Paved Paradigm

Libertarian biases and assumptions keep Reason Magazine authors stuck in traffic.
Photo: Michael Dudley

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.



Attacking rhetoric with rhetoric

It always cracks me up when someone attacks another group claiming how bias they are when they are incredibly biased in another direction. That's all this is, really.

In terms of substance, I think one failing of logic the author has is that he neglects the obvious fact that all these roads (existing and future) can be privately financed. So, he just makes the assumption that roads will be more costly (which would be true, perhaps, if we publicly financed them). However, that was never the claim of Staley and Balaker who promote private financing.

In terms of the external costs of driving, they are obviously substantial and should be levied to drivers based on pollution levels, fuel choice, vehicle weight, etc., but why would we disregard these just to direct more public money to transit which will not carry most of the users if you don't levy those fees. In short, you're just creating a huge political carrot with no stick.

If drivers paid direct and some measure of indirect costs, driving would probably decline somewhat and other options would become more attactive.

Bottom line, people want paradoxical things in terms of development and life, in general. They want clean air, but they want to drive. They hate urban sprawl, but may not want to live in dense areas. They want open space preserved as long as they can live in the foothills. These disparate views are not going away. The only reasonable way they can be addressed is to charge for the socially undesirable behaviors and see what balance of these things that society really wants.

Apologies to the author, who I'm sure means well, but this article does nothing to address any productive measure in this respect.

I disagree...

With all due respect to you, I found the comments to be quite relevant to the subject at hand. I think it's completely fair, not to mention necessary, to look at the statistics. Additionally, I would argue that the externalities *are* the greatest costs, and why are we in the field of planning if not to shape the future of our society?

I'm not naive enough to think that we can plan away the automobile, but I don't find the argument "people want their cake and to eat it too" enough to discredit transit funding.

Attacking Rhetoric with Rhetoric

"Apologies to the author, who I'm sure means well, but this article does nothing to address any productive measure in this respect."

I think this is an unfair conclusion, which is a shame, because otherwise I think many of your points are valid. In fact I see a lot of convergence in your position and the author's. I think the author adds the important dimension of clarifying the straw man arguments that the Reason foundation uses, and I think you add an important dimension which is this is not an either/or debate, but rather a phased approach.

My personal interpretation is that the process should sequenced: 1.publicly charge drivers for externalities(through congestion urban congestion charging, increased fuel taxes), 2.use these funds to improve transit, 3.address new road capacity through private mechanisms (like peak hour road pricing for freeways).

People need to realize that in the carrot and stick approach the stick has to come first to fund the carrot. But that succes is dependent on the public agencies coming through with the carrot.

Rhetoric with...huh?

It always cracks me up when someone attacks another group claiming how bias they are when they are incredibly biased in another direction.

Cogent argumentation = rhetoric.

Who knew?



Not surprised with your in-depth analysis

Typically when one uses phrases like "automobile monoculture" and then some tired arguments about "transit-competitive" areas, relatively impartial people understand the inherent bias. Based on your comments on this forum, you don't seem to have a place in an effective debate. The reason is because you violate the essential principle which is the problem here - being bias and partial.

Furthermore, your snide and condescending matter is not appreciated particularly when other posters have made very reasonable, respectful comments. You might follow their lead in critiquing and evaluating ideas rather than attacking others' views with clouded judgement. I would more than welcome your thoughts, but frankly you've presented yourself as someone that requires a little maturity to engage in such debate.

Perhaps instead of using sarcasm to define the word "rhetoric", you can reread the article and my comments and critique those, if you have an interest.

Transit-Competitive Areas

The arguments about "transit-competitive areas" doesn't seem tired to me. I follow the subject closely, but I have not heard it before:

"looking at transit use in terms total trips in a given 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."

He is saying that, if people actually have the choice of taking transit, they are pretty likely to take it. I would like to see hard studies to show whether the percentages he cites are accurate. I presume he is giving this rough estimate because hard figures are not available, and it is important to point out that these figures are needed.

In fact, our zoning laws and transportation policies do force many people to live in places where there is no alternative to driving every time they leave their houses ("automobile monocultures"). Many of these people say that they would like to take transit but do not have the choice because there is not decent service. (Eg, every commuter I have ever known from Marin county said that the traffic is so bad that they would prefer to take transit if only it were available.)

Furthermore, he does not say cost (which you claim can be overcome by private road building) is the main obstacle to providing enough road space. He says that it would be impossible "Even if there were the financial resources to built unlimited road networks."

