Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Quote of the day: "it isn't the place of the government to push people out of their cars and into alternative transportation"

(Technically the line is part of the text of a San Diego Union-Tribune article, not a quote.)

San Diego County has just approved a long rang transportation plan ("Sweeping transportation, growth plan approved" and "SANDAG’s transit plan meets opposition," San Diego Tribune), that mixes road improvements equally budget-wise with various sustainable transportation projects.

The plan is interesting because it is required to meet State of California goals and objectives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics raise two objections on the plan, which covers the next 35 years (and will be regularly updated on a four year cycle), that: (1) the sustainable mobility improvements (rail, skyway gondola, bicycle, pedestrian) are staged towards the very end of the planning period and (2) because of this, and because of the plan's focus on road improvements, GHG reduction targets won't be met.

-- 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, San Diego County Association of Governments
-- The Circulate San Diego sustainable mobility advocacy group argues that the plan doesn't go far enough

But I was struck by the comments by the Mayor of El Cajon:
Others, like El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, said it isn’t the place of the government to push people out of their cars and into alternative transportation. He said the people who spoke at the meeting in favor of a greater emphasis on mass transit were a special interest group representing one percent of the population, he said.

“The people of El Cajon drive cars. I’m guessing that some of the people in your cities drive cars as well,” he said.
Of course people drive.  Over the last 60+ years we've built a transportation system that prioritizes and privileges the automobile.

As pointed out in a Businessweek article from last year, this is a result of the fact that the US is such a large producer of oil, "The Petro States of America." Note that it turns out that The Economist made the same point a couple weeks earlier.

Mayor Wells' belief is neither new nor surprising, but it's a constant reminder that people aren't considering the consequences of their beliefs and statements.

Choices have consequences.

Irrespective of the reality of path dependence--we've built a transportation system that prioritizes automobility, therefore most people "choose" to get around by car--the mobility choices people make impose greater or lesser costs on society and government is left holding the bag and has the responsibility to plan, build, maintain, and pay for the system that enables the mobility choices that people make without heed of the cost.

Because of the reality that choices impose costs, I always counter that arguments promoting sustainable mobility using "choice" -- it's better to have more choice on how to get around -- miss the point, because our arguments should instead be focused on achieving optimal mobility, and one of the measures of optimality includes the costs to "the taxpayers" to build and maintain the transportation system that enables the mobility system we have.

It's even worse because in the current political environment, it is a struggle to raise the necessary funds for the maintenance of the freeway system through increases in the gasoline tax, which most elected officials oppose, especially at the federal level.

This is further complicated because the average citizen believes that they are paying for the full cost of the road system through gas taxes, even though this isn't the case, not by a long shot.  It is estimated that to maintain a state of good repair as well as to pay for new projects, the federal gasoline excise tax should be at least 60 cents/gallon.
Cost of owning a car in Denmark and the Netherlands
The cost to own a car both to purchase and to operate on an annual basis is significantly higher in most European countries than it is in the US.  Slide from a presentation on car taxes in the Netherlands.

By contrast, in Europe the national government gasoline excise taxes are 20 to 25 times greater than in the US--although this includes what in the US is a separate state and local gasoline excise tax.  The federal excise tax is less than 20 cents per gallon.  Some countries impose excise taxes on car purchases that are as much as 100%.  And it's much more difficult and more expensive to get a driver's license.  Even in Norway, which like the US is a "petro state" although North Sea oil production is in serious decline, the combination of "road tax" and a tax on greenhouse gas emissions is 68 cents/liter or about $2.60/US gallon.

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At 11:03 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

So much to disagree with here.

Common areas: yes, US gas tax can be higher. Looking at a Canada or Australia gives you an idea on how a more pro-urban culture can form with even slightly higher taxes.

But here is a another point -- even with higher gas taxes, cars as personal transportation can be a great way to move people.

Toronto has the busiest freeway commute in North America. Even in Denmark some people drive to work.

The problem as I see it is not some mysterious pro-car agenda, it is:

1) Misaligned incentives in gas tax -- dedicated funding for new roads means we'd rather run roads down and not properly keep them as we can get the feds to pay for a replacement.

2) Road transport lobby -- as I've said before we have a first world road logistics system and a 3 world people mover system. We need to align the incentives again on moving people. Airport funding is part of that problem as well.

3) Land use and economics. A war-mart can't exist with the trucking system we have here. We are raising enormous amounts of money to invest to road-transport and the leading parts of the US economy (Uber, trucking, fedex, pizza delivery) reflect that. So when we build a highway exit for a walmart distribution center houses and job commutes follow.

related issue is social justice. A lot of the negatives on car use could be eliminated by restricting the franchise -- you can't get a license until 25, force older cars through expensive repairs, make tickets more expensive, RPP fees -- and the burden of that will fall on the poorer half of the population. Huge net benefit but I don't see the political will. Denmark doesn't worry about that. Those syrian refugees are not going to be buying cars anytime soon.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

In conversation I make the point that I take a hard core position on automobility, not because I think cars are inherently bad, but because how our policy system preferences and privileges them.

You make an interesting distinction between the mobility network and mobility.

I believe in focusing on the modes that make the most sense for the place. Sustainable mobility is most efficient in denser places, in the core and inner ring suburbs of metropolitan areas, and in certain "trunk line" foundational services (like commuter railroads) and that's where we should focus.

And I don't think that focusing on "optimality" in that manner is any different from what you said.


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