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Lewyn Addresses America
Monday, 14 March 2011
Responding to Fred Barnes' article in the Weekly Standard

A few weeks ago, Fred Barnes wrote an article in The Weekly Standard, which includes a wide variety of anti-transit arguments.  So I thought I would draft a line by line response.


For most Americans—make that most of mankind—the car is an instrument of mobility, flexibility, and speed. Yet officials in Washington, transportation experts, state and local functionaries, planners, and transit officials are puzzled why their efforts to lure people from their cars continue to fail.

The Obama administration is only the latest to be bewildered.

I realize that defending the often-indefensible Obama Administration isn't what I really want to do here.  But having said that, speculating about the mindset of the "Administration" (whoever that is) doesn't strike me as very good writing.  Even if there was a human being called the "Obama Administration", how would Fred Barnes know what it thinks?

It has proposed every alternative it can think of to the car: high-speed rail, light rail, mass transit in general, bikeways, bus lanes, walking paths, the return of streetcars.

By using the term "proposed" Barnes implies that these ideas were created by the Obama Administration, when most of them (other than high-speed rail) have existed and (in some cases) been federally funded for years.

And Barnes' use of the term "alternative" implies that the Administration is supporting these methods but is not supporting cars at all.  (And I'm sure some people wish this were so!)  But in fact, this is not what is actually going on.

In fact, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors, continues to propose spending far more on highways than on transit.  The FY 2010 budget favored highways by about a 4-1 ratio (see ).  The FY 2012 budget favos highways by more than a 3-1 ratio ( , p. 2 ). 

Even if high speed rail is combined with regular transit, the highway/transit ratio is about 70-30.  (And personally I wouldn't combine the two, since high speed rail might well involve stations out at some highway exit near nothing but other highways, thus forcing people to drive to the train).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has embraced the “livability” movement, which is anti-car.

How so?  Does Barnes know what the livability movement is?  Since he doesn't say anything about it other than accusing it of being "anti-car" he certainly implies that he doesn't. 

To be fair, I would like to think that Barnes had a coherent argument here, but that an overzealous copy editor cut out a couple of sentences that would have made the whole thing make sense. But as it is, this sentence is just name calling.

Those are just the positive attractions. There are punitive policies, too, both active and passive. Urban growth boundaries have put a virtual wall around cities like Portland, Oregon, to prevent sprawl and the cars that come with it.

If you think urban growth boundaries are much of a "wall" you haven't been to Miami (which technically has one) or Nashville (ditto).  I think Portland's UGB has had some effect, but most such experiments are hardly "wall-like."  And even Portland certainly has plenty of drivers, and plenty of very car-dependent suburbs.

Limits in many locations on parking lots and on-street parking discourage the use of cars.

This sentence is a bit detached from reality.  In the America I live in, minimum parking requirements actually REQUIRE businesses to build parking lots.  This fact would not have been difficult to find out, since googling the term "minimum parking requirements" yields 247,000 hits (!) 

Refusal to ease traffic congestion by building more roads and inertia in the face of rising gasoline prices make driving a car less appealing, even if those policies are not pursued with that purpose in mind.

So let me get this straight: no matter HOW MUCH government spends on roads, if any driver, anywhere, is affected by even the tiniest bit of congestion, government is "anti-car" because it doesn't spend the maximum possible amount.  If this argument was applied to transit service, anyone who opposed subway cars running less than every 60 seconds would be anti-subway! ?

Restricted lanes for buses and bikes often infuriate urban drivers.

Is there any evidence for this statement?  Either this was sloppily writen or sloppily edited, since it should have been followed by some.  Besides, if restricted lanes for bikes and buses infuriate drivers, does this mean that restricted lanes for cars (aka limited-access highways) infuriate bus riders and bike riders?    Well, it could have been worse- at least Barnes didn't say that sidewalks infuritate drivers! 

President Obama and LaHood have also tried persuasion and hype. In his State of the Union, Obama touted high-speed trains accessible to 80 percent of Americans, as if the country should be clamoring for them. LaHood envisions soothingly “livable” neighborhoods with “affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths.”

None of this has worked. Nor did President Bush’s warning about a nation “addicted to oil” or the Clinton administration’s support of technology-driven ideas like “smart highways,” which became a code for building fewer roads or lanes.

Worked at what?  If the goal was to prevent driving, government sure has a funny way of showing it.  Government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on building and improving roads ($144b in state and local expenditures alone as of 2007, see ), and builds streets that are so wide no sane person would cross them on foot, forces businesses to build equally gigantic parking lots, and uses zoning laws to force the creation of communities that are so thinly populated that many people can't walk to the nearest store.  Sounds pretty anti-anti-car to me! 

(NOTE: for a more detailed discussion of anti-pedestrian, anti-transit regulation see )

The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it’s convenient, which mass transit rarely is.

Classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If public policies make walking, biking and transit use inconvenient, it becomes inconvenient. 

They can go from place to place directly, choosing their own route and schedule. They can do so day and night. They can stop as frequently as they wish for any reason (do errands, drop off kids, etc.). This phenomenon has a name: freedom.

Wrong for a variety of reasons:

 1.  If "freedom" means an absence of government regulation, you are hardly "Free" in a car. The government builds roads for you, and you have to go where the road is.  Moreover, you are governed by a web of government regulation (e.g. car insurance mandates, licensing laws, lights, speed limits) designed to protect you from other drivers and vice versa.

2.  The kind of policies Barnes seems to favor (more highways, and no accommodations for nondrivers) help to create a society where people can't do anything without driving.  This hardly seems like "freedom"- indeed, it seems to me to restrict consumer choice, thus making us less free.

Then again, if we are more free driving, maybe Barnes thinks we should be forced to be free! 

Subways made sense decades ago—in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago—when jobs were concentrated downtown. Now 90 percent of jobs are outside the downtown in the top 50 urban areas, where mass transit can’t compete with cars. Now the average commute by car takes half the time of mass transit. And the supposed cost benefits of mass transit, based on the old center city model, aren’t applicable to decentralized metropolitan areas. 

Again, the old self-fulfilling prophecy: build highways to develop the suburbs, and then if someone complains about the negative side effects of that, you will be told it is too late because society is too suburbanized to change anything!


Since 1982, when the Highway Trust Fund began to pay for non-highway projects, more than $200 billion in federal dollars has been spent on urban mass transit. Total spending at all levels of government has reached $1 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars). The result: Transit’s market share of urban passenger miles has fallen from 2.5 percent to 1.6 percent. In Los Angeles—where two subway lines, three light rail lines, and one busway have been built—the ridership on mass transit is lower than it was in 1985.

In other words, we've tried to help transit and it hasn't worked. This argument is a bit misleading for two reasons.  First, for the reasons stated above, government has actually sabotaged public transit.    (For a more detailed discussion see ).  

Second, in fact transit ridership has risen over the past two decades, from 8.7 billion trips in 1990 to over 10 billion more recently. (See )

(NOTE: I have deleted the rest of Barnes' article, which is about Washington, DC; since I have only lived in the DC area for about 5 of the past 25 years, I don't really know enough to judge his arguments).

Posted by lewyn at 10:34 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 March 2011 10:27 AM EDT

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