy and planning practices? As I discuss, all the evidence cited consists of planning reforms to create a more balanced transport system, such as shifting a small portion of funding and road space currently dedicated to automobile transport to serve walking, cycling and public transit. Virtually none of these reforms prohibit or even significantly restrict automobile travel, or in other ways "demonize" driving.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Parking Pricing and the Handicapped

One of the new trends in urban planning is pricing parking following the theories of Donald Shoup, who says we should set the price of on-street parking based on demand and always set the price at a level that results in an 85% to 90% vacancy rate, which means that there will always be one or two vacant spaces per block.

San Francisco is just starting an experiment with this method, which is called SFPark.

Cars with disabled placards do not have to pay for parking in San Francisco. For the first time, people who are disabled and who drive will generally be able to find a space on the same block where their destination is. That parking placard will be useful for them, because they will not be forced to park many blocks away from their destination, as they usually are now.

Some people may say that this "trend in urban planning" is a form of "demonization of the automobile." To my mind, it is just a matter of making drivers pay a market price for a scarce resource that they use, as people already pay for virtually every scarce resource that they use EXCEPT FOR the scarce land that they use for their parking spaces and their roads.

But, whatever you want to call it, it very clearly will make parking easier for people who have disabled placards on their cars. And it clearly shows that "prevailing trends in urban planning" are not "mindless of the handicapped."

Charles Siegel

Todd Litman's picture

Improving Accessibility for People With Disabilities


Thanks for your comments. Yes, providing discounted and priority parking is just one of many ways that current planning is trying to better accommodate people with disabilities. Some people with disabilities can rely on automobile transport, and I can understand why they place a high value on their ability to drive, so I think it is important to accommodate this demand. However, I think it is a mistake to focus on special design features and services; equally important are general efforts to create more diverse transport systems and more accessible land use development, which improve accessibility for everybody. For example, wider and smoother sidewalks, better crosswalks, traffic calming, more frequent and faster bus service, nicer transit waiting areas, better taxi and delivery services, and more affordable housing in mixed-use urban neighborhoods can benefit many people, including but not limited to people who cannot drive because they are physically, economically and socially disadvantaged.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Stivenson focuses on paratransit as the alternative to driving and characterizes it as "ghettoized" transport. In fact, people with disabilities have worked hard to make all forms of transport accessible and to integrate these modes into communities. This is the basis of 'universal design,' which is a key principle of contemporary transport and urban planning. This is all very good news for people with disabilities and other mobility constraints. When people who are "ambulatory but not able to walk far or often" give up driving, they generally rely on a combination of conventional transit and taxi services (you can pay for a lot of taxi rides on what you save by not owning a car), with paratransit reserved for people with severe disabilities.

I can understand when the general public evaluates planning issues from a narrow, selfish perspective, asking only, "how does it affect me?", but Mr. Stivenson claims to be a professional planner which requires a broader analysis perspective which asks, "how does it affect the entire community, particularly disadvantaged people?" It is therefore disappointing that his comments imply that efforts to create a more diverse transport system are harmful to people with disabilities simply because he cannot perceive how such decisions directly help him. As a planner, he should recognize that, although some people with disabilities travel by automobile, others do not, so our planning decisions must balance these differing needs.

Let me repeat my challenge: provide evidence of a coordinated effort to unjustifiably restrict automobile use. Without this, claims of a 'war on cars' are nothing more than selfish complaining.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Accessibility and Disability

Todd, I agree completely. I was answering his comment about ignoring the disabled by pointing out that there are moves underway to accommodate those who are disabled and auto-dependent. But I think you are right to say that it is much more important to design cities that are less auto-dependent, to improve accessibility for everyone.

Years ago, I was on the Berkeley transportation commission, and another commissioner was confined to an electric wheelchair. I used to bicycle to meetings, and I often met him along the way. We used to go to the meeting together, both riding in the bike lanes, and I had trouble keeping up with him. Moral: if we build cities that are easy and safe to get around by bicycle and transit, those cities will be easy and safe to get around for everyone, including people in wheelchairs, elderly people who can no longer drive, and so on.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

trying to synthesize everyone's arguments

So maybe all of you should be asking yourself: in a cheap, sprawling city, how much would our imaginary working-class household pay for
(1) rent (NOT buying a house),
(2) the fixed and variable cost of a car or two.

Then: if our sprawling city adopts growth boundaries, how much do rents rise? And how much do transportation costs fall?

I'm not answering the question, just posing it.

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