Earth To Planners: Americans Want Roads, Not Transit

The current strategy of encouraging traffic congestion and focusing on transit doesn't align with the majority of American's preferences. Instead of continuing to follow failed policy, planners should start using new solutions to increase capacity.

"If you want to know why so few people use mass transit, meet Sue, a college administrator in Minneapolis. If anyone would use transit, Sue would. She's single, she lives in a condominium, and she can afford any additional out-of-pocket expense. She could use her city's Hiawatha Line, a light rail route newly completed at a cost of $715 million. But she doesn't, although she feels guilty about it. That's because her car gets her where she needs to go. Faster....Is it any wonder Sue drives to work rather than taking the bus or train?"

"According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical driver in America's metropolitan areas takes 21 minutes to get from home to work. If you take public transit, the average commute stretches to 36 minutes. That's 71 percent longer. Workers in the New York metropolitan area have the longest commute: There it takes an average of 52 minutes to get to work, even though the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut mass transit systems are among the most extensive in the nation."

"[Yet] For most regional planning agencies, automobility and congestion relief simply are not high on the priority list...The planning profession clings tenaciously to its foundational myths. Even as overwhelming evidence to the contrary piles up, planners keep claiming that cars are inefficient and socially destructive; that expanding road capacity isn't practical; and, most fundamentally, that the government can determine how we choose to travel by planning where and how we live."

That's unfortunate, especially since ... congestion is many residents' "No. 1 livability issue."

"[But] Believe it or not, there are ways to reduce traffic congestion, even if most politicians and planners haven't been eager to adopt them."

Full Story: How Traffic Jams Are Made In City Hall



As usual from the shrinking

As usual from the shrinking cabal of sprawl apologists. False assumptions, misleading statistics. Don't drink the Kool-Aid.

You Are Both WRONG

Once again, people---yes even talented professionals---who are entirely vested in a particular school of thought (might I even say dogma?) fail to see the reality. The libertarians at the Reason Foundation present their approaches to urban congestion through the lens of privitization and the free unfettered market. The planning school graduates decide what they believe to be best for society and try to fit all their approaches and solutions into that vision, regardless of whether or not it works.

The fact is that fewer Americans use public transit than ever before, and the 100 years of affluence that have resulted in the private passenger car, women in the workforce, more complex daily lives, and the single family subdivision home are some of the reasons for that. The reality is that most people would rather drive because it's easier and not much more expensive than public transit. The truth is that we'd all be better off if more of us relied on public transit, so that our urban areas could be more energy efficient and sprawl could be reduced.

The solutions we propose must take the personal preferences of individual Americans (yes, market forces) into account. We will have to compromise on the solutions and approaches in order to do that, but any step is worthwhile. It should not be all or nothing. BTW, the authors' remarks about parking are right on. Here in LA, the relatively cheap and easy availability of parking is a huge disincentive to using public transit. I used to have a situation similar to the woman in the article---I drove, even though I was on a transit line, because my employer provided free parking on site.

Thanks for telling us

Thanks for telling us exactly how much disdain you have for the environment. It's refreshing that you just go out and say that you care about nothing more than your own convenience.

By the way, I'm not a planning school graduate, I just prefer not to drive. Have you ever thought that transit advocates don't necessarily want to make driving illegal, they just want to offer people a choice other than driving? Or do people who disagree with not count as "individual Americans"?

That's the Point

You just said it: "transit advocates don't necessarily want to make driving illegal, they just want to offer people a choice other than driving."

And more often than not, when that choice is offered, people choose to drive. But before you make any value judgements about that choice---such as saying people who make that choice are selfish and don't care about the environment---you must take a step back and ask why. Get past your anger over their actions and try to analyze why people do what they do.

Planning is a science as well as an art form. Good scientists are committed to transparent analytical methods, and always open to unexpected results and things not going the way they think they ought to. Good planners should be open to challenging their assumptions about what kinds of urban design approaches work when they see that average people don't necessarily behave the way they believe would be consistent with greater urban livability.

