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Do urbanists hate the automobile? Not this one

There's nothing like the freedom of the open road. But driving is a little like chocolate -- a wonderful indulgence that can easily be overdone.
Library of Congress/Andreas Feininger
There's nothing like the freedom of the open road. But driving is a little like chocolate -- a wonderful indulgence that can easily be overdone.

Taking stock is part of celebrating a new year. After all, it's hard to resolve to do better in the months ahead if you haven't recognized your weaknesses in the months past. As a blogger aiming to shed light on urban topics (lifestyle, transportation, community design, sustainability, etc.), I fear that my writing sometimes falls too easily into the urbanist chorus, reflexively embracing ideas (mass transit, compact living, etc.) that seem to accuse the suburban mainstream of crimes against the planet.


Given the political reality — a Republican insurgency that has restored conservatism to its dominant role — I've resolved to do two things: to listen more intently to critics, and to explain more fully how my urbanist leanings aren't so elitist as they sometimes sound.

I thought about these things during the holiday hiatus when I ran across a piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Patrick McIlheran (reprised a day later in the Strib). McIlheran is a talented conservative with sharp fingernails. My tongue-in-cheek post (Dec. 16) about whether Wisconsin's decision to drop the Chicago-Twin Cities high-speed rail link blocks interstate commerce and risks a lawsuit from Minnesota, apparently provoked him, as did other pro-rail commentaries.

Hating the automobile?
The result was a classic example of how the political right has perfected the art of seducing the American mainstream, an unhappy group with a short attention span. All McIlheran's readers needed to know was that rail is a boondoggle; that its "coolness" is part of an elitist impulse that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for; and that its advocates are a select fringe of urbanists and greens who "absolutely hate the automobile."

I deeply admire the political right's skill in chiseling down an issue this way. You get to demonize your opponent in a few choice words while offering no substantive alternative — and it works! Moreover, you make it hard for the accused to answer in a civilized way, or in a way that doesn't require detailed (and boring!) explanations. Still, in the spirit of my New Year's resolutions listed above, I'll try to patiently explain the urbanist view.

First, it's right to zero in on the car as the key player in this drama, although "hating the automobile" (a quote from Rep. Michael Beard, the Minnesota House's new transportation chairman) isn't part of my profile. I hate cars so much that I own two of them. (That's down from five when our family included two suburban teenage drivers.) Our cars have nine cylinders between them and about 366 horsepower, so they're not exactly muscular. Still, they allow my wife and me to burn a respectable amount of gasoline every year, enough to do our part in keeping America beholden to the big oilmen and the sheiks.

Freedom of the open road
In fact, I love to drive. The family road trip was a staple when the kids were small. I can easily recite the roads and distances between Washington, D.C., and Boston or the scenic detours between Minneapolis and San Francisco, then down the Coast Highway to San Diego. There's nothing like the freedom of the open road.

But for me driving is a little like chocolate. It's a wonderful indulgence that is easily overdone. When everyone drives a lot, things get out of hand: traffic congestion, air pollution, storm-water runoff, oil spills, greenhouse-gas emissions, oil dependence, foreign-policy complications that sometimes lead to wars, sprawled development, redundant infrastructure, drive-through lifestyles that lead to bad nutrition and obesity — all of these things can be laid, at least partially, on our need and desire to drive excessively.

Surely driving is important, even vital. And maybe its benefit still outweighs its many costs. But I've started to wonder. Is it smart to continue relying so heavily and exclusively on the auto? As China, India, Brazil and other rapidly urbanizing societies double and triple their driving miles every decade, and as oil is harder and harder to extract, what's the likelihood of major price escalations? Even if alternate fuels are developed, maximum driving carries with it problematic costs to the infrastructure and environment. If the object is to move people, why not explore a variety of choices, some of which are more efficient? Surrounding a single person with all of that steel, glass, rubber and fuel seems extravagant. Offering a wider marketplace of choices seems the prudent way forward, especially since it takes decades to develop transit systems and to retrofit communities and lifestyles in ways that reduce the need to drive long distances for every purpose.

