Fred Barnes: Americans Mainly Want to Stay in Their Cars

Adding a few more lanes should do the trick. Photo of the 405: ## Village Newbie##

After yesterday’s electoral drubbing, the Obama administration will have to deal with a starkly different Congress when they make their expected push for a multi-year transportation bill early next year. We know that some influential House Republicans, like John Mica, don’t necessarily believe that bigger highways will solve America’s transportation problems. And we know that some pro-transit voices in Washington originate from the right. But no one expects the GOP ascendancy to make transportation reform any easier.

For a taste of the right-wing line against transportation reform, check out the election week issue of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. Inside, editor Fred Barnes (under fire recently for accepting speaking fees from the GOP) mounts an attack on just about every federal transportation policy other than highway spending. There’s nothing really conservative about Barnes’s screed — it could have come straight from the pen of an asphalt industry lobbyist. Wondering what a transportation bill would look like if it were reshaped according to what highway boosters believe should be the “core program”? Read Barnes and find out.

He starts by ridiculing Ray LaHood’s speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit, where the transportation secretary said that Americans “want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods and livable communities.” Barnes disagrees:

LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.

Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation. Always has been.

This is, basically, his entire argument: People just want to “stay in their cars.” We have zero interest in getting around any other way. According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving. If you believe that, then his cheerleading for highway construction makes a lot of sense.

If being inside our cars is what we’re really all about, by all means lets throw more money down the sinkhole of highway expansion. That will guarantee more quality time inside our cars. Then, a few years later, when we’re in our cars but not enjoying it so much because the new lanes are jammed with traffic again, we’ll repeat the whole expensive process.

But if we’d rather spend more time with our families and loved ones — or, you know, doing actual work instead of commuting — maybe we should try a different way of building our transportation system. According to public opinion research by Transportation for America, 57 percent of Americans would like to spend less time in their cars. Even with our highway-centric system, we’re already voting with our feet: These days, Americans are driving less and opting to walk, bike, and ride transit more than we were at the beginning of the decade.

A cursory internet search reveals that, when Barnes says the job of U.S. DOT has always been to build highways and only highways, he’s just making stuff up. The U.S. DOT mission statement does not mention any particular mode. The department’s job is, in fact, to “serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.”

So there’s some flexibility here. Now, consider that the Pentagon is under the impression that climate change poses a risk to national security. Or that public health experts peg the annual medical costs imposed by traffic and pollution at more than $200 billion. Or the mounting evidence that car dependence begets obesity and higher medical costs. Or that, according to research by CEOs for Cities, travel times are longest in sprawling metro areas, while areas that pursued smart growth and livability strategies have actually reduced commute times. All of which points to the conclusion that at this moment, the U.S. DOT’s job — providing an efficient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and so forth — is indeed to advance livability and stop promoting motorized transport.

Back to the Barnes highway-building argument. Maybe you’re worried that fighting congestion by building more roads that generate more congestion is not a wise way to spend money. But Fred Barnes isn’t. He is, however, highly concerned about spending on rail:

The stimulus included $8 billion for high-speed projects, again not “paid for.” Now the administration is taking “the next step toward realizing its vision for high-speed rail,” the Department of Transportation said in June, handing out “$2.1 billion in grants to continue the development of high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors.”

On top of that, there’s talk in Washington of spending $50 billion more on high-speed trains. Where the funding would come from is anybody’s guess, but LaHood is fully on board. High-speed rail between cities is needed “so people can get out of their cars,” he said in an interview last month with Grist magazine. “They can take a train ride to see Grandma rather than doing it in a car.”

You know what else we haven’t figured out how to pay for? Highways. According to Subsidyscope, gas taxes and other fees have never covered the costs of the highway system. In 2007, fees collected from highway users barely covered half the costs of building and maintaining highways. That year, about $70 billion in highway funding came from other sources. (Even in New York, which, more than any other state, uses fees on driving to support public transit, drivers cover only 65 cents of each dollar spent on highways [PDF].) Meanwhile, the bicycle and pedestrian projects that Barnes moans about received all of $1.2 billion in federal funding in 2009, a record-setting year.

You could say that these massive subsidies for the highway system affect our behavior and induce driving. But Fred Barnes has different ideas about what affects our transportation decisions:

Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.

But it’s hardly an answer to traffic congestion. Most people, most of the time, aren’t going to ride a bike to work or walk. They’re going to drive, even in the face of disincentives erected by LaHood.

