Take Back Cities for People and the Automobiles They Use

Fifty years ago, people’s concerns about automobiles were justified.

June 27, 2020 • Commentary
This article appeared on Orange County Register/​a> on June 27, 2020.

The pandemic has reminded us that our society has to be resilient to face all sorts of unexpected events, and this is doubly true for transportation. The good news is that the United States already has the most resilient transportation system in the world. The bad news is that some people are trying to take it away from us.

Transportation needs to deal with all kinds of unexpected events, including terrorist attacks such as 9/11, natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and southern California wildfires, economic downturns such as the 2008 financial crisis, and of course pandemics such as COVID-19. The most resilient transportation in all of these cases is motor vehicles and highways.

Terrorists seek to horrify the populace and disrupt the economy. When they choose a transportation target, it is almost always some form of mass transportation such as subways or high‐​speed trains. Even a crowded highway isn’t dense enough to cause much horror and, unlike rail lines, which can take weeks to repair, nearly all highways have alternative routes.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, 123,000 people in New Orleans lived in households that had no automobiles. When the levy failed, those with cars got out; many of those without cars were forced to stay and more than 1,000 people died. A few weeks later, when Hurricane Rita hit the Texas Gulf Coast, where auto ownership rates were much higher, 3.7 million people were able to evacuate in a couple of days.

Mass transportation systems such as Amtrak and public transit are particularly vulnerable to recessions. Because they are so labor‐​intensive, a decline in revenues can force major cutbacks in service. Highways, once built, are there when you need them; they aren’t going to go away because revenues to the agency that built them has temporarily declined.

Before the current pandemic, research found that people who ride transit are nearly six times more likely to suffer from acute respiratory diseases than those who do not. Masks help, but — as the CDC recently advised — the safest way to travel during an epidemic is in your own private automobile.

Despite the tremendous advantages of autos over mass transportation, a powerful anti‐​auto movement remains. A New York Times article recently urged cities to “take back streets from the automobile,” as if people in cars are less important than people who aren’t in cars.

In the decade before the pandemic, Los Angeles Metro lost a third of its bus riders. Metro’s solution? Make traffic congestion worse. “It’s too easy to drive in this city,” said Phil Washington, Metro’s CEO, about the city that is perennially at or near the top of the list of the worst congested areas in the country. He wants to turn lanes now open to all traffic into exclusive bus lanes so that his empty buses can zip by frustrated motorists.

Cities across the country are participating in a movement to make congestion worse. Sometimes called “road diets,” sometimes “complete streets,” the goal is to take lanes away from motor vehicles.

The results can be deadly. When a 2008 wildfire burned near Paradise, California, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the city realized it needed better evacuation routes. Instead, it put its only four‐​lane street on a road diet, removing two of the lanes. When a fire burned through the city in 2018, more than 80 people died, many in their cars while they were stuck in traffic.

Fifty years ago, people’s concerns about automobiles were justified. Cars were energy hogs, spewing pollution that darkened the skies of our cities, and killing 50 people per billion vehicle miles in highway accidents.

Those problems were reduced not by forcing people out of their cars but by making cars cleaner, safer, and more energy‐​efficient. Compared with 1970, autos use only half the energy, emit only 3 percent as much toxic pollution, kill 78 percent fewer people per billion vehicle miles in accidents, and improve each year. Irrationally, opposition continues as if automobiles were still as bad as they were in 1970.

In spite of anti‐​auto policies, 80 percent of passenger travel and 90 percent of urban travel is by automobile. It’s time to take back cities for people and the automobiles that have liberated them to reach more productive jobs, better homes, lower‐​cost consumer goods, and greater recreation and social opportunities. That means fighting the road dieters, congestifiers, and others who think that the primary goal of transportation policy should be to force people out of their cars.

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