Transit Advocates, Highway Planners Share The Blame For Transportation Stagnation

4 minute read

July 31, 2006, 7:00 AM PDT

By Patrick H. Hare

In the useless war of highways versus transit, both transit advocates and highway planners are guilty of ignoring the problems with their respective solutions, while the American public is left without any practical solutions for moving beyond auto dependence.

Photo: Patrick HareWhy don't transit advocates or highway planners provide sound transportation options that the public can embrace, rather than simply calling for more transit or wider roads? Maybe because both sides think they don't have to.

"The public benefits of transit are obvious," the transit advocates say. "People should just get religion and ride transit." Environmental morality makes it unnecessary for transit advocates to consider that transit is incredibly slow compared to cars: 7 mph average for rail, 4 mph average for buses, door-to-door. And too often transit advocates ignore the ultimate marketing against transit: walking and waiting with parcels in the freezing rain or sweltering heat.

On the other side, highway planners think they don't have to re-consider their solution either. They have little incentive to support their conclusions, because the votes are almost always there for more highways. But highway planners ignore the fact that even if they wanted to, suburbanites can't vote for transit. The stretched spider web of suburban roads and homes and businesses means many stops for very few passengers, buses that get caught in car congestion, and very low fare-box returns. The result is expensive "stop and-go-slow" transit. The only thing suburbanites can vote for is road building. "Transit advocates don't understand," the highway planners say. "People vote for roads." But it is a rigged election. There is only one candidate.

So we have one major group of transportation planners enclosed in a mental box protected by endless votes for roads, and the other major group enclosed in a mental box protected by endless environmental morality. And these boxes aren't just regular boxes. They are mental pillboxes made of solid mental concrete. The two groups, encased in their mental pillboxes and reluctant to think "outside the box", proceed to engage each other in an endless war. Their intense vocal debate, combined with the media's love of a good fight, serves to crowd out other perspectives.

The transit versus roads debate itself has hardly changed in 50 years, and neither has transportation. The only major consumer acceptance of any improvement in transportation -- the introduction of hybrid vehicles -- has not come from American transportation planners, or even from this country.

Underpinning the futility of the pillbox war is the fact that almost all transportation planning, for both transit and roads, is done without anybody paying any attention at all to the major transportation costs to most individual households: cars.

Transportation models are the incredibly detailed computer models that project how many cars will be on a road, or how many people will ride transit. They ignore the costs of cars to households. Transportation models also ignore nearly all the public costs of providing roads and transit. In both cases, this practice is like estimating how much food your family will eat if no one has to pay anything for any of the food, even if you eat out all the time. In other words, transportation planning is based on the government version of fast-food economics: super-sized, super-subsidized portions of both transit and highways.

While it may sound mean, it is ultimately helpful to think of both sides of the transportation debate as hiding inside their protective mental pillboxes, while whining, "the problem is so complex!" It is complex because neither side is willing to look at the problems of its own thinking. It is arguable that both sides have a joint, if perhaps unconscious, self-interest in letting their unproductive war keep any other views from getting significant air time.

Rather than continuing the useless pillbox war, there should be a serious public debate on how much cars cost households. How might instant, near-home car rental allow households to give up a third or second car? Would the substantial savings a household receives from owning and maintaining fewer cars more than compensate for the extra time and discomfort spent riding transit?

Another public debate should revolve around how the mortgage banking system ignores household transportation costs. The predominant thinking by lenders means that households can "afford" to buy a home in a far-out exurban community, even though many of those homebuyers will now have car costs that will in some cases be higher than their housing costs. But what are the economic and environmental savings if a household could "afford" to buy a more expensive home in a centrally located community with good transit access?

These issues and others are virtually never part of public debate.

Many Americans are looking for alternatives to cars to reduce their energy consumption, but are reluctant to climb aboard transit systems that do little to address transit's major drawbacks. It is time for both sides of the transportation debate to step out of their pillboxes and start considering real solutions for moving around the modern American city.

Patrick H. Hare is a housing and transportation planner who lives in Cornwall, CT.

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