Cars vs. Transit: Cars are winning
Over the weekend I picked up a bunch of Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine issues from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I eagerly buy such ephemera when I come across it for a couple reasons.
Many of the stories (on the decline of cities, road building, land use, crime, etc.) are interesting windows into the development of the mass economy, national attitudes, etc., Plus, the 1940s and 1950s were the golden years of illustrated ads (as opposed to photo-based ads) and image advertising by corporations and industry associations. The ads provide great insights into foundations of transportation, land use, and urban planning practices that we deal with today.
1. One of the things that I have been thinking about lately, not just in response to the recent report, Subsidizing Congestion: The Multibillion-Dollar Tax Subsidy That’s Making Your Commute Worse, by the TransitCenter and Frontier Group, which makes the point that the US provides more tax benefits for car use than transit use, is an article from Businessweek ("The Petro States of America,) making the point that the US is a major oil producer and that needs to be considered when trying to understand general government and economic policymaking in the United States. It's so true.
Anti Keystone pipeline demonstration outside of the DC house of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, 11/17/2014.
(Note that the report also makes the point that transit benefits disproportionately help the better off. The transportation demand management benefits of transit especially to central business districts in cities like DC or Manhattan, which couldn't function if there wasn't a transit alternative to cars, justify policy promoting transit.
That being said, I believe in special transit discounts for lower income households, along the lines of what the San Francisco MUNI system does, and general subsidy of transit allowing for low fares and comparatively lower monthly pass rates, e.g., DC's monthly subway pass costs double that of the NYC Subway system.)
2. As the first section of streetcar line is getting ready to open to the public, yesterday the Washington Post editorialized ("Trolley troubles") that the Washington DC streetcar program should be put on hiatus, and re-assessed. From the article:
While for a variety of reasons I agree that the program has been poorly planned and has taken way longer than necessary to start operating, and maybe it isn't the best transit mode to be investing into to get the best return on investment, I can't help but wonder if the editorial board isn't captured by automobile-centric thinking--certainly all the poorly argued pro-automobility letters hat get published make you wonder--and is doing a bait and switch, arguing for "analysis" but really more concerned about promoting automobility.
... which is what all the other opponents are doing too! ("streetcars are old technology; streetcars are less flexible than buses because they are on tracks, sure lots of people willingly ride buses" etc.)
For one thing, the arguments against streetcar system planning are somewhat overstated because DC has always planned for incremental additions to the system, and forward movement has been hampered by many missteps along the way (contrast this to Seattle. Of course those plans will be assessed anyway as the streetcar finally opens to riders..
On the other hand, over time, as the system is expanded and more people use it, the various complaints about streetcar service will likely fade away.
(And even if streetcars aren't widely used in the US, they are in Europe and Australia, and those experiences are relevant to planning here.)
3. But the DC streetcar program has been buffeted by opposition, from seeming progressives, especially from the "older people" who tend to populate the membership of legacy community improvement organizations in the city such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which have expressed opposition. (C100 is particularly proud of their report on the topic, which I didn't think was particularly impressive.)
Although they couch their opposition as something that has to do with the planning, and how the system uses "old technology" (actually the technology is as modern as any technology behind automobiles) and that buses are better and more mobile, even though those criticizing the system, like the Post editorial writers, mostly don't use transit at all, mostly driving.
Buick ad, Saturday Evening Post, 7/7/1956
This is a real problem, especially because most of Washington, DC's elected officials--10 of the incoming 13 representatives--represent and/or live in "the outer city" where automobile use is more prevalent, residents are older, and residents are more organized and active in promoting their car-centric views (see "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city").
4. This has come to a head in Arlington County, until today a national best practice example in linking transit and land use planning, where the Arlington County Board voted to abandon its commitment to streetcar development on Columbia Pike and in Potomac Yard/Crystal City ("Arlington officials halt efforts on streetcars for Columbia Pike, Crystal City," Washington Post).
This occurred in the face of vociferous opposition (very similar to opposition in DC) in some quarters, as represented by the election to two members to the Board who ran on an anti-streetcar platform--the resignation from the Board by Chris Zimmerman, who was the region's most prominent pro-transit elected official, set up the opportunity for a replacement by an anti-transit politico, arguing in favor of "financial prudence."
5. Meanwhile, the incoming Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, ran on an anti-spending platform which included defunding light rail programs in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore, which worries the proponents of the Purple Line in the DC suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore City and County.
6. But highway expansion continues apace. High Occupancy Toll Lanes ("Lexus Lanes") in Virginia and north of Baltimore open next month.on I-95 and the full length of the tolled Inter County Connector in Maryland is now open too, as evidenced by ads running in the Washington Post.