So, all I am saying is this: don't dismiss the Reason guys as concrete-crazy highway toadies. And they should not dismiss transit advocates as myopic pie-in-the-sky train nuts. All of us should look at how people behave and what they want, and then design solutions that combine attributes from both approaches that are sensible, attainable, affordable and will appeal to a broad range of needs.

BTW, despite my earlier post about my former commute, I do use public transit from time to time, when it's convenient and makes sense.

I disagree with you

I disagree with your assertion that given the choice, most people choose to drive. I would say that globally most people who can choose do choose transit. (if you have statistics on that, I'd love to see them, by the way) The USA is a little different in this respect but you have to consider that almost no one in the USA has an effective transit system to choose to take. People who live in the central areas of maybe five metro areas have modern, functional transit systems, but the rest of us are stuck with buses from the '70s that run every 15 min (when they show up at all). So we're left with what? Maybe 10% of Americans who have a real transportation choice? (and that's a generous estimate) So if everyone else is driving cars because they have to, it seems likely to me that the few who have a choice are going to go along with the crowd.

But please spare me the condescension that I haven't thought about whether people who drive are selfish. I understand that it is a value judgement, but very few urban issues are not. You yourself said that taking transit would be better for society, so how can your actions spurning that choice be anything but selfish? And if you can't see that driving is bad for the environment, then I'm not going to waste my time showing you. You need to start taking responsibility for your actions.

First of All

You need to throttle back on making judgements about me and my integrity. This is an academic discussion about policy, not a blame game.

The conditions in the US are VERY different from the rest of the world---our gasoline is unreasonably cheap, most places (work places, shopping destinations, etc) have relatively cheap and readily available parking, more people have someplace to garage a car at home, the cost and financing of an automobile is much more affordable here, etc. And that's just compared to westernized economies like Europe; it's an even greater difference compared to third world countries. But all those folks would love to have a car if they could---just ask them.

You are absolutely right about a lack of good transit options in just about every American city except for a handful like NY, Boston, Philly, DC, Chi and SF. So one big factor in why people chose to drive is certainly limited choices. Of course, it's all a chicken and egg thing too---if it was hard to own a car, park it and drive it, would there be greater public pressure on our urban planners and political leaders to develop good transit options? Probably.

Speaking of chicken and egg, the other issue is land use. Like it or not, American urbanized areas are much less densely populated, and they sprawl more than those in other countries---that makes it hard to provide comprehensive and convenient public transit and makes using personal transportation like a car more attractive (Los Angeles is a good example of this---while it would be a good thing, the cost of a transit system that comprehensively served this sprawling metropolis would be astronomical).

While it is important to address the problems associated with sprawl (and speaking of the smart growth movement, it also has a tendency to ignore consumer tastes in its prescriptions), that is a long term task that will require a gradual approach that comes out of a public participatory planning process.

What I mean is that you cannot plop a transit system down in a sprawling city and expect it to be an instant success. But you can devise a say, 50-year plan that seeks to increase densities regionally, create more neighborhood-based commercial centers, encourage mixed-use development, and build a modest transit system over time, while at the same time attending to the shorter term needs of drivers. It's a sensible and affordable approach that realistically encourages people to alter their behavior over time as new options come on line and begin to present themselves as attractive consumer choices (commuters are consumers, and citizens whose opinions need to be key to any public policy-making). Los Angeles is basically taking this approach with some encouraging results, though it has a long way to go.

I am not spurning the choice of transit, and I am not endorsing all of the ideas of the Reason guys (their call for double decking urban freeways is a truly lousy idea). I am merely pointing out that planning and developing infrastructure-intensive transit systems without doing thorough consumer market research, free of pre-concieved notions of what SHOULD be, is critical to responsible public policy. Transit use is a better public policy, but that does not translate into judging the actions of specific individuals.

I should also point out that I do take responsibility for my actions, big time. About a year ago, I decided to start up a home-based business, and one of the reasons was to reduce the time I spent commuting and cut back on driving. Last year I drove less than 6,000 miles, which is pretty low for Los Angeles. I choose to live in one of the denser neighborhoods here within walking distance to a limited number of neighborhood services. Unfortunately, I probably offset some of that with higher home electricity use for the A/C, but that's a whole other topic!

