The Coming War on the Automobile

Table of Contents

The war on drugs began in the 1980s. The 1990s are witnessing a war on tobacco. What will be the target of the great social war of the next decade? The answer is not alcohol or fatty foods, as some might guess. Instead, the next target of the social engineers and planners will be automobiles and those who drive them.

Early skirmishes in this war have been fought with increasing intensity since the 1960s. Major battlefronts are currently located in Oregon, Minnesota, Maryland, and Florida. But these local efforts have only modest support from federal officials. If Al Gore is elected president in 2000, an all-out federal effort is certain.

The war can be traced, naturally, to a misbegotten and misguided federal program: the Interstate Highway System. As originally conceived by President Eisenhower, Interstates were to link cities but not pass through them. But in the 1950s, most Americans lived in the cities. City officials couldn't stand the thought of all that federal money being spent outside their borders, so they quickly transformed the program into one that served mainly commuters.

That turned out to be a big mistake. Building an Interstate in a city generally meant wiping out a wide swath of existing homes, businesses, and parks. The freeways that were built ended up literally paving the way for urbanists' flight to the suburbs--a flight motivated less by racial issues than by people's desire to live in pleasant neighborhoods on large houselots.

Some freeways met with such objections from local residents and the beginnings of an anti-automobile coalition that they never got built. In the wake of Earth Day in the early 1970s, a spate of books were published with titles like Road to Ruin, Highway to Nowhere, and Autokind vs. Mankind. The authors of all of these books agreed that the automobile was one of the greatest horrors ever invented and that Americans were victims of a dark conspiricy coming out of Flint, Michigan.

During this period, the most significant victory of the anit-automobilists was the government takeover--usually with federal assistance--of virtually all of America's urban transit systems. Transit had been in steady decline since 1920, when autos went from being toys for the rich to mobility for everyone.

Transit advocates persuasively argued that, due to youth, age, or disabilities, some people were simply unable to drive. Society owed these people as much mobility as the auto offered everyone else, so society should subsidize transit. But behind this argument lurked a belief that mass transit was better than personal autos and that we would all be better off if we could go back to the late-nineteenth century when most cities had streetcars but no one yet had cars.

The next big goal of the anti-auto crowd was to "bust the trust fund"--to open up highway funds for mass transit. Since around 1950, highway user fees in the form of gas taxes, vehicle registrations, and truck weight taxes had paid for nearly all road and highway construction in the U.S. (but not for many neighborhood streets, which were usually built by developers and sometimes maintained out of property taxes).

The federal government and most states dedicated these fees exclusively to roads. This, transit advocates argued, created a bias in the minds of transportation planners for more roads. Opening up the funds to all forms of tranportation would supposedly allow planners to find the best way to spend the money, not just automatically spend it on more roads.

Transit advocates were unable to convince many states to go along with this logic. But in 1982 it convinced Congress to dedicate two cents of the federal gas tax to mass transit. Congress also agreed to allow cities that had approved but unbuilt interstate highways to convert the funds for those highways to funding for mass transit.

In almost every major American city, one of the best ways public transit agencies can improve transit is to buy more buses to add service to existing routes. Transit riders are frequency sensitive, and doubling frequencies can often lead to far more than double the ridership.

The problem with this strategy is that, in most cities, buying more buses creates few local jobs and doesn't line the pockets of the construction companies that were expecting to build the cancelled interstates. The solution found by San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, and several other cities was to build a rail transit line. Rail advocates were fond of pointing out that a single rail line could carry as many people as a four-lane freeway. Planners predicted that a low-cost investment would reduce transit operating costs, boost ridership, and reduce congestion on nearby roads and streets.

It didn't work out that way, though you would never know it listening to the publicity generated by the transit agencies. Portland's light rail "was built on time and under budget and carries more riders than predicted," says G. B. Arrington, the head planner for Portland's transit agency.