Is cheap driving sustainable?
Urbanists are accused of wanting to take away people's cars and force them to live in tight quarters, but that's absurd. Urban-style living isn't for everyone. People should live where and how they want. What urbanists do favor, however, is a system of rules and prices that fairly reflect the costs of people's decisions. Those who prefer to drive long distances and occupy large footprints should pay a fair cost. Those who choose smaller footprints shouldn't be penalized by cumbersome rules or burdened by price systems that continue to reward inefficiency and heighten risks to the environment and to national security.

These don't seem like elitist or radical positions to me. They seem reasonable and downright conservative, even patriotic. They pose no threat to personal liberty so far as I can see. Most important, they are proactive. I'd rather anticipate the future than try to recapture a past that's already behind us.

Almost no one who has studied these issues believes that the era of maximum driving at a minimum cost can be sustained in the decades ahead. It's prudent, then, to begin investing in more efficient alternative modes, including high-speed, middle-distance train service between major metropolitan areas. The question about the Chicago-Twin Cities rail link isn't the cost — it's small potatoes compared to what we now spend propping up auto travel — but whether the proposed 110 mph technology is fast enough to be truly competitive.

Hate the car? No way. I relish driving more than ever, perhaps because our family has found ways to do less and less driving in recent years. I don't feel elitist or superior about that; it was just a choice we were able to make, a New Year's resolution of sorts.

As 2011 unfolds, I hope I can keep this year's resolutions in mind: to listen more intently to critics, and to explain more fully my not-so-elite views on urban-design topics. I'd like to elaborate, but I promised to wash the cars.

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Comments (18)

"Car hating urbanists" certainly attend the meetings I attend. It is part of the sentiment that places light rail line down University Avenue. A rail on I-94 or Pierce Butler makes far more sense if the goal is to people get where they want to go as quickly and cost effectively as possible. (Buses on University are quite adequate today.) Instead, they see a morality issue-- eliminating University Avenue lanes for cars/parking is viewed as a positive. Speed of public transportation is viewed as unimportant.

Buses on University

If you want to go from DT MPLS to DT StP you can take the 94 bus. Much quicker than the 16. The 16 has enormous ridership. Labor costs are the greatest component of a transit operating budget. Therefore operating LRT which requires less labor is long term cost reducing strategy.

I share this position. As an environmentalist, urbanist, and scientist, I know well that cars - or at least the way we're using them now - will be our undoing. And yet there's that 12-year-old boy inside me that picks up Car and Driver every time he's at the airport.

Nice Steve, well said.

I'll say the the problem with liberals or urbanist's from a rhetorical perspective is that they're afraid to take the initiative. "Pro life" activists could be very effectively cast as anti-privacy activists. Anti transit activists could be selfish consumers. Anti health care advocates could be corporate lackeys. Many liberals don't seem to understand that from a rhetorical perspective the first priority is to get the public's attention, not explain things. You get their attention, then you explain. If your rhetoric has the added advantage of accuracy, you've struck gold, but you have to take the initiative, you can't always be on the defense.

Your piece is nice, but imagine putting your urban assertions up front, start with "I love to drive", here's what an urbanist is, and THEN address the bogus criticisms from the right.

Psychologically we know that "I'm not" statements carry less weight than "I am" statements. The most famous recent example is Odonell's "I'm not a witch" campaign, huge mistake... not that she could have won in any event but you see the problem. At any rate, "I'm not" or "I don't" statements should always be preceded by affirmative statements of "I am" or "I will". Affirmative statements shouldn't follow defensive statements. I'm not saying we need to avoid substance, I'm just saying substance needs to be presented effectively. You also have to think ahead a few moves. Republicans are predictable. If you find an effective rhetorical device they will try to co-opt it. We saw this recently when "you can have your own opinions but not your own facts" language was co-opted by a number of Republicans. If they see it coming they'll try to beat you to the punch and use it first.