LaHood will wear “coerce people out of their cars” around his neck forever. Which is ironic, because if anything, the Obama DOT has assiduously avoided erecting any “disincentives” to driving. The gas tax rate has been untouchable under LaHood. A mileage tax has been a non-starter. The last time U.S. DOT encouraged cities to pursue policies like congestion pricing or performance parking, which do affect driving behavior, George W. Bush was president.

Barnes wraps up with the following policy proposal:

The Obama administration, with its priority on ejecting people from their cars and its embrace of an environmental ethic that regards highways as evil, is unlikely to champion a higher gas tax. Any other tax increase you can imagine, yes. This one, no. That means Republicans will have to step up. They can insist the revenues be used solely for highways and bridges. Local governments would then be free to spend on bikeways.

A lobbyist for highway builders could hardly have said it better. The gas tax is theirs — it belongs to highways. This is the mentality that advocates for transportation reform will face off against in the months ahead, when the administration moves forward with its infrastructure push. Every dollar for transit, bicycling and safer streets will be contested. Be prepared.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Most people want to drive. And most place in America are places where they have to drive. The supply of that lifestyle exceeds the demand.

    A smaller but growing share of Americans wants something different — a walkable neigborhood with mass transit in an environment other than one of urban decay. Such places are scarce, and increasingly expensive.

    Free market choice is moving away from the auto-oriented life. There are those who want to use the power of government, which created that life to begin with, to stop this.

  • According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving.

    And as long as someone else’s tax dollars are keeping gas and pavement cheap.

  • Bolwerk

    “Conservatives” (for lack of a better term – there is little conservative about them) like automobiles because they make people easy to control. Everybody with a license is on record with the state, every car can easily be inspected at least superficially by the police, and all kinds of ancillary draconian rules can be made up in favor of preserving the auto-centric lifestyle. For instance, there’s little serious political resistance to flagrantly unconstitutional policies like road blocks. Or just plain pointless ones, like requiring an id to enjoy your right to have a beer.

    The teabagger movement is simply another in a long line of Republikan authoritarian juntas; they want to stop government from doing anything that would benefit people they view as different and undeserving, while firmly encouraging the jackboot of the state being placed on people’s throats while billions$ are spent on mindless military gallivanting that conveniently makes plutocrats even richer.

  • Doug G.

    I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth reposting, since Barnes’ philosophy is woefully close to this onion article:

    Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others,1434/

  • ZA

    I’m still optimistic, because the reality of resource and space limits is unavoidable. Ultimately it’s the idea of viable public transportation solutions that needs to escape strictly partisan ownership. After all, Barnes seems to be lobbying for a “big government” project that no conservative would have supported without the perceived threat of Communism 60 years ago. Get working solutions in now, make sure lots of people use & like it, and let whatever politician take it up in their platform for those votes.

  • Bob Davis

    I’ve often thought that one of the main reasons why transit tax and bond issues have passed here in Southern California is that the voters want “all those other folks” to ride the bus or train so they will have more room on the freeway.
    Regarding “conservatives favor automobiles because they make people easier to control”–I have my doubts about that point of view. Granted, the police probably find it easier to follow a criminal who’s driving than one who’s on foot running through a neighborhood, but I’ve never felt “under control” when driving (maybe it’s because driving is so “natural” to Californians that we don’t feel “controlled”). Regarding showing ID to have a beer, that’s more to keep underaged persons from drinking alcohol than anything related to driving.
    Regarding military spending: a friend sent a “slide show” about our Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, commenting on what a marvel of technology it is. I replied that it’s a most impressive piece of machinery, staffed with a top-notch crew, but it doesn’t to much good against a suicide bomber or some raggedy guerrilla with an “IED”, and he had to agree.

  • As much as I’d like to disagree – Barnes is right. Americans love their cars. The love affair runs deep, tapping into to the machismo, obsession over status and the notion of “freedom” that cars are associated with in our culture.

  • molly

    I’m sure that notion of “freedom” would be questioned if 99% of car trips didn’t end in free parking.

  • “That means Republicans will have to step up.”

    Barnes seems to not know that the Republicans in Congress as much as Democrats have said they oppose hiking the federal gas tax.