Furthermore, I am sceptical to hear you talk about posters who "have made very reasonable, respectful comments." Your original post, which Dano reacted to, began:

"It always cracks me up when someone attacks another group claiming how bias they are when they are incredibly biased in another direction. That's all this is, really."

Is that your idea of a "very reasonable, respectful comment"?

Charles Siegel

Argumentation and tactics.

I've seen these same rhetorical tactics, this same phraseology, and the same templated ideological argumentation many, many times on The Internets and on the ground. The Reason defenders comments here all read the same way.

I focused on the premise around which everything else rotated and gave the concise summation IMO I thought it deserved.

If I thought there was something new or compelling in there to critique, I would have spent time doing so.



Thanks Charles

I give you credit for a respectful response despite your skepticism. Perhaps your friend Dano can learn from you. Wouldn't you agree that we should always debate ideas and not organizations? Otherwise, why would I read anything except from a cyborg. Every organzation has bias, but it's only relevant to the extent that it affects the ideas put forth. And yes, I thought my comments were very respectful. I'm not knocking the author personally, but it really does give me a chuckle that people don't see the irony of their own biases in debate. I certainly have them, who doesn't?

Now, on to the important stuff. I tend to disagree with you about the "transit competitive" concept. You have a good point and one which is put forth frequently on this subject. Here is why I disagree. The areas which are "transit competitive" are typically much denser than areas that are not. The locations that are not transit competitive don't offer transit for, among other reasons, that few would use it because the land use pattern is not conducive to it(sparse). One could argue lack of funding, but that alone would not greatly affect the number of riders in these kinds of zones. So, would the percentage the author criticizes be higher with more transit in these areas - of course, to some degree. There will always be a few captive riders. But, because the areas are not conducive to transit, that percentage would not be much higher. I think many who advocate this concept believe too many people are criticizing transit and think we should abandon it. But, speaking for myself only, what my skepticism of the concept really implies is that the dominant land use pattern is not transit friendly. There are literally hundreds of reasons for that ranging from public policy, technology, economic restructuring, and consumer preference. I think people act fairly rationally - relative to their world view, at least. If residential and employment densities were much higher and a bus or train ride (or walking/cycling)made more sense to them economically and otherwise, they would do it. I don't think all non-transit users necessarily like or dislike transit (though some do), they just do what is easiest. Right now for most of them, driving is easier. I'm suggesting that policies that price direct and external costs of driving (as well as other policies that were at least development neutral) would change this mix. Then, more areas would become transit competitive and this percentage would rise significantly.

As far as anyone being "forced" to live anywhere, I don't believe that either. I would only agree that local zoning policies favor sprawl style development and it limits choices for consumers. But, if you look at most regions of any significant size, there are lots of options ranging from exurban development to downtown to old single family streetcar neighborhood to eclectic mixed use neighborhoods. For example, you live in Berkeley, right? If one is looking in the Bay Area, you can choose the very urban Marina, eclectic mixed use medium density Berkely or Emeryville, or an "edge city" like Walnut Creek or deep suburbia like Pleasanton. Obviously, money factors in, but I don't think anyone would be "forced" into a Concord or Pleasanton when other choices exist.

Look forward to any comments you might have.

My organization will be called Even More Reasonable

ContrarianPlanner, you make the same logical leap that the reason authors make, which is comparing apples and oranges. These authors are arguing that transit investment in the dense metropolitan areas is inefficient because it does not benefit the entire metropolitan area. The point the author above is making is that the reason authors are comparing total Metro area car trips to transit usage which only covers a portion of that area. To use your Bay Area example above the reason foundation would be (and probably was) opposed to a Bart train preferring road investment to get people from Pleasonton into S.F. They would cite statistics comparing Bart usage to total trips into and out of San Francisco (including places like Danville which are not on a Bart line.)

Instead the transit supporters, myself included, are arguing that for a realistic figure compare transit versus car ridership only from the cities that have Bart stations. This more realistic figure will back up an argument for extending commuter transit lines. I guess we have competing tautologies: 1. people who don't have access to transit probably don't take transit. 2. people who have access to transit use it in higher numbers.

Finally, the "you have a bias, they have a bias" is a very tired argument. Everyone has a bias, that doesn't mean that people can't contribute to a debate. However when you name your organisation reason, you're sort of putting it out there that some how your position is rational and not biased in one way or another.

