Paved Paradigm

Libertarian biases and assumptions keep Reason Magazine authors stuck in traffic.
April 26, 2007, 7am PDT | Michael Dudley
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Samuel Staley and Ted Balaker of the Reason Public Policy Institute are self-styled myth-busters when it comes to urban planning and transportation issues.

In January, they published a piece in the Washington Post that took aim at "the myths about sprawl," in which they sought to discredit the positions of smart growth advocates regarding land use, pollution and cars. The article is an excellent example of their rhetorical style: it purported to present smart growth arguments, but a close reading reveals that the authors are very dependent on straw-man arguments, and as a result do not address the key issues -- or their ideological opponents -- fairly (see author's blog entry).

Now they are at it again, this time in a Reason Magazine article called "How Traffic Jams Are Made In City Hall."

Staley and Balaker's free-market libertarian ideology predisposes them to promote market solutions to transportation problems –- and here they actually come up with some pretty good ones, such as charging market rates for parking, and premium rates for uncongested lanes.

But to get to these solutions the reader must first engage with some classic Staley/Balaker rhetoric. According to the authors, transportation planners, clinging to their "foundational myths" are "grounded in nostalgia" and "in the grip of transitphilia and autophobia." As a result, they are mis-directing public monies on transit systems that won't meet the demands of growing metropolitan populations. Worse, they are enmeshed in the (implied) socialist dream of "determine[ing] how we choose to travel by planning where and how we live." To these authors, "congestion relief" means only one thing: building or improving roads, not funding alternative transportation to get cars off of the road.

Both Minnesota's Metropolitan Council and the Atlanta Regional Commission come in for heavy criticism for the billions of dollars they are spending on transit, compared not only to how much they will spend on roads, but also to the percentage of people who are allegedly using transit. By the authors' reckoning, the Met Council is spending 25% of its budget on the 5% of the population who commute by transit, and the ARC is spending 40% of its budget on 4% of its market.

This is a very simplistic analytical approach and leads the authors to a number of fallacious conclusions. First of all, Balaker and Staley are conflating the figure of those who report regularly commuting by transit, with the total users of transit, which is obviously not the same thing -- indeed it is estimated that while 10 million Americans commute regularly by transit, 25 million more use it for other reasons. As well, looking at transit use in terms total trips in a given region (estimated in the article to be a mere 2.5% of all trips in the case of the Twin Cities Metropolitan region) is a deliberately inaccurate measure, for it encompasses travel to places not even served by transit. Measuring "transit competitive" journeys is a far more fair and accurate method, and would likely reveal figures approaching 20-40% of total trips being made by transit . Their approach amounts to declaring fault where it's unreasonable to expect otherwise -- rather like decrying high illiteracy rates among infants.

These conflations lead them to their second fallacy, which is to state that transit investments will be of no benefit to car drivers. This is ridiculous: everyone in urban areas stands to gain from well-funded and well-run transit services, even if they don't patronize them. After all, it is estimated that the American economy loses over $63 billion in productivity due to congestion, an amount that would be substantially worsened if there were no public transit at all: studies show that drivers save significant time and money owed to the absence of transit users from the roads. This is why some metropolitan areas are seeing transit investments as a key strategy in building and maintaining their competitive advantage.

At a much larger economic scale, however, one mustn't avoid calculating the tremendous and exceptional externalities of automobile dependency. The up-front costs of transit systems pale when compared to the costs imposed on society by the impacts of the car. Automobile dependency imposes financial burdens in terms of air pollution, traffic congestion and the deaths and injuries from car accidents to name just a few factors, which when aggregated should add $1.76 to the cost of a gallon of gas were drivers to bear the cost. Particularly well-hidden are the costs of securing the oil production system: estimates for the use of the U.S. military to fill this need for the petroleum industry range between $47.6 to $113.1 billion in 2003 dollars. Again, this is not reflected in the price of gas – nor does it include the ongoing hemorrhaging of the U.S. budget on the war in Iraq, which has resulted in unprecedented sweetheart "production sharing agreements" for U.S. and British oil companies, and could ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers $2 trillion dollars.

Finally, the authors' thesis that everyone should be able to drive, and that the road system should be adequate to meet this demand, is completely untenable. Even if there were the financial resources to built unlimited road networks (which there isn't and certainly won't be as public deficits worsen), there can never be enough road capacity to meet demand, as mathematician Dietrich Braess demonstrated decades ago: network improvements tend to be negated by the attraction of new users. This will be particularly true as the U.S. population edges towards 400 million people –- many of whom will presumably want to drive.

Contrary to Balaker's and Staley's analysis, then, automobile-based transportation systems cost significantly more in almost every way than does public transit. We can accept that cars have their uses, but for many transportation needs, were equivalent or better options available, cars are an enormously unnecessary waste.

We should understand that Staley and Balaker's flawed assumptions derive from the biggest logical fallacy of all: their cornucopian belief that present conditions are permanent, that there will always be plenty of cheap oil, that international relations will always be stable enough to support a petroleum-intensive economy, that technological solutions will always be adequate to the problems facing humanity, and that no natural or man-made disasters will make car-dependent cities unlivable.

None of these positions can, of course, be maintained outside the realm of faith. The world's natural, political and economic climates are going to change in the coming decades, probably dramatically; metropolitan regions must be prepared to change with them. Staley and Balaker's vision of an automobile monoculture is a prescription for not only an even more inequitable and unjust society, but would be financially ruinous and leave North America stuck in traffic, ill-prepared to compete in the 21st century.

Michael Dudley is a Research Associate with the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He would like to thank Arne Elias, Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainable Transportation for his valuable insights for this article.

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