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Zoltán

Your last paragraph puts succinctly a point I've been arguing for years; I have few arguments with your views on how a free market approach is best served.

But also, here are a few thoughts on a society in which one does expect government to intervene, and perhaps one does expect government to intervene significantly in subsidising people's transportation:

It was put to me recently that it's poor in terms of equity that Germany and a number of other Western European countries charge large amounts of money for extremely thorough training for driving licences, on the basis that it denied the poor access to cars.

My response was that social welfare is never served better by more cars, for these reasons: More cars increase congestion affecting all modes running on streets, reduce demand for PT and therefore frequency, and encourage poor land use. Therefore, those remaining without cars become more and more of a marginalised minority who find life difficult.

Assuming you're protecting the right to mobility, not to own a nice, shiny car, that's best served for all of society by cars being a frivolous luxury of the rich that don't exist in sufficient number to really affect anyone else's mobility or access.

Though few developed countries are close to as exaggerated a situation as that, it still pays to move towards it, not away from it. The more a nice, shiny car is just some luxury status symbol, the less it's a formidable threat to everyone else's mobility, access and experience of their city.

Ken

As it is, in most of the US, the policies that are already in place coerce people into cars. I like cars, I have one. I use it a lot. In my small metro area of 500,000, I'd be a fool not to. A good bus is one that runs every hour 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, a great bus is one of three routes in the whole system that run better than 30 minute frequencies most of the time. What comes with coerced car ownership? I am required to pay for the documentation to allow me to travel freely on the streets. I am required to pay for the liability coverage to travel freely on the streets. I am required to pay for upkeep on a vehicle. I am required to pay for fuel. I do ok financially, as a general rule of thumb, and am quite comfortable dealing with these responsibilities. If I were poor, or possessed little common sense regarding auto ownership/operation or was disabled in any way, or if my car broke, I would be flung into the arms of my friends or dependent on what should be a public utility everyone uses - but which is run more effectively as a social welfare service, and which has its schedules and routing set up to serve those ends - frequent service to the social security and welfare offices, very infrequent service to industrial parks and other employment centers. How's that for coercion?

Rob

Nicely said, bravo!

When I was working in transit, I was occasionally surprised by a colleague who felt our customers should use transit because they are committed to the cause, even if it was not rational for the trip they were making. I've always thought that's a cop out. Transit needs to be improved until it's the rational choice, and we shouldn't have the excuse that our customers just aren't committed enough.

I agree that pricing is the middle ground in this discussion. We use pricing to balance supply and demand for all scarce commodities, which is the best description of our road space. The nice thing about pricing is that it can result in less congestion *and* more transit use. I'm hoping it can be one of the few areas where the left and right can find agreement in increasingly polarized times.

Aaron M. Renn

IMO, we should clearly focus on the direct benefits case for transit, and be sure that arguments are phrased in market terms. I've got a forthcoming blog post on this very topic.

But I'd extend it as well. Don't try to create new terms of art like "livability." As Yonah Freemark pointed out, if the gov't definition is something along the lines of "living in a walkable neighborhood", why not just say that instead of creating code words that only put people on heightened alert?

In my view, we'll never be able to sell urban policies as a matter of "eat your spinach" to save the planet or through obfuscation. We've got to be able to make a direct case in the marketplace of ideas as to why these concepts are correct in their own right. I'm convinced we can make that case.

David Keddie

Excellent commentary Jarrett. Both transit and automobile advocates should find common ground in a principled approach to a free market without coercion or distorting subsidies. I think perhaps the most important government distortion is in land-use. Anything other than suburban or exurban land-use patterns is illegal in practically the entire country, including northeastern college towns such as my own Princeton, New Jersey. After recent experiences with planning boards I've become convinced that a return to a libertarian view of property rights, free of zoning, is essential to enabling the freedom to build neighborhoods that don't require the use of a car. In Princeton the former president of the New Jersey chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism is on the planning board, but in his own backyard he opposes development with more density than two homes per acre at most, even when in walking distance of campus and a heavy rail station. A libertarian approach would free the individual landowner from the inevitable anti-development instincts of neighbors.