It's not bus/train vs toll/lane

The road/toll vs. bus/train is the wrong debate. Consider this excerpt from a draft Fossil Free by 2033 Plan.

Executive Summary

Electronics continue to advance at the pace of Moore’s Law . That means the costs of computers and communication continues to drop even as more features and improved reliability can be packed into ever-smaller devices.

Electronics offer many ways to reduce transportation fuel use directly. Even more important, what is about to happen in transportation is akin to the 1990’s proliferation of electronics in homes and offices. The technology allowing more motor vehicles to share existing roads without congestion is like a charging 800-lb gorilla intent on making transportation less energy efficient. Components of the technology (fully drive-by-wire stability control , standard within a couple years, and something like GM’s V2V shortly after) are already proliferating for safety reasons.

Any successful reduction of fuel use must consider the revenge of the charging gorilla, a decade or two from now. In the 1970’s America responded to an oil price shock with more fuel-efficient vehicles and more oil exploitation. Supply increased relative to demand. Fuel prices (inflation adjusted) stayed low. Americans responded like kids to an ever-replenishing cookie jar. (The kids’ weight being one side effect.) A 2010’s success in reducing fuel use or traffic congestion with “supply pain” (traditional mass transit, high fuel prices, …) can result in a 2020’s relapse. Reduced demand for fuel and reduced traffic congestion can cause a return to more fuel use and vehicle miles.

The concepts discussed below are a few of the “judo moves” we can put on the 800-lb gorilla to achieve FFb33 more quickly. Better, the “judo moves” of applying electronics to transportation provide gains to balance the pains and counter the “revenge of the gorilla.”

Stated another way; applying electronics could result in more vehicle-miles, just like electronics have resulted in more appliances (cellphones, ipods, personal computers, …). However, because of Dr. Rosenfeld’s insights on efficiency, the more appliances did not result in the expected electric power demand. As of 2006, California’s transportation plans for 2030 to 2050 fail to apply Dr. Rosenfeld’s insights. Building more roads or adding buses/trains to reduce fuel use and relieve traffic congestion is like building more power plants for 1970 refrigerators or 1990 cellphone chargers.

Take the following six ways to apply electronics as suggestions to jumpstart American ingenuity.

? ‘Pooling – Use cellphones to match regular and impromptu ride sharing requests and to pay for rides.

? ‘Pooling Parking – Combining “smart parking meters,” cellphones, and navigation systems to guide drivers to parking spaces.

? Next Bus/Train, Flex Bus, Taxi – Improve transit convenience using cellphones.

? PMPG “Speed” Limits – Require vehicles to achieve better than 60 passenger miles per fossil fuel gallon for an 80 mph speed limit. Escalate the necessary pmpg automatically based on actual mpg every few years.

? Pay at the Pump – Pay for auto insurance when buying fuel, with insurance cost tied directly to miles driven.

? FFb33 Transportation Challenge – Implement a Challenge for the fuel-efficient, zero accident, and zero-congestion vehicles that complement the above and put a “judo move” on the gorilla.

Implementing all the “electronics” suggestions has the potential to eliminate fossil fuel use well before 2033, while substantially lowering transportation costs.

In 1965 Moore observed that the number of transistors we can fit on a computer chip doubles every two years. In January 2007, Intel and IBM reported a breakthrough in microchip technology allowing the continuation of Moore's Law. The concern was that the insulating layers of carbon dioxide were being shaved too thin, causing energy waste. The new process gets around this concern. Intel will be producing the new chips in 2007. The April 2007 Civil Engineering noted that University of Manchester, UK researchers built a sheet of material one atom thick to eventually construct even faster “ballistic” transistors by 2025.

Scientific American, April 2007, pg 96

General Motors’ researchers demonstrated communications between vehicles (V2V) for accident avoidance at the November 2005 Intelligent Transportation Systems conference in San Francisco. GM engineers estimated an additional cost of $200 per vehicle for V2V in 2005.

California Energy Commissioner Rosenfeld is one of the reasons why a 2006 refrigerator has more capacity, no CFC refrigerants, costs 2/3 less (inflation adjusted), and uses only 25% the energy of the 1973 refrigerator. Newsweek, April 16, 2007, page 88.

Some Challenges in the ideas you propose

MECapron. These are great ideas. I hate people who criticize ideas just for the sake of criticizing so I am calling my observations challenges.

Pooling – Use cellphones to match regular and impromptu ride sharing requests and to pay for rides.
Pooling Parking – Combining “smart parking meters,” cellphones, and navigation systems to guide drivers to parking spaces.
Next Bus/Train, Flex Bus, Taxi – Improve transit convenience using cellphones.