David R., you're not presenting the entire context. No one that I know of (and I hang with a LOT of transit folks) thinks removing parking on University Ave. is a great idea. It's a necessity given the width of the right-of-way. An alternative would be to keep parking and remove one lane of traffic in each direction. That can also work as demonstrated in cities across the country. The Met Council made the choice to eliminate parking. It's not the choice I would have made, but it's done.

As for putting LRT on I-94, that was studied as part of the alternatives analysis process and was pretty early on deemed impractical. It costs more (think about rebuilding all of those bridges), it's less convenient (who walks along I-94 on a regular basis?) and such a system would primarily serve only the two downtowns which is exactly the OPPOSITE of what Central Corridor is designed to do.

Central Corridor is primarily a service for those already living and working in the University Ave. corridor. It is not, not, NOT primarily to get people from one downtown to the other. Putting the line on University avenue is the sensible solution to achieve that goal. A University Ave. alignment also spurs economic development which is a benefit of LRT demonstrated across the country. A freeway alignment would throw that away.

Central Corridor on University Ave. is the right alignment and that has been clear for a decade.

One other thing. Buses on University Ave. will not be adequate by 2030. We're expected to see big population growth over that period and we couldn't run enough buses to fulfill the demand and the operating cost would be far higher than rail.

A fine piece, Steve.

As an old, broken-down history teacher, I don’t qualify as an environmentalist or a scientist, and I’m living in a “big city” for the first time, after a previous life spent almost exclusively in the suburbs. I’ve loved driving all my life, still read Car and Driver frequently, cherish my remaining drag-racing trophy (I used to have several, but they’ve disappeared over the years with multiple moves across the country), and have fond memories of road-racing fellow gearheads when I was a teenager, with $20 to the winner. I made a lot of spending money…

As long as I can afford it – and as long as it remains less expensive than air travel or currently nonexistent rail service – my summer trips to Colorado will be by car. Maybe my granddaughter will be able to take the train, or some other means of mass travel for medium and long distances, but for the time being, there’s nothing on the horizon except air travel, and I think that will increasingly become what it was in the 1930s – a means of transportation for the wealthy and privileged, but not for the general public. Around the metro area, however, and to heavily-used destinations within the state (e.g., Rochester; the North Shore, etc.), the rationale for rail as at least an option to the automobile gets stronger with every penny added to the price of gasoline, not to mention every minute wasted sitting in Twin Cities rush hour gridlock.

The right wing argument that auto travel “pays for itself” while rail travel has to be subsidized is effective sophistry of the sort that Paul mentions in (#3). http://dc.streetsblog.org/2011/01/04/actually-highway-builders-roads-don...

I can’t speak to “car-hating urbanists,” not having actually encountered any, but I don’t doubt that there are some. One point that does seem, curiously, to often get lost in discussions of driving vs. other modes of transportation is the immense economic, social and emotional cost of traffic accidents. If thousands of people were killed and permanently maimed every single year using virtually any other mode of transportation, the public uproar would be deafening.

I’ve been a teetotaler all my life, but it’s not difficult to find people, private individuals and public officials both, who wring their hands over the possibility of marijuana being legalized, and the potential danger that might pose to the driving public, while simultaneously not even raising an eyebrow over the presence of bars and liquor stores in every community, and a huge industry devoted to the production of alcoholic beverages – one of the primary causes of those same traffic accidents that kill and maim people by the thousands every year. We’re not always, maybe not even regularly, rational creatures.

Even in urban settings, sometimes the automobile is the only practical means of transit. My Minneapolis neighborhood has, literally, no commercial activity at all beyond a print shop. This abject failure of planning means that everyone in my neighborhood has to get in their automobile – or catch a bus – to acquire basic necessities like food and clothing. Among the ironies is that the closest shopping area is across the highway/boundary in an inner-ring suburb, so the sales tax dollars don’t even accrue to the city. As a culture, it took us at least half a century to get ourselves into this situation, and it might well take us another half-century to get out of it, kicking and screaming the whole time.

