Sunday, March 27, 2011

We Don't Wage War On Things we Love

Google the phrase “war on cars” and you will surely find several references to ongoing diatribes from The Heritage Foundation written by Wendell Cox but there will also be some fine rebuttals and one of the best lately is by Todd Litman. Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia,Ca.. and has done numerous studies on traffic not only in Canada and the U.S. but internationally. The real story is that those who are claiming that there is a concerted effort to eliminate the automobile are making this whole thing up.

As far back as the late 1990s, The Thoreau Institute and Randall O'Toole was writing that this so called “War” was roughly comparable to the earlier “Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Crime and (now) Terror” except that this was a war that the American people should NOT engage in. Considering how all of those other “wars” have gone (and with large amounts of direct funding from the government) this new “war” should be looked at as a failure from the outset.

One of the claims has been that the skirmishes in the “war” began back when the Interstate Highway System and High Trust Fund was created. The highways that were supposed to link cities without running through cities and funded from taxes imposed on ALL gasoline sales, but the social engineering (that they are so afraid of today) intervened took the major interchanges into the city centers and through many existing (low income) neighborhoods.

It is probably more accurate to say that the initial sniping was back in 1935 with Wheeler-Rayburn Act which intended to regulate the electric utility companies. Such utilities were also parts of holding companies which owned the streetcar and interurban systems of America. Strangely enough the streetcar companies were where the electric utilities got their start, providing power for the trolleys and selling off the extra to customers first along the lines and then to the rest of the area. By 1935, the electric companies “extra power” and sales far outstripped its usage by the trolleys. Streetcars, once they were torn away from their private subsidy, then had to compete with the automobile which was (and still is)subsidized by the government. We can see the results of that today.

Transit became the mode of choice for those who were either on the lower levels of society in most cities or the typical white collar worker in the larger metro areas. As these ranks have swollen with the growing sprawl and the continuing stagnation of wages(especially in the past decade or so) potential transit users have been left out due to the subsidy imbalance. Thus began the push for better transit in the mid-sized cities of the U.S.

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 belief alluded to in the second sentence above does not include the idea that no one would be allowed to have autos but does provide for the choice to use one or the other, and even both.

It is the claims of social engineering against the automobile and its elimination from cities that fuels the rhetoric of today's battles. These claims may work in other communities, but Lexington is not actively working to eliminate the automobile. What we would like to do is balance the equation a bit and fund all modes on a more reasonable level.

All of America is not “at war” with the automobile, in fact most of us revere our car more that most all that we own.

The family car used to sit “out back” either in the driveway or in the garage. The garage was a small wooden shed type structure, unheated in the winter, some distance from the house and usually neglected to the point that it sometimes barely stood up by itself. Today it sits proudly on the driveway in front of the house, guarding the wide overhead door which dominates most facades and proclaims to all comers “our homes may be on par with each other, but I am the status symbol that you should be impressed with”. In the '50s, the good car was kept in the garage while the old workhorse auto was left in the drive or on the street and today it is the work vehicle that is hidden in the back and the show car on display. Americans love their cars.

American's buy cars, primarily due to marketing(another type of social engineering), not because they need to get from point “A” to point “B”, but to show just how far they have progressed up the social ladder. Today's autos are tricked out with so many extras, most of which we don't need, some we don't use and a few that we just don't know about, yet we buy them(at premium prices) because those just one step up the economic ladder have them. We buy cars that can go 130 mph. and are limited to 35 – 45 on most urban roadways. We buy cars with four wheel drive and never go off-road. We buy cars with all the comforts of our living rooms so that the 25 minute commutes will not inconvenience us and then use it less than 1/10 of the day on average.

It will not be the government planners or the social engineers who will wage the “war” on the driving habits of the American public. Most likely it will be those whom we have willingly thrown our support behind and our now hard earned money toward, the auto and petroleum corporations which have enticed us into this mess where we now find ourselves.

Where do you see yourself in the next stage of the situation?

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