-These are good ideas, and cell phone usage for things like this is much more advances in Japan and Europe. This is because their cellphone usage plans are structured differently. When you think about how much we pay to text, receive e-mail or surf the web imagine how much cellphone companies would charge for these features. Also there is an equity issue here. As hard as it is for most of us to believer there are people out there who do drive and take transit that cannot afford cellphones (or don't have the ID or bank account necessary to buy a phone , even a pay as you go phone). So there is a potential of locking people out of this brave new world of convenience.

PMPG “Speed” Limits – Require vehicles to achieve better than 60 passenger miles per fossil fuel gallon for an 80 mph speed limit. Escalate the necessary pmpg automatically based on actual mpg every few years.

-As i understand it car companies, conservatives, and conservative legislatures are totally opposed to this, so you have a political hurdle here.

FFb33 Transportation Challenge – Implement a Challenge for the fuel-efficient, zero accident, and zero-congestion vehicles that complement the above and put a “judo move” on the gorilla.

-I beleive there is currently an X-prize type competition out there for the zero-emission vehicle. I think a policy approach might be to encourage electronic speed control use in cars by offering it almost as a transponder for toll lanes. Use this in your car (automatically controls your vehicles speed to reduce variation and improve congestion) and you can use HOV lanes as an SOV. I know that if these controls were imposed on drivers conservatives would fight them as "Big Brother" or Nanny State ideas.


marcotio - Thanks for entering the Challenge. I really appreciate your mentions of what is already being done. It's also nice to know that someone can elaborate on the basic concepts and recognize the subchallenges without having seen the multi-page description of each concept.

It would be nice if a FFb33 Plan provides more gain than pain.


It is bus/train vs. toll/lane

I like your comments and ideas. However, an immediate change in city and transportation models is required in the US if we want to be a successful competing economy in the future.

The huge economic growth that we experienced throughout the 20th century happened due to cheap and abundant oil. Because most of our development happened during this time, we developed many of our cities differently than in other civilizations (ones that were developed before oil). Because of cheap fossil fuels, we built large tract homes or "Mc Mansions" far from cities and developed the suburbs and exurbs. It made sense to follow an unsustainable model of sparsely-developed communities. We thought that our rate of economic growth and development would not find boundaries in the future, and we built communities with a model that assumed the continuous abundance of cheap fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, for those that believe that economic growth doesn't have any boundaries, there are and we are already encountering them. "There is nothing problematic with living in a world full of exponential growth and depletion curves, as long as the world doesn't have any boundaries." (Martenson, 2011). Unfortunately, the party is over and now that oil resources are starting to run short, and global climate change is trigering a series of disastrous effects, it is time to contract and time to change the structure of our cities. We have passed the point of peak oil (2009), as well as the point of peak discoveries (1960's). We grew exponentially due to oil, and we became so dependent on it, that it is possible that we might decline exponentially just as fast as peak oil is projected to decline.

Suburban models gave us a symbol of affluence in the short run, but also gave us automobile dependency, urban sprawl, more sedentary and less social lifestyles, and obesity. European city models are compact, more energy efficient, pedestrian friendly, and have more efficient public transportation systems. Many cities in Europe are built in ways that they actually make life without a car easier. Also, most of the walking and social interactions actually take place in the streets, and not in the shopping malls (case of the US).

We can make healthier lifestyles and and friendlier communities, by making green-sustainable cities. If we don't change our unsustainable suburban models, we will face a deeper economical collapse in this country. We have to stop expanding our highway systems and widening our roads. Instead we should be focusing on reshaping our models to create better communities.

For more information regarding projected resource availability, check out
Suggested readings:
The Crash Course, by Chris Martenson
Peak Everything, by Richard Heinberg
The Post Carbon Reader, by the Post Carbon Institute

Alejandro A. Schwedhelm

Global warming

Does anyone at the Reason Foundation believe in global warming? How can one pretend to debate autos vs transit in view of the dire warnings of the UNIPCC? The global temperature rise of 2 degrees centigrade, which is already in the pipeline, is going to wreak havoc all over the world. If we were totally rational we would act immediately to reverse our dependence on our 1 person per car mode of transportation, along with much else. We should all be abandoning our cars to the extent we can and riding the bus. The single family home should be seen as an unsustainable land use which prohibits the efficient use of transit and is promoting global warming.

Len Conly

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