    The new bill will be shaped by a lot of forces. And eventually the pro-highway lobby will have to compromise with the rest of us. Barnes has the luxury of not being elected or having to deal with the legislative process, so he can indulge in lopsided opinions. His opinion is not conclusive and just a slice of the policy universe…

  • jsd

    It’s true. Americans do love their cars. But I love my country more than middle America loves their cars. For that reason, I’ll walk, or I’ll bike. Patriotism isn’t just for red states.

  • Brandon

    Im all for people driving if they choose. But they should be choosing based on a level playing field, not one where autos, parking, and fuel are subsidized.

  • Mrbadexample

    Fred Barnes is enough of a caricature to make me wonder if he isn’t something launched by Steve Colbert.

    That aside, there’s no way the US can pave enough land to keep traffic flowing the way drivers would prefer. And cars-everywhere meme is killing us economically and literally. I took an ‘express bus’ down south recently and traffic jams on the 95 corridor added four hours to a seven hour trip. This was true for the passengers as well as all the hapless motorists stuck in traffic that couldn’t move–and this was late on a Sunday. Other trips have been nearly as bad.

    The folks who read the Standard don’t buy the health arguments, but they understand economics. time wasted in traffic is a multi-billion dollar cost added onto every piece of business done here. Somebody on the Right ought to be advancing a plan B.

  • KateNonymous

    “According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving.”

    I think this is true for an awful lot of people. I loathe commuting by car and choose to ride the bus, but a big reason for that is, in fact, congestion. When I’m on the bus, I’m not having to deal with it in as direct a way. If traffic weren’t so bad, I might very well choose to drive to work more often, because it wouldn’t be such an ordeal.

    There are other reasons why I choose to commute by bus, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the plethora of other drivers is one factor.

  • I saw it written and I saw it say
    Peak oil is on its way
    None of you stand so tall
    Peak oil gonna get ye all
    And it’s peak oil
    Yeah, peak oil
    Peak, peak, peak, peak peak,
    Peak oil

    (with apologies to Nick Drake)

  • J:Lai

    The fact that Americans love cars and driving and have an emotional attachment to cars is widely accepted, but in my opinion there is little evidence that this is true.
    Americans are acting rationally, in an economic sense, by choosing personal cars over other transportation options.
    I believe a combination of making driving more expensive(including any or all of car ownership, operation, fuel, parking, and road use), along with making other alternatives available, would lead to switching modes far faster than most people would anticipate.

    I’ll be the first to admit that there is no real evidence one way or the other, as we are talking about some complicated dynamical systems. However, when the price of gas has gone over $4/gallon people have rapidly taken up carpooling, and demand for fuel efficient cars has increased rapidly. These are signs that the preference for transportation mode is more economic than emotional.

    A sustained and predictable period of high gas prices would go a long way toward changing driving habits, especially if combined with long term investment in creating and improving transit options. Such a situation would require something like a gas tax or price floor on gas imposed by the state, and dedicating some or all of the revenue to transit investment.

    Of course, those who have a lot invested in the current state of heavy reliance on automobiles will resist such measures. That includes not just those with direct interest in oil and gas, roads, and cars, but also most suburban property owners and the retail and service industries that make the sprawl life possible.

    This group, in aggregrate, is a pretty large part of the American population and economy. Thus, I expect any self-imposed changes like a significant gas tax will be defeated. Instead, external shocks such as eventual resource shortage will have to get the job done, albeit in a much less orderly and more painful manner.

  • “Americans love cars”

    False. Americans have no choice but to have and use a car.

    It’s very different.

    Take the statement “Americans love to drive”

    If you offered people an all-expenses paid chauffeur, to do the driving for them….99% of people would take up the offer.

  • GB1

    So what IF the country said that all gas taxes and highway user fees should go to highway/bridge construction…but that was it? If the taxes/fees only pay for a maximum of around 65% of the cost, then there would have to be some serious cutbacks in the amount of new roadway lane miles.

    And if there was a way to mandate that there was no overreach by the highway builders into other funding sources, mightn’t there probably be enough elsewhere for the basic bike/ped and transit improvements? Perhaps not h-s rail, but for most local (read human-scaled and oriented) projects…

  • Eric B

    When gas shot up to over $4.00 in the summer of 2008, LA’s air was the cleanest it had been in years and congestion dropped something like 30% over the year before.