Point being?

LKitsch, most of what you've said in this series of posts makes sense, but I'm still not sure of your point. Yes, the issues and decision processes involved are complex, and all involve a series of tradeoffs. However, any decent planner is engaged in these tradeoffs on a day to day basis and understands them already. The ideologues you're complaining about are generally not professional planners; most planners' professional work will produce outcomes that fall between those preferred by the two sets of ideologues.

However, as you've said, additional transit usage is inherently desirable from the standpoint of sustainability. This is both in terms of short term benefits such as fuel savings and reduced emissions, and also in terms of its supporting more sustainable and less land consumptive development patterns over the long term.

This being the case, it makes all the sense in the world to steer policies away from those the highway lobby would prefer, and more in the direction of the contemporary planner's 'ideal.' The highway lobby's preferences are already reflected everywhere around us. Providing choice, then, means filling in the blanks through transit investment, smart growth, etc.

I disagree with your assertion that the "smart growth movement" has a tendency to ignore consumer taste along these same lines. "Smart growth" development restores balance in development patterns by providing attractive, walkable communities for those who desire them (thereby enabling a relative reduction in future all-mode congestion for everyone). You'll not find any planners who want to wipe the slate clean by dismantling the existing auto-oriented landscape. Contemporary planning is about compensating for 50+ years of subsidy for sprawl with some degree of policy subsidy for sustainable growth.

On the surface correct...but substantively incorrect...

You are correct to say that in today's world when given a choice between driving and transit most Americans would choose to drive. However that is in a world of parking requirements, density caps, oversized road standards, under priced automobile travel (specifically relating to pollution and congestion externalities) as well as enormous state subsidies for automobile travel.

In a liberalized world where full costs are taken into account I doubt many Americans at all would be driving...

We should commit ourselves to eradicating these market distortions before assuming to know Americans true transportation preferences.

Reason Foundation Or Impulse Foundation?

The entire article is based on the tired argument that we should build more roads because people want to drive because it saves time.

In reality, people want many different things, including things that are mutually exclusive. People want to save time by driving. People also want to stabilize the world's climate. And people want cities that are pleasant places to walk and to live because they are not totally overrun by cars and sliced up by freeways.

Note that saving time is a private good that people take into account when they decide whether to drive: the person who makes the decision to drive is the person who saves the time. Stable climate and livable cities are public goods, which people don't take into account when they decide whether to drive.

Because individuals don't take them into account when they make private decisions, political action is needed to protect public goods.

The political debate should involve reasoning - weighing all the costs and benefits of different transportation alternatives.

But the Reason Foundation is against this sort of reasoning. It wants people to act on impulse and do what is most convenient for them at the moment, without thinking about the consequences.

Charles Siegel

Some conclusions are still good

Some of the analysis may be faulty, but a few of the conclusions are squarely on the mark - uncouple parking costs, reduce parking requirements in local codes, use TDM approaches to reduce trip generation rates, and more effectively manage existing roads and parking.

Boilerplate Foundation

These same ol' tired arguments just get recycled month after month. I hope they pay Sam Staley by the new word rather than just by the word.

Of course, a small vocal ideological minority is bobbing its collective head in unison at the received 'wisdom' in this article, and we must remember them, too, as their minority voice is actively distributed far and wide.



Throw away the arguments, keep the conclusions

I don't agree with the arguments in the article, but I can't imagine how a planner could be against many of the ideas presented in the conclusion/solutions section. Anything that assigns more of the true cost of automobile travel to those who choose to travel that way makes much sense.

bad assumptions, interesting solutions...

The author assumes that everyone can afford to live in their own home on a quarter-acre lot and can afford their own vehicle and insurance and gasoline. Many people, even in less dense cities such as Atlanta and Minneapolis, cannot.

I do agree with some of the suggested solutions. (Not all of them though: I can tell you the congestion on the upper deck of I-35 in Austin is no better than that on the lower deck.) But removing inflated parking requirements from zoning ordinances and eliminating free parking in thriving areas would be a good first step.