Very good article. I have a car; I also have a bike, and I live on a bus line. There are a few days a year when only the car can accomplish everything, but most of the time, the bike or bus will do fine. I save money on parking and gas, I save myself the mental aggravation of driving at rush hour, and if biking, I save time and get exercise. Yet so many people get hugely defensive at the idea that driving might not always be the best solution. They seem to really take it personally. I can't understand why they wouldn't want to have more transportation choices.

Dave R., I work at the U, and the buses on University are far from adequate at rush hour right now. As Dave G says - the point isn't to get people only from downtown to downtown. It's also to get people from Frogtown to the U, from the U to downtown, etc.

For all their talk about "freedom of choice," the right-wingers want everyone to have only two choices: cars for local transportation and planes for long-distance transportation. They sneer at bike paths and train lines.

Well, here's an economic argument. When I moved back here from Portland, where I had lived for ten years without a car (and without any major inconveniences, thanks to the way the city is set up), one of my relatives gave me a car, a "free" car, when I realized that a totally car-free lifestyle is a very limited lifestyle in a car-centered metro area.

Within a couple of months, I was feeling financially strapped, and I couldn't figure out why, since my income had not changed much, and the consumer prices are about the same here as in Portland. It wasn't until I figured out my income tax for that first year that I realized that I had spent about $3000 on that "free" car. Of course, I would have spent much more if I had been making car payments, too.

I wonder, therefore, if all the suburbanites who complain about being hampered by taxes (Americans pay much lower taxes than most industrialized countries) are actually hampered by the need to maintain a car for everyone over the age of 16.

A friend of mine works in market research for a large New York firm. Five or six years ago, he said, his company conducted long-range market research for a consortium of Japanese automakers. He told me that the message his colleagues gave the Japanese is this: Driving is the new smoking.

That is, among younger Americans especially but across the board, driving is beginning to be seen as a negative social activity; necessary perhaps, but tolerated, not embraced. He said this conclusion obviously is not consistent across the country, but it is slowly becoming part of the national ethos.

I think he's right, though the movement away from driving will be slower and more nuanced than the anti-smoking movement has been.

"What urbanists do favor, however, is a system of rules and prices that fairly reflect the costs of people's decisions. Those who prefer to drive long distances and occupy large footprints should pay a fair cost."

The difficulty here is that a public good, by its sheer nature, does not allow for individualized pricing. Should only those with school age children pay for our public schools? Should only bike riders pay for bike paths? As a collective body, our citizens continue to support an asphalt infrastructure because it provides a unique flexibility that best accommodates the demands of work and family. Should we continue to work at reducing fuel consumption? Absolutely. Measure it, track it and then celebrate our progress.

I was surprised, but shouldn't have been, to learn recently that from an employment perspective, having a car is more important than having a GED. Have we actually created a country where, for a growing number of people, driving is more important than education? Recent news articles have raised serious concerns about the quality of education in this country while other articles celebrate the fact that car sales are up. Perhaps our best hope for the future is to convince the rest of the world that driving trumps education.

Elsa,
The light rail is to replace to 50 bus schedule. The 16 bus is to run every 30 minutes rather than every 10 minutes. Frequency in transit service along University Ave does not increase with light rail.

David Greene,
When transit options were being decided (I-94, Pierce Butler, University Ave), I recall being the lone voice concerned about parking and decreasing lanes on University Avenue. Now, everyone is concerned. Back then, people denied anything would have to change.

All,
Buses and rail are parts of a transportation system. I see Pierce-Butler or I-94 lines as improvements to the system, but do not see how a University Ave line improves improves transportation, thus doubt there will be significant net benefit. More businesses are closing (or in the case of the Turf Club, reevaluating) than opening. The people who designed the line were over-reliant on the "expert advice" of advocate/consultants and under-reliant on engineering talent that would design something based on quite specific market analysis. If increasing transit use was a goal, how was the design toward that goal? I love transit, when done well such as in SF, NY or Moscow. San Diego, Portland and MSP don't impress me, as when I use transit, it is to get from one place to another in a reasonable amount of time. I blame "car hating urban" moralists for the bad design that in the long term will bring the University Ave line to the same fate as the Metrodome.