On a different note, some transit advocates do advocate actual coercion, notably Yonah Freemark in this blog post:
http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/12/05/an-extensive-new-addition-to-dallas-light-rail-network-makes-it-americas-longest/

He says in response to the failure of the Dallas light rail network to spur transit-oriented development: "If this means using eminent domain to spur private redevelopment, then so be it: Something significant must be done to encourage increased use of the transit network." The taking of private property not for a public interest but to force development not chosen freely certainly qualifies as coercion. If such a policy was enacted the backlash against urban advocates would be as intense as that against Robert Moses in the 60s.

I think the reality of the free market nonetheless dramatically favors the mobility and comfort advantages of the private automobile and a suburban built environment. I say that even though I personally prefer a more urban lifestyle. However, only with the removal of land-use restrictions, subsidies and the lack of road-pricing would that be proved right.

Nicholas Barnard

I'll use the word coerce here in response to my own personal transportation choices.

I actually moved from the midwest to Seattle, with the goal, among other things, of reducing my transportation costs. According to the Department of Labor's U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average vehicle costs $8,003 per year to own and operate. Last year, I spent about $2,200 on transportation. That includes public transportation, Zipcar, and taxis.

I found that the virtual requirement of owning a car in the midwest to be an annoying form of coercion to live in society. I'd rather spend my money and time doing other things than just getting myself around and driving. Cars really are quite expensive when you come down to it.

Alon Levy

This discussion makes a lot more sense if you think of it in terms of politics instead of in terms of what markets might want and what coercion might be. To anti-spending populists, not everything counts as real spending. Any welfare that goes to people who vote the wrong way is spending, but welfare that goes to the right people is investment in the future. You'll find few rural right-wingers who oppose farm subsidies, and few right-wingers outside inner cities who oppose road subsidies. It's transit that's expendable, because most of it is used by Not Our Kind of People.

ws

I was raised in the suburbs.

Using the word coercion in the same context as some anti-transit people use it; I was coerced into my car by the litany of codes and regulation dictating this auto-dependent urban form.

There is nothing organic or unplanned about suburbia.

It works both ways, and I'd advise others to call out people who do use the word coercion in reference to transit.

zefwagner

I think what really gets car owners worked up are road diets, bike lanes, transit lanes, basically anything that takes car space and gives it to other uses. Cities like Seattle have proven that in many cases a road diet can still preserve the same throughput of vehicles and don't add to congestion, but there is still a huge outcry of "coercion" or "war on cars" whenever it is proposed. Partly this is just a symptom of a cultural tendency towards hyperbole. Road diets make it more annoying or inconvenient to drive, but they do not prevent anyone from driving.

Now, what do we do about this? We should continue to emphasize the "complete streets" concept which is inclusive rather than exclusive--it focuses on greater choice rather than less. "Road diet" is a problematic term because it tells people that their driving is an unhealthy thing like getting fat. It may be true, but people get worked up over it.

As far as transit and HOV lanes go, I think they should be more visually separate and distinct from the rest of the road than they usually are. When there are light rail tracks in the middle of a road or highway, people don't really mind that it is empty most of the time, because it doesn't seem like part of the road anymore. When you just have an HOV or transit lane using a painted line to separate it, however, solo drivers look at it longingly and get angry that the space is "wasted" most of the time.

EngineerScotty

With regard to the question of zoning, a few things worth mentioning.

* There are other legal regimes, such as covenants, that can have the same effect as zoning. The US state of Texas has no governmental zoning; instead restrictions on what can be done with real estate are implemented with covenants, which are zealously enforced in the state. And zoning is often easier to adapt (changes or variances require only a majority vote in most places), whereas changing covenants often requires a supermajority. (And libertarians often prefer the latter to the former, as the restrictions are couched in the language of contract rather than law...)

* Some restrictions on property usage are good, some are bad. Restrictions excluding harmful, inappropriate, or incompatible uses are a good thing; residential property is more valuable when there's little chance of a hog farm or a tire factory moving in next door. Other restrictions on zoning, however, only really exist to exclude poor people from the neighborhood; many density caps are motivated by this: by reducing the number of dwelling units in a tract, one increases their value, and thus increases the "cost of entry". And of course, the cost of supporting automotive infrastructure in high density areas ("it will increase traffic") is often given as a pretext for resisting upzoning.

