In what may be a first in the annals of American politics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials are all in pretty much full agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council on a piece of transportation policy. What strange legislative alchemy could unite such a motley road crew?
The answer is a new GOP-authored bill, approved last week by the House Ways and Means Committee, that ends the 30-year tradition of using a tiny portion of the federal gasoline tax – 2.86 cents of the 18.4 cents in total paid by American drivers per gallon – to fund mass transit. The bill arrives in Congress alongside a new transportation bill, itself a spectacularly wrongheaded and retrograde piece of partisan red meat that eliminates funding for bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.
Christopher Lloyd’s cackling, cartoon-slaughtering villain in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (who you may recall was hellbent on destroying Toon Town to make way for freeways) couldn’t have written a more destructive piece of transport policy, nor one better suited to the transportation priorities of the 1930s. In the face of exhaust-enhanced climate change, mounting energy scarcity, widespread infrastructure decay and booming demand for dense, walkable urban space (which demand far exceeds current supply in the U.S.), the Republicans have devised a formula for strangling smart growth. When neither the sellers of new homes nor the infamously climate-change-denying U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees with a piece of transportation policy, it simply must be epochal in its ill-conceived, tone-deaf ignorance. And it is.
Rather than beat up any further on the most loathed Congress in American history, I’d like to focus in particular on the populist argument that looms behind such boneheaded legislation. It’s an argument you’ll hear not just from ardent Tea Partiers but from suburban developers and long-serving city planners and many others. It’s the barest thread of more widely held common sense that tethers this bundle of bad transport ideas to plausibility.
The argument goes roughly like this: (North) America is the land of the car. (We Canadians buy into this particular brand of American exceptionalism as well.) This land has a deep, abiding, singular adoration for its automotive lifestyle that is eternal and indefatigable. Americans live in McMansioned outer-belt suburbs with outsized putting-green lawns and ballroom-sized patios and five-mile commutes to the nearest sellers of bread and milk because there’s simply no more appealing way to live the American Dream than to stake out your own quarter-acre of it. (For a portrait of this version of the dream so rose-tinted and rhapsodic it verges on self-parody, check out David Brooks’ 2002 ode to exurbia, “Patio Man and the Sprawl People.”)
We’ve tried – so the argument continues – oh, we’ve tried to force the Patio Men and Realtor Moms to do things differently. (Those, by the way, are just two of the approximately 500 prime Brooksian neologisms stuffed into that aforementioned ode.) We’ve run bus routes and hammered down LRT tracks, made bikes hip and walking virtuous, we’ve sin-taxed gasoline and demonized SUVs. Land sakes, folks, in New York City they’re even copying the Scandinavians. But darn it all, this bloated car-obsessed sprawl is What The People Want.
There is no burden too great, no cost too high, no Middle Eastern war too specious in its ostensible purpose, no carbon dioxide concentration too catastrophic, no housing bust too calamitous, to force us from behind the wheel. So the argument goes.
I’d argue, in sharp rebuke, that while it’s not complete rubbish, this argument is an outdated partial truth at best and wholly self-fulfilling in any case. To put it bluntly in urban design terms, we become what we fund properly. If you insist that the only thing people want is an automobile-centred sprawl-topia, then that’s what you'll fund, and that’s the piece of the bigger urban puzzle that’ll function to its full potential. You build the nicest, shiniest suburban paradise of broad curving avenues and big-box consumer palaces you can muster, and if there’s some pittance left in the public coffers, you drop in a couple of concrete bus-stop benches and tuck a sidewalk or bike lane behind some chain link. And then say you’ve put plenty of free choice in the marketplace, and the Brooksian utopia’s still What The People Want.
The truth, though, is that What The People Want is stuff that works. Stuff that’s friendly and easy to use, easy to access and packaged to sell. Stuff that is, at its best, awesome. And suburban freeways are, at their best, awesome. So were shopping malls, in their prime, especially when their competition was a blighted, neglected, boarded-up downtown. The route to detached single-family suburban home ownership and big-box shopping is well-paved, clearly marked, subsidized to the tune of billions (everything from road fees and taxes that don’t cover their costs to the outer belt’s parasitic relationship with the urban infrastructure already bought and paid for downtown). No wonder we “chose” it.
If, however, you make the alternatives just as enticing, just as user-friendly and even awesome on occasion, that’s what people choose. Younger Americans are already demanding walkable neighborhoods in record numbers. Even with transit systems and cycling infrastructure that would (and does) make a Scandinavian laugh, transit use and bike commuting is booming.
So what happens when you make transit awesome? When you make it the best option? Well, I saw one answer recently in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, a city that has nowhere near the access to capital for big infrastructure projects that Houston or Los Angeles or Toronto does. Here’s what a bus stop on one of the city’s main downtown arteries looks like:
(photo by Chris Turner)
This is a central downtown node on Guadalajara’s Macrobus network, a prime example of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the low-cost, quickly deployed approach to awesome transit that’s swept Latin America in recent years. From what I saw, automobile traffic in Guadalajara was far better than the developing world average (and nowhere close to the near-permanent free-for-all gridlock I’ve seen in Asian cities like Bangkok and Hyderabad). But because its BRT routes do the job just as well or better – with covered, comfortable stations, dedicated fast-moving lanes, and costs far less than car ownership – they’re bustling.
The system was deployed in less than a year and already carries more than 130,000 passengers per day. Which, for those of us in prosperous Canadian and American cities waiting decades for rapid transit buildouts as ring roads and suburban freeways continue to dominate public funding, sounds pretty awesome indeed.
In my next post, I’ll look at five other easy ways to make transit awesome.
To trade tales of awesome transit 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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