Privatization of our expressways intrigues me. I'm especially intrigued by the idea of no longer paying taxes to subsidize roads that I never use. People don't realize how heavily roads are subsidized, and if the users were the only people paying for them the tolls would be astronomical. I suspect the private sector would do the same thing to our roads as they have to our health care: levels of service would plummet, costs would skyrocket, and CEOs would reap major profits.

Road privatization

We might start seeing road privatization right here in Texas. If the Trans-Texas Corridor happens the first section will be owned and operated in Cintas, a Spanish-based conglomerate with an American partner (can't remember who that is). I guess we'll find out if privately built and managed roads work or not. Should be interesting...

Feeling Guilty About It

"She could use her city's Hiawatha Line, a light rail route newly completed at a cost of $715 million. But she doesn't, although she feels guilty about it."

Couldn't that guilty feeling mean that she might change - and might vote for the incentives needed to convince other people to change? A couple of decades ago, she wouldn't have felt guilty.

People are right that some of their proposals are good. Eg, paying for parking would be an incentive that would shift some people out of their cars.

Charles Siegel

Traffic "thought"

An interesting piece. Most of the "analysis" is badly-disguised ideology, and they miss important points about oil dependence, health effects, &c., but as a pedestrian who also uses an automobile as well as mass transit, it's hard to argue with some of their conclusions, especially regarding "free" (i.e. subsidized) parking. In fact, I might argue that vastly increased parking costs could easily have the effect of pushing people to mass transit for purely economic reasons - not a bad thing in cities where TOD is increasingly mixed-income as well as mixed-use.

My son lives in Minneapolis, uses both his car and mass transit, as well as his bicycle, so the authors' Minneapolis example is hardly universal, even for that city.

Yes, using mass transit takes a bit longer (local buses don't speed as often as I do when I'm driving), and it requires me to occasionally walk 3 or 4 blocks to my chosen destination, but aside from dodging oblivious auto drivers, I don't see a down side to that.

Statistics never seem to add up

I live in Chicago, and I can attest to the fact it takes me less time in the morning to get to downtown by train than to loop. I hop on a morning express and it takes rouphly 38 minutes. Add travel time to the train station probably 45 to 50. I have never been able to drive to downtown during the moring rush in 45 to 50 min. It takes at least 35 to 40 when there is no traffic. Many people in Chicago ride the train for this reason. The other is parking downtown is true cost private garages, adn they charge rouply 25 a day. If all american cities used that example then more people would ride transit. Problem is not all Cities are Chicago and can count on business to stay if they start jacking up the price of parking.

Reason's mindset on climate protection

Reason Foundation is always very thought provoking. Personally, I favor the small government / libertarian approach that Reason follows, provided that the "negative externalities" (such as damages from human-induced climate change) are addressed. Once "the price is right," then libertarian market-based solutions (that avoid big government) can really work wonders. Such solutions represent a very elegant and cost-effective approach to problem solving.

For climate protection, transportation, and land use, enthusiasm for unregulated "freedom and liberty" must be set in context (see the Charles Siegel "Impulse Foundation" post below). Because of negative economic externalities, it is important to fairly price the adverse impacts of our actions. Once the price is right, then let freedom and liberty reign! Without this, you have the tragedy of the commons, where humans foul our own nests. See: . Thus, by accounting for negative externalities, we can help future generations to enjoy the same freedom, liberty, and quality of life as the current human population.

Reason recently came out with a well-reasoned plan for an Express Toll Network for Atlanta to reduce traffic congestion ( ). Their tolls provide an elegant way to fund new infrastructure. They plan to create a very extensive BRT network where the buses run faster than SOVs. They encourage carpooling, ridesharing, and telecommuting. (Reason dislikes the subsidies required for LRT and metro trains.)

Reason does not place a high "negative impact value" on global warming, thus their policies differ from those of adopted by the State of CA's Climate Action Team (where smart growth is one of the top 2 climate protection strategies - see: ). Reason tends to question climate science. (See papers such as "13 Questions Asked About the Science of Climate Change," October 1998, By Kenneth Green.) Thus, for Atlanta, they focus on reducing traffic congestion. In contrast with the CA Climate Action Team, they are less focused on reducing CO2 and seem more willing to allow total regional vehicle miles traveled (one more mile is about one more pound of CO2) to increase.

