Is the environmental movement out to “get” the auto industry? Do the Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists work overtime with urban planners, rail lobbyists and their colleagues in Smart Growth America for that glorious day when our roads will at last be car-free?

 

Randall O’Toole thinks so, and he wrote at LeftLaneNews.com, “A variety of interest groups have joined the war on the automobile. The one thing that unifies these groups is that they all benefit (or think they benefit) from congestion, so I call them the ‘congestion coalition.’ ”

 

What O’Toole calls congestion those same planners would call urban density, which is a good thing because people living vertically in apartments and taking public transit use a whole lot less energy than suburbanites. I wrote extensively about this in my book "Breaking Gridlock." Americans are rediscovering downtowns, often with the help of immigrant groups. Again, it’s a good thing, because by the 1970s we had largely left our central cities to rot while we fled to the suburbs.

 

Detroit is the most dramatic example of this. Following the 1967 riots, white flight emptied out the urban core. The population is currently just over 700,000, having fallen dramatically from 2 million in the 1950s. But if you look closely, the people are still there, living in the suburbs — the six-county area around Detroit is home to 4.2 million as of the 2010 census. The flight now includes the African-American middle class (and the auto industry, see "Roger and Me" for details). The latest low population numbers shocked city officials worried that its ability to qualify for federal and state funding would be threatened.

 

But there are green shoots all over Detroit as urban pioneers rediscover and renovate the inner city. It’s slow work with a lot of setbacks, but it is happening. And if people can ride a subway to work or even walk, everybody benefits, don’t they?

 

The suburbanization of America felt good at the time. The two-car garages and the limited-access highways offered freedom. But as we sit in gridlock on our sprawl-highway commutes into the city, progress seems elsewhere.

 

Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells me, “First of all, I think any reasonable person must recognize that it’s hard for most people to love cars if they are sitting in traffic, in a smog-choked city. Reducing gridlock, making cars cleaners can, from one perspective, be seen as an enabler for America’s so-called love affair with automobiles to continue.”

 

I agree. Cars aren’t fun if they’re sitting immobile in traffic jams like the ones at right. The planners, rail lobbyists and greens realize that we have to rescue our culture from auto addiction, and in effect save the automobile from being loved to death. The O’Tooles of the world usually see new highway construction as a panacea for relieving traffic pressure, but there’s ample evidence that people opportunistically crowd new roads so that they fill up fast.

 

Hwang also points out that the greening of the auto industry (a friendly cousin to urban planning) has made Detroit more competitive and added jobs. Since June of 2009, when GM and Chrysler bottomed out, U.S. carmakers and their suppliers have added 236,600 jobs. Auto-related jobs have accounted for 38 percent of the job gains in the rustbucket car states of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

 

“While auto haters speak derisively of the ‘highway lobby,’ O’Toole writes, “that lobby hardly exists.” He says the main actors in getting roads built aren’t auto companies but road builders and truckers. Well, duh? Who said anything different? The construction industry is the driving force, but the auto companies are involved, too. In fact, Henry Ford was a powerful force building early roads so his Model Ts wouldn’t get stuck in the mud, but those road builders and their allies can handle the lobbying all by themselves.

 

No road lobby? I’m choking on that. Here’s Forbes on that non-existent body: “Despite Congress’ fitful efforts to renew a multiyear federal transportation bill, the highway lobby has once again proved its reputation as one of Washington’s most effective operators. How effective? Think $52 billion.”

 

First Street Research Group found that nearly 700 groups lobbied the Senate transportation bill in 2012. You’ve probably never heard of the Transportation Construction Coalition, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association or the Associated General Contractors of America, but they were all in there working for more roads. So was the pro-growth U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $20 million lobbying the transportation bill.

 

Against this lobby, the tiny group calling for smart growth and less auto-centric city development is a flea on a water buffalo’s back. It does have a bit of bite, though, and maybe occasionally President Barack Obama’s ear (when he’s not appeasing interest groups to get re-elected).

 

O’Toole hates it that any money from the gas tax is diverted from the highway trust fund to transit and other people-oriented entities, from rail trails to bike lanes. “More than a fifth of your federal gas taxes go to subsidize some transit rider’s cushy ride,” he writes. But doesn’t that straphanger’s ride benefit all of us, by relieving highway congestion? Subways and passenger rail service will never pay for itself, we know that, so supporting it with a few pennies on the dollar is to everybody’s benefit.

 

Again, it’s the non-existent highway lobby that has all the power. Note that earlier this year a Republican-led transportation bill would have dramatically cut public transit funding, slashed subsidies for Amtrak 25 percent, barred any spending on high-speed rail, and ended the aforementioned 20 percent set-aside for mass transit and infrastructure maintenance in the federal gas tax.

 

I’ll give Roland Hwang the last word. “With a planet headed towards 7 billion people, there is no way that the car can still have as big a role in our mobility if we don’t plan our cities better, invest in transit systems, and make cars cleaner. That’s just a fact of life at this point.”

 

Agreed. This video has some cool visions of future transportation:

 

 

Related transportation story on MNN: 3 reasons why Copenhagen is the king of urban sustainability

 

MNN tease illustration: Shutterstock

 

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