In fact, Portland's light rail cost 55 percent more, took a year longer, and carries less than half the riders originally predicted. After funding was approved and construction began, planners revised their cost and time predictions upward and their ridership downward, enabling them to claim success despite the reality of failure.

One reason why the light rail carries so few riders is that it is slow, averaging less than 20 miles per hour from start to finish. Although frequencies are high, many riders were lost because the transit agency cancelled express bus service that previous covered the same distance in less than half the time.

Rail transit has been a failure in every American city where it has been built in the past several decades. Even Washington, DC's extensive and expensive rail-and-bus system carries less than 14 percent of DC commuters--a smaller market share than the bus-and-streetcar system of 1960.

Nevertheless, light rail is now touted as the solution for all sorts of cities, from Missoula, Montana, to northern New Jersey opposite Manhatten. In fact, light rail has become a major weapon in the campaign against the automobile.

Designing Cities for the Nineteenth Century

To understand this growing campaign, we have to look at the work of a group of architects who call themselves "New Urbanists" or "neotraditionalists." New Urbanists subscribe to the idea that cars are destroying our communities and it is up to architects and planners to save cities by redesigning them so people can live without cars.

To accomplish that redesign, architects first looked for cities that lived without cars to see how they worked. The cities they chose were major U.S. cities from around the turn of the century. In those days, more people lived in apartments. Those who lived in single-family homes usually lived on tiny lots, often in row houses. Housing freely mingled with retail shops, professional offices, and other businesses. Few people drove because few had cars, and streetcars were the most modern transportation.

So New Urban design consists of high-density neighborhoods of apartments, row houses, homes on tiny lots, and mixed uses all built around a light-rail station or transit corridor. Neotraditionalists go further and build in wide front porches, bay windows, steeply pitched roofs, and garages behind the house if they are included at all.

One of the first neotraditional communities was Seaside, Florida, planned by Florida husband-wife architect team André Duany and Elizaeth Plater-Zyberk. Their strategy is not to design every building but to write a highly prescriptive zoning code that landowners and their architects and builders must follow.

Seaside has narrow streets, Victorian-style homes with tiny yards, and pedestrian walkways between many yards. While pleasant to visit, it is merely a a resort town full of second homes, not a city full of commuters and soccer moms.

An early New Urban suburb, designed for commuters and their families, is Laguna Beach, near Sacramento, California. Designed by California architect Peter Calthorpe, Laguna Beach was supposed to have a transit center surrounded by a core of high-density housing, which itself was surrounded by lower density housing. Shops and other businesses were to be scattered through the entire area. Residents, particularly in the high-density housing, were expected to walk to the transit center to get to work.

This much you can read in any of the many coffee-table books now being published in praise of New Urbanism. What the books don't say is that Laguna Beach didn't work out as Calthorpe planned. It turns out that people don't want to be crammed into high-density housing. So the original developer went bankrupt, and a new developer put low-density housing everywhere.

Since Calthorpe didn't design a parking area near the transit center, people parked their cars in front of other people's homes. The owners of those plush homes objected to that and convinced the transit agency to move the transit center outside of the development. As for shops, the only commercial use in the entire development is a quick lube. So much for living without cars.

New Urbanism might be fine if it were optional. Developers could build it for those people who want to live in high-density, mixed-use communities without cars. But that isn't enough for the New Urban planners, who want to save our cities from the automobile by mandating New Urbanism everywhere.

Leading the Charge in Oregon

The state of Oregon and city of Portland are leading the New Urban charge against the automobile. Oregon's land-use board has directed every city over 25,000 to force its residents to reduce their per-capita auto driving by 20 percent. This may seem a strange rule for a land-use board, but a major tenet of New Urbanism is that there is a strong link between land uses and automobile usage.

Following suit, Oregon's air pollution agency has ordered all employers of 50 or more people to induce their employees to reduce their auto commuting by 10 percent. Employers who fail to prepare and implement plans to do so may be heavily fined.