I find it humorous that the argument "the University buses will not be adequate in 2030" is being used to justify the University Ave light rail. And putting a light rail down the middle of one of the most popular streets will help that? How? The rail line is going to go about the same speed as the 50 and MetroTransit's plan right now is to reduce the 16 bus from 10 minutes down to every 30 minutes, which will impact people who want to make short trips or those who are elderly or with small children (who will have to walk further to get to transportation that is running at a convenient time.

By 2030, University Ave will not be adequate for the traffic - pedestrian, public, cars, or delivery vehicles for the businesses on University Ave. Wouldn't it have been a better solution to just run the 16 buses at a higher frequency and build a light rail that is a commuter lane to transport people who might not otherwise have considered taking public transportation?

I ride the bus every day for my job and to get to other appointments. I also take public transportation when I travel around the US and abroad. It seems that the best public transportation systems are those that provide an incentive for people to ride - i.e. faster than cars, more convenient (frequent service), informative maps at stations, cost effective.

I've also heard University United people talk about the way they would get people to ride public transportation. Their websites seem to indicate "if we build it they will come" mentality. They also seem to believe that by making parking difficult and driving difficult, people will see reasons to ride public transportation.

Paul is right that the movement away from cars is going to be slow, but it is only because of our own system of how we build things in the first place. We are a consumerist society and even when we are spending billions of dollars, we know that if it doesn't work out we can always do something else. My car loving co-workers would drive somewhere else in the city if parking/driving is difficult in one place. They'd only take the bus/train if it were convenient (that they didn't have to wait more than 5 minutes for the next train/bus - probably less time if it's cold), that it was close to their home, and that it actually got them somewhere faster than by car.

Moscow trains run every 3 minutes and they are the most packed trains I've ever been on. Paris trains and buses are user friendly. Chicago trains are at times elevated along the freeway, yet no one is "walking along the freeway" -- they take people to hubs and there are elevators and pedestrian bridges. Perhaps Minnesota cannot afford to build something user friendly right now. But, perhaps we should have also looked at this project as something that we cannot afford to build incorrectly, either, if indeed, it is to be used to try to coax people out of their excessive automobile usage.

Karen (#8) makes an excellent and usually overlooked point. I served for several years on an affordable housing commission in Colorado (until recently, that was something of an oxymoronic mission), and one of the primary barriers to housing affordability – not just to ownership, but even to being able to afford the rent on a decent apartment – was transportation costs. In Colorado, as in Minnesota, the dominant form of transportation was and is the automobile, and an individual or family spending 30 percent or more of its income on transportation will have a hard time managing another 30 percent (a typical and often-used figure in terms of housing affordability) for housing.

Add up the car payment, insurance, fuel and maintenance expenses, licensing fee/tax, and an automobile, while providing unmatched flexibility, does so at considerable cost for most people individually, and for the society as a whole. The wealthy will always be able to afford whatever suits their convenience, and as long as the infrastructure is in place, they can continue to drive the Porsche or Mercedes SUV, or the Hummer, no matter how expensive fuel might be, and still afford the McMansion on the one-acre lot, but the rest of us have less to work with when we consider costs.

Only the fact that housing here – in part because of the economic meltdown, but also because, frankly, this isn’t a “destination” in the same way as Colorado – is far less expensive allows this old retired guy to maintain something similar to his previous standard of living. My automotive costs are significantly higher here because my Minneapolis neighborhood has no retail activity at all, so I have to drive far more to acquire necessities than I ever did in my metro Denver suburb.