Likewise, Reason’s regional growth / land use policies do not place a high negative impact value on the consequences of sprawl (loss of wildlife habitat, etc), thus their policies tend to foster ever-expanding human domination of the earth. (See papers such as, "The Vanishing Farmland Myth and the Smart-growth Agenda," January 2000, Policy Brief 12, By Samuel R. Staley.)

Some of Reason’s research is underwritten by Exxon, and some of Reason’s stable of researchers receive additional Exxon funding through other organizations. See: . I can’t see where Reason has conducted any research where they have adopted policies or conclusions that Exxon would disagree with. Hopefully I’m wrong. (Reason produces far too many papers to read them all.)

Reason addresses a subset of the challenges humans face and address the problems with a "cranky" attitude and an "old-fashioned, tired" view of the world. In contrast, I recommend organizations such as for a more "hip and energetic" approach to problem solving without the limitations of "subset" thinking and without the distorting influence of Exxon.

Steve Raney, Cities21, Palo Alto, CA

Market Choice Vs. Political Choice

An interesting point and well argued, but I have to disagree.

Libertarians frame the issue by saying that big government should not stop us from making free choices in the market. Often (as in the case of the Reason Foundation), their real goal is to protect big business from democratic political choices that would limit their power.

For example, imagine that freeway building were all privitized. What sort of corporations would emerge to build and run these roads? Wouldn't people have even less power over these corporations than we have over the government agencies that now build roads?

I am in favor of internalizing environmental costs though fees for parking, taxes on carbon emissions, etc., but I don't think this is enough in itself.

As evidence, consider this thought experiment. A city has no freeways, and two-thirds of its citizens prefer keeping it pedestrian friendly by having no freeways. If road building were privitized on the libertarian model, then freeways would be built anyway: the freeway-building corporation would have enough customers to make it economically feasible to build them, even though the majority oppose them.

In fact, even people who opposed the freeways would use them after they were built, because it would be in their interest to save time by riding on the freeways. They think it would be more in their interest to stop the freeways completely, but they do not have this option if all the decisions are made by the market.

This shows that it is not good enough to treat people as customers making decisions in the market rather than as citizens making political decisions.

Internalizing environmental costs would mean that fewer people would use the freeway, but it would not let the society make the choice of building boulevards rather than freeways. As long as there were enough wealthy customers, the freeways would be built.

Likewise, if we have taxes internalizing the environmental costs of sprawl, fewer people would move to sprawl suburbs - but many people still would be wealthy enough to afford the sprawl suburbs plus the tax. It is not the same as zoning to preserve farm land from sprawl.

(Of course, there would also be political resistance to the taxes that internalize environmental costs. The same people who oppose building the freeways are also likely to oppose taxes that raise the price they pay for riding on the freeways. I often think that this is the strategy of groups like the Reason Foundation that advocate these taxes rather than environmental regulation: they are pro-corporate groups, and they know that people are less likely to pass taxes than to pass regulations.)

This is an interesting question about the fundamental relationship between the government and the market, a question that has been debated at least since the time of John Stuart Mill.

My opinion is that "libertarians" who insist on our freedom to make choices in the market are actually diminishing our freedom to make democratic political choices that determine what sort of society we live in - which is why big corporations are so comfortable with this libertarian philosophy.

Charles Siegel

Reason focuses too much on "what Americans want"

"What people want" is important only up the point that the value of unrestrained individual freedom of choice becomes outweighed by the negative externalities resulting from such unbridled freedom of choice.

An example: everyone wants to be rich, but if everyone were rich, then no one would be rich, because of the obvious inflationary pressure. Similarly, everyone wants to drive 70mph on the freeway wherever and whenever they want, but if everyone tries to do it, then no one can do it. Reason's solution? Build more freeways. The resulting inflationary pressure comes in the form of induced demand. Might as well print more money.

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