In Portland, a regional planning agency called Metro has dictorial powers over twenty-four cities and three counties. Metro has developed an elaborate campaign against the automobile that includes several coordinated tactics:

Planners lovingly paint of picture of people living in high-density or mixed-use areas, walking to the grocery store and taking the train to work. The reality, planners quietly predict, is that no more than 12 percent of all trips in the Portland area will be on foot, bicycle, or mass transit. While this is a 50 percent increase from today's 8 percent, it means that the share of trips by auto decline by less than 5 percent from 92 to 88 percent.

With the expected 75 percent increase in population trying to drive at least 67 percent more miles per day on a road system that is just 13 percent larger, planners predict that their plan will lead congestion to at least triple. Portlanders will spend more time in traffic trying to get to and from work.

To planners, congestion is a feature, not a bug. They know that Americans respond to congestion by living closer to work. This means Portlanders will be happy to live in the high-density housing that planners have assigned them to. Congestion, says Metro quietly, "signals positive urban development."

A series on National Public Radio's All Things Considered was more forthright. Noting that most transportation planners try to ease congestion, NPR said that Portland planners "are embracing congestion; they want to create more of it."

Planners proudly point to certain Portland neighborhoods that they consider to be their ideal: Northwest 23rd, Southeast Hawthorne. These are relatively dense older neighborhoods with many apartments surrounding a busy street of small charming shops.

"People are learning to walk more in these neighborhoods," says Metro planner Mark Turpel. They have to: The areas are so crowded with cars that people often to park many blocks away to get to the shops. The residential streets are lined with cars on both sides, and the busy streets are one continuous traffic jam. This, according to Portland's New Urban congressman, Earl Blumenaeur, "is the kind of congestion that is exciting."

The one thing that all Oregonians agree upon is that they don't want Portland to be like Los Angeles. Metro convinced Portland-area voters to give it dictatorial planning powers in 1992 by promising to save Portland from turning into L.A.

In 1994, Metro planners compared fifty American cities to see which one was most like the Portland they wanted to create. They learned that one city simultaneously has the highest population density, the lowest number of miles of freeway per capita, and is spending the most on building a new rail system.

What city was it? Los Angeles. Los Angeles, Metro planners concluded, "represents the investment pattern we desire to replicate." Of course, they never mention that in any of the four-color brochures that they pass out to the public. This quote is from a dry, data-rich document that is available only to Portlanders willing to pay a $10 fee. Even so, it is astounding that planners admit that they want to turn Portland into the very city that they promised to save Portland from.

What is the reasoning behind the campaign against the automobile? New Urbanists say that automobiles are evil because:

Hidden Costs

Enemies of the auto tote up a huge list of costs that autos impose on society and subsidies that society must pay to support auto drivers. When added together they total billions of dollars each year, which typically averages out to several dollars of subsidy or social cost per mile driven.

Yet the vast majority of the costs they claim are neither hidden nor subsidies. The entire federal highway trust fund is often described as a subsidy even though it is entirely paid by highway user fees such as gas taxes. Transit advocates seeking to divert gas taxes to transit don't say they are asking for a subsidy; they say they are reducing the subsidy to highways.

As previously noted, highway fees generally pay for all tollways, freeways, highways, and roads. Neighborhood streets, however, are generally maintained with local taxes, usually property taxes. While auto opponents call this a subsidy, it is reasonable to expect local homeowners to contribute to the streets and sidewalks in front of their houses because they will use them whether they drive or not.

In trying to arrive at as high a cost as possible, auto opponents also include the cost of automobile insurance, highway and bridge tolls, and parking--even though these are all paid for by auto drivers or (in the case of some parking) people seeking the business of auto users. one anti-auto economist counts a $21 billion subsidy equal to the income taxes the government would collect if employers charged for employee parking and increased employee pay to cover the cost.

Auto opponents add in the cost of state highway patrols, highway administration, and interest on highway bonds--all of which are paid for out of user fees. Then they add the costs of highway congestion, which again are paid for by users and which have increased in recent years mainly due to the efforts of the anti-auto lobbies.