J.D. Hammond

Of course, for those Sartrean urbanists among us, even talking about "coercion" is like a fish trying to deny the existence of water.

Dexter Wong

Speaking of coercion, if we stop talking about coercing people out of their cars then we should stop trying to coerce people into cars with talk like a car dealer who advertises "Stop waiting for a bus and buy a car." people who continually talk about how people like a suburban lifestyle and how it is incompatible with public transit so transit is now irrelevant. They say,"If you want to get around, buy a car!" This should stop, if you try to sweet talk people out of driving then let's stop the hard sell of getting people not to use transit.

In Brisbane

This is great, but the case that cars are subsidized to the hilt (at least in Australia) is has not been made crystal clear.

Motorists claim that that they pay rego, general taxes, fuel taxes, tolls, fines, parking and also gain benefits from car use (time saved, mobility better than bicycle or public transport) and then a bus or train user just jumps on a bus and ka-ching 70% government subsidy right there.

Just so there is no mis-understanding, I support public transport, but don't be surprised if you hear this argument against it.

Daniel Sparing

Jarret, two things:

1. if we want to replace "coercion", both the words and the meaning, i suggest to follow Prof. Jan Gehl who suggests that to build a great city, one needs to _invite_ people to walk, cycle (and take PT).. nothing less is satisfactory. Let's build cities which invite people to make the right choice.

2. i wish you a happy new year, fun with blogging and success with the new book!

Daniel Sparing

Oops. i wish JarretT the same :)

John W

In the various mentions of costs above, I realised there's one I've not seen discussed very often - opportunity cost. The amount of time spent travelling by automobile is affectively lost time - you can't safely do anything else while driving - time which could be spent doing something productive (ie remunerative). For most types of work, time spent on city buses and metros might also be lost time, but for rail commuters (and perhaps on luxe buses/coaches) that time can be used for work. So a scenario where a commuter rail trip is longer and more expensive in terms of direct costs than the equivalent automobile commute, would actually work out much cheaper, especially the higher up the income scale you are.

In Brisbane

Here is a tricky question: what price do we put on "social status" that a car gives a person?

Alon Levy

Social status is a zero-sum game. In a society where everyone owns a car, a car is no longer a status symbol.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

In Brisbane:  If you can describe the trickiness of a question, it ceases to trick you.  Social status is a reflection of appearances, so its price is like the price you'd pay to wear this year's fashions instead of last year's.  That's extremely subjective and depends entirely on a person's values and social objectives.  It's also a short-term investment, which is why I personally would never make a big long-term purchase (car, house) based on anything other than its utility to me and the pleasure it gives me, without regard to how it affects others.  But I'm the child of leftist artists who trained me to despise the shifting winds of fashion.  Your cost-benefit analysis may differ.

Zoltán

Alon Levy:
"Social status is a zero-sum game. In a society where everyone owns a car, a car is no longer a status symbol."

Nicely put.

Daniel Sparing:
"one needs to _invite_ people to walk, cycle (and take PT).."

I like this use of language, and can see a few points in debating urbanist matters where I might start using it myself.

EngineerScotty

Social status is a zero-sum game. In a society where everyone owns a car, a car is no longer a status symbol

Not when you can choose between a Mazda and a Mercedes. Simply having a car is not a status symbol in the US (though not having one frequently is understood as a symbol of low status); but there are many ways the status-conscious can spend money to signify their elititude.

Alon Levy

If everyone has a Mercedes, a Mercedes ceases to have a status symbol. In Monaco, you need a Ferrari to stand out. If an item gives you social status, it's not a real benefit - it's just a reallocation of power.

EngineerScotty

Yup... if there were a world where the only permitted automobiles were various styles of Honda Civic, and the only permitted accessory were fuzzy dice to hang from the rear-view mirror, there would be a market for jewel-encrusted, solid gold (except for the fuzzy parts) fuzzy dice. There will always be a demand, it seems, for some frivolous and expensive way for the wealthy to signify their status.

