By Randal O'Toole
Thursday, Jul 7th, 2011 @ 1:30 pm
 
The state of Washington has mandated a 50-percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. Short of police dragging people from their cars and stuffing them onto buses and trains, how can it accomplish this goal?

Auto opponents have devised several tactics aimed at reducing driving. Their general strategy is to increase traffic congestion to discourage driving while providing alternative means of transport that they hope people will find more attractive than sitting in traffic.

To increase congestion, their most important tactic is to oppose all new highway construction even in the most congested areas. They often argue that there is no point in building new roads because they will just lead people to drive more, which will make the roads congested again. This makes as much sense as blaming population growth on the construction of hospital maternity wards, yet several state and local governments, including the Oregon Transportation Commission and the cities of Boston and Seattle, have explicit policies against any new roads.

To make congestion even worse, auto opponents seek to reduce the capacity of existing roads to move autos and trucks. This includes converting lanes that are open to all vehicles into exclusive bus or bicycle lanes. It also includes a variety of techniques they call traffic calming, but which really should be called "congestion building." Traffic calming includes speed humps, putting barriers in streets, and narrowing roads to force vehicles to slow down.

Another way to increase congestion involves traffic signal coordination. Normally, signal coordination seeks to smooth traffic flows and reduce congestion. But auto opponents seek instead to adjust signals so that they give priority to buses and other transit vehicles over cars. This disrupts signals for the 99 percent of people who travel by car while it slightly speeds travel for the 1 percent of people who ride transit. A related tactic is to persuade states to pass laws requiring cars to yield to buses when they pull out from bus stops.

In addition to increasing congestion, auto opponents are seeking to reduce parking available for cars. Historically, zoning codes have often included minimum parking requirements for businesses and multi-family housing developments. Auto haters want to change these to maximum parking requirements, so parking lots will be more likely to be full. For example, instead of a minimum requirement of 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling unit in an apartment complex, the new zoning codes might allow no more than two-thirds of a parking space per unit.

Auto opponents also favor iswhat they call congestion pricing, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. True congestion pricing seeks to increase the capacity of a road to move traffic. A typical highway lane can move 2,000 vehicles per hour, but when it gets congested (i.e., when traffic exceeds 2,000 vehicles per hour), traffic speeds slow and the lane's capacity can quickly fall to 1,000 vehicles per hour. Once this happens, it can take hours to get back up to speed even though traffic may be only 1,000 to 2,000 vehicles an hour most of that time.

A toll that is higher during peak periods ensures that this never happens. Even during rush hour, the majority of vehicles on the road are not commuters. By diverting a few of those vehicles to travel at other times of the day, congestion pricing can save people hundreds of hours and thousands of gallons of wasted fuel.

Often, however, that isn't what auto opponents mean when they say "congestion pricing." Instead, they want to impose a cordon charge. This means drawing a line around an area, such as Manhattan or inner London, and they charge a fee to anyone who drives across that line. The fee may be imposed only during daytime, but it isn't higher during rush hour than during other times of the day. Unlike true congestion pricing, which increases overall road capacities, the goal of cordon charges is to reduce driving. Usually, auto opponents also want to dedicate the fees to transit subsidies.

Alternative motives
While they increase traffic congestion, auto opponents also hope to attract people out of their cars by providing alternatives. Usually, this means huge subsidies to expensive rail transit systems along with smaller subsidies to bike paths and pedestrian ways. Highway opponents justify such subsidies by saying that all transportation is subsidized. In fact, while there are subsidies to some local roads, and street maintenance is usually paid for out of property or sales taxes, most major highways have been built and maintained with gas taxes, tolls, and other highway user fees.

Nationally, subsidies to highways, roads, and streets average about $30 billion a year. But because highways are so heavily used, this works out to less than a penny per passenger mile. In contrast, subsidies to transit are also about $30 billion a year, but because transit is so little used, subsidies average more than 70 cents a passenger mile. We would all be better off getting rid of all the subsidies, but it seems likely that if we did so it would have a much bigger impact on transit than on driving.

A final important anti-auto tactic that is aimed at both increasing congestion and, supposedly, providing alternatives to driving is densification. This usually involves land-use restrictions preventing new low-density suburban development combined with subsidies and zoning mandates for high-density redevelopment in existing developed areas.

While historic zoning usually specifies the maximum density (say, four homes per acre) allowed in a particular zone, densified zoning specifies the minimum densities required for all new development. In some cases, the zoning is so strict that if someone's house burns down, they will be required to replace it with an apartment. Many zones also call for mixed uses, which means apartments or condos and shops in the same buildings.

The goal of densification is to pack people and businesses together so no one will have to drive as far to get anywhere, and often people will be able to walk or bicycle to stores, offices, and other destinations. Of course, with more people, there will also be more traffic congestion, which auto opponents hope will discourage auto driving.

It would seem impossible for car haters to achieve this goal. Residents of sleepy suburban towns are not likely to vote to turn their neighborhoods into Manhattans. As one urban planner wrote, there is a "gap between the daily mode of living desired by most Americans and the mode that most city planners . . . believe is most appropriate." While most Americans "want a house on a large lot and three cars in every garage," planners believe this leads to a urban development pattern "that is expensive in terms of public and private infrastructure costs, quality of life, and environmental damage."

The solution, the planner concluded, was regional government. Unlike states, which are controlled by elected legislators, and cities, which are controlled by elected councilmembers, regional governments tend to be run by appointed boards and their staffs are dominated by urban planners who are sympathetic to the anti-auto agenda.

Few people realize that back in the 1960s the federal government mandated the creation of regional governments to oversee every major urban area. The original purpose of these agencies, which are often called metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), was to distribute federal housing and transportation dollars to local governments within each region. But in many cases they have morphed into planning czars, dictating zoning and land-use decisions to the cities and suburbs in their regions, and enforcing those decisions by the threat of withholding federal funds.

The regional government for Portland, known as Metro, gave densification targets that every city and county in the region had to meet by rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities. Many regional governments have decided to spend well over half of each region's transportation funds on transit even though transit typically carries only about 1 percent of regional travel. The regional government for Minneapolis-St. Paul, known as the Metropolitan Council, decided to build light rail instead of new roads, saying, "as traffic congestion builds, alternative modes of travel [such as transit] will become more attractive." As of 2008, 40 of the regional transportation plans written for the nation's 70 largest urban areas had at least some anti-auto policies and 27 were dominated by such policies.

California, Oregon, and other states have been applying these anti-auto policies for several decades. The results so far show that these policies impose huge costs on people in the form of congestion, higher housing prices, and higher costs of doing business, especially businesses that require regular deliveries of products. Yet they do very little to actually reduce auto driving. As one study from University of California economist David Brownstone found, densification and other policies may reduce driving, but the reduction is "too small to be useful" in saving energy or reducing pollution.

Despite these findings, auto opponents continue to pressure other states to adopt similar policies. Moreover, the Obama administration has dictated that regional governments incorporate such policies in their next transportation plans - plans they are required to write in order to be eligible for federal transportation funds. Auto supporters have their work cut out for them in trying to reverse these trends.

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It."