One auto opponent counts half the cost of America's military presence in the Persian Gulf as a subsidy to autos. Yet the U.S. gets little oil from the Gulf--most goes to Europe and Japan--and the U.S. has military in many places with no oil.

About the only legitimate social cost that can be tallied against the auto is air pollution and associated health costs. But even the most virulent auto opponents agree that this totals to no more than a few cents per mile driven.

In contrast, the subsidies to transit are enormous. Farebox revenues typically cover less than a quarter of the cost of urban bus service, and often cover less than 5 percent of the cost of recently built rail lines. Most capital costs are paid for out of highway user fees, while operating costs are paid out of various local taxes, mostly paid by auto drivers. So the real subsidies are from autos to transit riders, not the other way around.


Everyone knows that American cities are sprawling across the countryside and that the U.S. is rapidly running out of prime farmland and open space. It is to prevent this sprawl that New Urban planners seek higher densities. Since the auto makes sprawl possible, anything that will discourage driving, including congestion and parking fees, helps to cub sprawl.

As usual, what "everybody knows" turns out to be wrong. Nationwide, all of America's urbanized areas cover only about 2.6 percent of the area of the lower 48 states. The U.S. has more than twice this area of prime farmland that isn't even used for growing crops--it is used as pasture, forests, or is lying fallow. Total U.S. agricultural lands amount to nearly twenty times the area of our cities. Urban areas are growing, but when they start out at such a small proportion of the total land base that growth isn't having much of an impact on open space or farms.

One of the things that bother New Urbanists is that suburbanites are choosing to live on larger lots. Average lot sizes have grown from about 5,000 square feet in 1960 to 8,000 square feet in 1990. But residential land typically amounts to only about a third of urban areas. So doubling lot sizes does not automatically translate into double the total urban land area.

As eastern and midwestern cities decline, America's fastest growing cities are in the West and South. It is here where the concerns about sprawl are most frenzied. Yet if "sprawl" is defined as growth of urbanized land at a rate faster than the population growth, then few western cities are actually sprawling. Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, and many other cities are growing in population faster than they are in land area. Ironically, one western city that is sprawling is Portland, the city most regulated by New Urbanist rules.

Ugly Strip Malls and Sterile Suburbs

As New Urbanists have noted, American cities in 1900 were characterized by high densities and mixtures of residential and commericial uses. But the leading thinkers of those days believed that crowding was unhealthy and mixed uses were dangerous and harmful to property values. So urban planners of the 1910s and 1920s developed zoning for the specific purpose of protecting low-density neighborhoods of single-family homes from the nuisances of apartments, offices, and stores.

Zoning codes typically limited commercial uses to busy streets. Single-family residential areas were set well back from such commercial areas. Apartments and other higher-density housing formed a buffer between the commercial areas and single-family neighborhoods.

One result was that the busy streets turned into strip developments. Another result was that wealthy homeowners in low-density suburbs sought increasingly low-density zones to protect their property values. In short, the planning ideals of the 1920s became the planning scourges of the 1990s.

Some cities, notably Houston, survive without zoning, relying instead on protective covenants and neighborhood associations to maintain property values. Such cities may still have strip malls, but to a considerable extent, the things the New Urbanists object to are mistakes of past generations of planners, not the workings of the free market.

Strip malls and supposedly sterile suburbs may offend the aesthetic sensibilities of New Urbanists, but they undeniably attract many people. Sociologist Herbert Gans spent two years living in a traditional, high-density urban neighborhood and another two years living in a tract suburb. He found that people in the suburbs were just as happy and had just as much of a sense of community as people in the central city.

As long ago as the 1960s, Gans noted that "hysterical mythmakers" complained "that individualism was dying, suburbanites were miserable, and the fault lay with the homogeneous suburban landscape and its population." Yet Gans found no evidence that this was true.