I walk a couple miles every day, so “walking an errand” is something I’m used to doing, but when the round trip gets beyond 4 miles or so, I start looking for alternatives. I’m considering adding a bike, but have already discovered that the inflexibility of age makes the usual “men’s” bike something I can’t get on or off of, so if I decide to spend the money on a bike, I’ll have to buy what for decades has been labeled as a “women’s” bike configuration. No matter, as long as it does what I need it to do.

Meanwhile, that friend of Paul (#9) may be on to something, though I’m not ready to jump on that particular bandwagon just yet. Attitudes are changing about a lot of things, and driving / car ownership may well be among them.

I also agree with Monica (#13) about the relationship between transit use and convenience. I lived for decades in St. Louis without ever using mass transit, but my attitude changed fairly dramatically once I moved to metro Denver. Parking downtown was scarce enough, and expensive enough (much like here), that I became a regular bus rider. The buses ran frequently, directly, and a transit hub was a 10-minute walk. Here, the buses run frequently, but – at least from my neighborhood – not directly, and while a transit hub is about a half-hour walk, it’s not exactly convenient. Transfers in mild weather are not a problem, but I’m not at all enthused about changing buses when it’s 5 degrees and the wind is blowing, so direct lines to popular destinations are required if I’m going to ride the bus here, and so far, that’s not happening.

Nice point in noting that favoring non-auto alternatives does not make one a car-hater.

And, Dave R, it may be true that ""Car hating urbanists" certainly attend the meetings [you] attend," but that does not mean that all urbanists are car-hating.

Lastly, Mr Berg, sometime in the last couple weeks, the NYT sunday magazine had a piece on a couple physicists who developed a mathematical model to represent the growth of cities. The claim was that the same growth model could be applied to any urban area, whether, say, Calcutta, NYC, Port au Prince or Duluth.

This is a wonderful piece, a susinct summary of urbanist values. However, I'm directing my commment to the one made by Victoria. She suggests that Steve Berg's line, "Those who prefer to drive long distances and occupy large footprints should pay a fair cost," doesn't make sense when considering roads/highways as public goods (like parks and schools). I would argue this menatality is flawed. By allowing drivers to continue their free access to highways, we're effectivley subsidising sprawl, and all of the negatives that come with that form of development. Subsidizing schools and parks doesn't come with the same negative externalities. A pricing scheme (tolls) would eliminate that subsidy, while encouraging infill development, among other potential benefits.

Chris- Thanks for the question, allowing me the opportunity to clarify my point of view.
I believe a community enters into an agreement to provide a public good-in this case a transportation system which includes roadways, buses, light rail, Metro Mobility, bike lanes and so on. The objective is to juggle resources to best serve all citizens and to allow all citizens access to the system. It seems to me the logic expressed in Steve’s comment is to make our transit system less efficient (or costly to some, hurting those with the least money the most) in an effort to affect another public good: a separate consensus to preserve, maintain and improve our environment. I saw no proof that making our transit system less efficient would actually have the desired effect. Drivers may simply avoid the toll roads, sitting in their cars for longer periods of time, taking away from other responsibilities and burning more fuel.
The fee is also meant to penalize those who live away from the city center. If you review the numbers posted on the Metropolitan Council’s website, however, you will note that in 2008-83,414 workers commuted out of Minneapolis whereas 72,438 were employed in the city (http://stats.metc.state.mn.us/profile/detail.aspx?c=02395345#hsngtenure ). Should those commuting to Bloomington, Plymouth and Eagan be penalized and pay the tolls? Just because folks live in an older area of our metro does not mean they do not use our roadways.
Furthermore, according to the Metropolitans Council’s website, Hennepin County increased in population by 52,777 people or 31,682 households from 2000 to the estimate for 2009. Where are these newcomers to live? New homes and communities are built to accommodate new growth. The city of Minneapolis also grew from 382,747 (Census 2000) to a 2009 projection of 386,691. Please explain how growth produces negative externalities for our Metropolitan area.
Lastly, I think it is important to strive for a cleaner environment; one less dependent on fossil fuels. It just seems wasteful to deliberately hurt one public good, in hopes of having a positive effect on another.