Maybe we should add first-class seating to busses as a way to get the wealthy to buy in? :)

Dexter Wong

If I choose not to invest in a car because public transit is good where I live, then that should not reflect poorly on my status, right?

Alon Levy

@Dexter: it shouldn't, and most likely doesn't. But it depends on how recognizably good the transit is. I imagine that in a region with bad or stigmatized transit, riding transit carries a stigma even if for your particular needs transit is good - say, if you live and work on top of MARTA or the LA Red Line.

Nicholas Barnard

@Dexter In some areas its seen as an outward choice to live in a more sustainable manner. In New York City, its not uncommon, or weird not to have a car. Seattle is the similar I think.

In Brisbane

What about "Forced transfers"?

That's the other type of "co-ercion" flying around in public transport. Brisbane designs its bus routes so that they don't "force" passengers to transfer.

CroMagnon

Make transit better and FASTER than driving. Don't make transit SEEM better by making driving worse. THAT's also a zero sum game and an exercise in treading water at high cost. Make transit the rational choice. Don't make travel times slower, you'll just deflate the economy. You can't make all trips shorter to compensate, either, b/c you'll never be able to redirect the land use of an entire metropolitan area--there's simply too much sunk cost.

We've got to charge more to drive and park, not make getting around more difficult. Sure there's some exceptions where you can close of some streets b/c they create unnecessary congestion by their layout. But they are certainly the exception to the rule.

Also, the term livability has got to go. It makes no sense, b/c I'm sure the folks living in ranchers on half acre lots in the outer metro area consider their situation quite livable. And they'd be right.

Spending money on streetcars is one the most colossal gimmicks I can think of. It ain't transportation improvement. They're always built on a substrate of economic development subliminally based on the "kewl" factor--which translates mostly to visitors, while residents get stuck with the bill and their inherently dysfunctional operations. As much as the federal Republicans are so wrong on many things, I feel better to know there's less of a chance of these inane streetcars getting financed which seem more associated with development enterprises. Somehow, public transportation planning seems to have been co-opted by the fuzzy, non-empirical wing of the urban planning establishment. We need that part, but too many of these people really don't seem to get or care about the math and the geography.

High functioning transit is heavily linked with physical development. But expensive new projects need to live and die on their mobility improvements. Otherwise, advocates and project promoters are setting a philosophical war with everyone who might have to pay for something that may not improve mobility (or harm their property).

So please no coercion.

EngineerScotty

Make transit better and FASTER than driving. Don't make transit SEEM better by making driving worse. THAT's also a zero sum game and an exercise in treading water at high cost. Make transit the rational choice. Don't make travel times slower, you'll just deflate the economy. You can't make all trips shorter to compensate, either, b/c you'll never be able to redirect the land use of an entire metropolitan area--there's simply too much sunk cost.

The question is, what ratio of speeds is "correct"?

If one builds freeways throughout a city, but the only transit is hourly local-stop bus service, then driving will be faster than transit.

If one builds rapid transit throughout a city coupled with frequent local-stop service, and avoids building freeways, transit can often outperform driving for many trips.

But then, what about things like "road diets", conversion of traffic lanes to bus or rail lanes? Do these sorts of projects--which don't force anyone to do anything, but which divert infrastructure resources from motorists to transit, constitute "coercion"? What about reverse actions, such as Rob Ford's threats to tear up Toronto's streetcar system, or the occasional calls from right-wingers in Portland to tear out the Eastside MAX and use the recovered space to widen I-84 to eight lanes--are these "coercion"? For that matter, does a funding policy to aggressively fund transit projects over road projects constitute coercion? (Many motorists would say yes). What about the reverse--refusing to fund transit at all?


Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

@ 'In Brisbane' re forced transfers:

See http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/why-transferring-is-good-for-you-and-good-for-your-city.html

Asking the rider to live with the facts of geometry is not coercion!  Brisbane cleverly reduces transferring in the design of its busway, and also for many other radial trips, but part of the cost is that Adelaide St is choked with half-empty buses.  Brisbane like all cities requires transferring for trips to non-downtown destinations, and often routes these trips out of direction due to under-investment in orbital services like the Great Circle Line (598-599).