General Motors Made Us Do It

If autos are so bad, auto opponents explain their ubiquity by claiming that Americans have been forced to drive when they would rather not. The most potent support for this claim Los Angeles, whose streetcar system was purchased by General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil, who quickly scrapped the streetcars and replaced them with rubber-tired, oil-burning buses. Since New Urbanists claim that buses are less efficient than streetcars, they see this not just as a way to sell buses but as a dark plot to run the transit system into bankruptcy and force everyone to drive.

The simple fact is that every rail transit system in the country lost money throughout the 1930s, late 1940s and 1950s. With three or four exceptions, they all scrapped their streetcars and replaced them with buses. Buses are more flexible and cost much less to operating and maintain since they share the cost of roadbed maintenance with autos.

Numerous cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago, have built or maintained extensive rail transit systems. Yet the auto has more than 80 percent of the market share of commuters in these cities, and transit's market share has generally declined. Only in New York has rail maintained a significant market share, yet transit carries just 25 percent of commuters in the New York metropolitan area, while cars have 65 percent.

Americans have shown that they are willing to put up with enormous amounts of congestion in order to avoid the inconveniences and indignities of mass transit. The typical response to increasing congestion is not to shift to transit but for employers and homeowners to move closer to one another--which explains why many business are moving to the suburbs.

New Urbanism's Backers

The ease with which the auto's enemies arguments can be dismissed does little to dispell their persuasiveness. For one thing, many of their points resonate stronly with Americans, particularly with concerns about loss of farms and open space and the ugliness of strip developments. The idea that we could ride fast, convenient trains instead of sitting in traffic is also appealing--although it turns out most people hope that everyone else will take the train so they can drive without congestion.

New Urbanism's real strength, however, comes not from these myths but from several very real interest groups that will benefit from increasing urban congestion. These include:

All but the last of these benefit from congestion. And while construction firms would be just as happy building highways as rail lines, they won't complain if New Urbanists promote congestion so they can build gold-plated light-rail systems.

These groups have combined to dramatically shift the federal role in urban transportation. Even in the Interstate highway era, that role was rather passive, being limited to doling out funds for projects designed primarily by state and local highway engineers. But with passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, the federal government is now strongly promoting New Urbanism throughout the country.

ISTEA requires cities to use a long-term planning process that is easily captured by New Urbanists. The law encourages cities to blow all their dollars on rail projects that no one will use rather than build highways that will be used. In cities with air pollution problems, ISTEA actually forbids the use of federal funds for expanding road capacities, even though congestion is often the greatest cause of air pollution because slower cars pollute more.

ISTEA is up for reauthorization by the 105th Congress. Unfortunately, most of the debate inside the beltway is on which states are going to get the most highway funds, not whether those funds will be spent on highways or rail boondoggles or whether the federal government should even be in the urban transportation business.

Senator Connie Mack and Representative John Kasich have proposed to eliminate most federal gas taxes and let the states or cities fund and plan urban transport. But transportation funding has become an important form of pork, as indicated by the fact that the largest committee in Congress is the House Transportation Committee. No one on that committee wants to give up federal allocation of funds.

Fighting Back

More than four out of five American workers drive to their jobs, and more than 90 percent of all non-job-related trips are also by car. Yet auto drivers are remarkably unorganized and easy prey for the anti-car coalition.

Auto users have been made to feel so guilty about their desire for safe, efficient, and convenient transportation that they often accept the congestion offered by New Urbanists as their just desserts. Groups such as the American Automobile Association and National Motorists Association are barely aware of the anti-auto campaign.

The real opposition to the New Urbanists will come from the suburbs. People who have escaped the crowded cities don't want congestion and density imposed upon them by planners whose ideal lifestyle is in Manhatten. But most suburbs remain as unorganized as auto drivers in general

So, if you live in a suburb, if you drive to work or anywhere else, if you like shopping at Costco or Sam's Club, then get ready for the next big social war. You will be the target of social engineers who want to control where you live, where you work, where you shop, and how you get from one to another. If the New Urbanists win, the cities of the future will be more congested and polluted, have higher taxes and housing costs, and less open space within them than you are used to today.

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