J B

I agree with In Brisbane about subsidies- making transit more efficient and therefore self-sufficient would help the pro-transit argument immensely. It would also free up public funds for other underfunded purposes. There is no need to assume, as many in English-speaking countries do, that transit is always money-losing.

Tessa

I always feel the need to make one point of strong caution whenever you start talking about money as a renewable resource and time as a non-renewable one. Mainly, that money is an extremely inequitably distributed resource, whereas time isn't. Yes, we can build our society based on denying those who aren't as rich as others certain privileges, such as reasonable mobility, or we can build a system that treats people equally. Now, of course, I'm not arguing for the status quo in terms of cars, but I think the Canadian health care system has shown you can build a pretty effective system where everybody waits equally and, even in that case, people virtually never choose to go south to pay to jump the cue, even though that would instead use the so-called reusable resource.

Having the paid privilege works if there is a highly effective system that is capable of handling every single trip. Otherwise, when people switch they just end up paying for time waiting at a bus stop and not in traffic, only they no longer have the choice to take transit simply because they're poor (and they still watch the rich zip past). The better option, in my opinion, is to follow the Paris model of squeezing the space available to cars with the goal of improving the access for those who aren't using a car, but rather a bus, bike or some other form of transit.

It's about time we stopped solving our problems on the backs of those most vulnerable.

anonymouse

Tessa: nobody HAS to drive, and when people are wasting their time waiting at a bus stop, they're not burning non-renewable oil into toxic pollutants (which, by the way, disproportionately affect the poor) or creating a hazard on the road that makes its use by other modes, especially pedestrians and cyclists, more dangerous. It also doesn't create congestion that slows down everyone else's trip (including those in buses). And money is a fairly neutral way to allocate scarce resources: otherwise it ends up devolving to games of influence. Take, for example, parking in NYC: if you don't want to pay for a garage, you waste a lot of time driving around looking for street parking. Unless you happen to be a member of the privileged few, generally government workers, who get placards that let them park wherever they want.

But still, you have a good point: if you're going to try to price people out of driving, give them reasonable alternatives, and give them time to adjust too.

Tessa

Anonymouse: reread my post. Specifically: "of course, I'm not arguing for the status quo in terms of cars" and "the better option, in my opinion, is to follow the Paris model of squeezing the space available to cars with the goal of improving the access for those who aren't using a car, but rather a bus, bike or some other form of transit."

Our friendly host blogger here posted on Paris a while back: http://www.humantransit.org/2010/07/paris-the-street-is-ours.html That's far more preferable, in my opinion. It takes away space from cars, reducing car-dependence, while at the same time improving the transit system, all without giving the rich any transportation advantage they didn't already have - even if you can't afford a car, and wouldn't want to buy one anyway, a car co-op is a great way to pick up heavy parcels, etc.

So obviously you're preaching to the choir when you say nobody HAS to drive, and that car driving should be discouraged. What I'm saying is I don't want a system where the rich continue to drive without any consequences or congestion while the poor are shoved onto an underfunded transit system due to economics. The alternative to driving needs to be better than that.

Swan

@ Tessa,

Healthcare is a special case though, because unlike most services demand doesn't massively ramp up as the price drops to zero: People still tend only to go to the doctor when they are sick, and they have pretty good incentives for staying healthy regardless of healthcare costs.

In general however, you are better off making people pay the cost of a service so that resources are used efficiently. If you are concerned about the poor you can always address this through progressivity in the tax/welfare system to offset any changes. Someone would always rather have the choice of paying or keeping the money rather than no choice, as they might have a much better way of using the money.

tomtakt

Amen to almost everything said!

However, as a few mentioned, a major difficulty in letting the cost of automobile travel increase is that there are few reasonable alternatives in many parts of the country due to abhorrent land use regulations and consequential limited ability to provide effective transit service, and the limited funding for such service in relation to highway/road funding.

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