    We know what needs to be done and more or less how to do it. The difficulty will be in convincing people that paying more to do something they’ve always done cheaply is good for them. Clean air, less VMT, more robust transit, less oil dependence, better health…these are all great things. But, we will win or lose this argument based on whether the individual driver feels that their life is better because they paid more (gas tax, congestion pricing, parking fees, etc.).

    Advocates have about three sentences to make this argument before the average person tunes out. Let’s make our case.

  • Carter R

    It always gives me a horrific twinge West LA pride to see that ubiquitous photo of the 405 South at rush hour heading into smoggy oblivion.

  • Barnes is half-right. The sad fact of the matter is that some Americans still do like to drive. We wouldn’t have car shows (not just the corporate-sponsored new car shows, but the classic car shows, the hot rod shows, the lowrider shows…) if people didn’t love their cars.

    However, at the same time, an increasing number of Americans are demanding alternatives to driving.

    It’s impossible to tell how many people are in that all-important “would switch if the alternatives were better, but they aren’t, so I continue to drive” gray area, but there’s no point in denying that some people actually do prefer their cars.

  • Bob Davis

    The old cliche’ about “America’s love affair with cars” has a bit of truth in it, but for many of us it’s more a “marriage of convenience”. Consider these elements:
    A car is available “24/7”; many bus lines are done by 8 PM and very few run after midnight.
    A driver always has a comfortable seat, not vandal-resistant plastic or a standee spot.
    One can carry all sorts of useful items that would be awkward or impossible on a bus or train.
    A driver doesn’t have to worry about smelly bums or loudmouthed nut cases in his or her car.
    The car goes from door to door, no transfers or long hikes to bus stops or train stations.
    That said, when traffic gets too congested, and parking too hard to find, then the equation changes. Here in Southern California, our Metrolink trains have become very popular, even to the point that SCRRA has had to buy or rent cars from other areas to handle the crowds.
    Peak oil may be on its way, but so are electric automobiles.
    I suspect what a lot of people want is a situation where everyone below them on the “food chain” has to ride transit.
    Regarding “free parking”: at one end of most car trips is the driver’s garage or driveway. If a legislator tried to place a tax on parking on one’s own property, the term “political suicide” comes to mind.

  • icarus12

    Yes, some people love their cars and all cars. I confess, I am one “those people”. Recently I was back in small town Michigan surrounded by lovely farmland. Rented a Mustang convertible V-8, enjoyed the country roads and the air in my hair, and spent a lot of cash on gasoline. I had a blast, and the car was a marvel. That said, it was vacation car, a gift to myself, and not something appropriate for every day use, urban living, the health of the earth, etc.

    I think that Mustang V-8 is going to go the way of the horse — an expensive plaything for devoted fans, the wealthy, and someone splurging during vacation.

  • Erik G.
  • maaaty

    I don’t mind going at a “donkey’s pace.”

    At least donkeys will be around 100 years from now.
    Can’t say the same for Mustangs.

  • Bob Davis: the reason bus lines stop running at 8 pm and are so inconvenient is that they get little ridership. In cities that have high transit ridership, transit is there until after midnight, and sometimes 24/7. So basically what you’re saying is that Americans drive because they drive.

  • Ian Turner

    Bob Davis: If you tax private residence parking, yes, perhaps people will get upset. But you could move zoning restrictions that require that parking to be built in the first place; I doubt anyone would get upset about that.

  • Steve F

    comment sent to Barnes at the Daily Standard….

    I hear the bellowing of the cornered dinosaur, as the little mammals on
    bicycles eat your lunch.

    I have only been commuting by bicycle in NYC for 45 years.
    It used to be the running of the bulls out there, exciting way to start the day, but annoying. Finally, the city is making changes that make my ride safer and more comfortable. But no, you want to keep me in danger – you are trying to kill me. I’m not insisting you personally have to get out of your car, I just want you to share the road so we both can be safe.

    But you are running out of oil, so enjoy your car and cheap gas while
    you can. It’s going away, you old reptile.

  • it bears mention that there’s two different kinds of driving. One is when you’re out on an extended road trip, covering hundreds of miles in a single trip. It’s convenient to have a car in these circumstances, as you usually can avoid congestion and still explore many different, widely dispersed attractions efficiently. Sometimes we rent a car and do family vacations like that. I still don’t love driving on those trips (I’m the only one in my family with a license), but I don’t hate it either. It’s easy for me to see how this kind of driving can generate love for driving in others.

    But car commuting to work is a completely different matter. I’m convinced that just about the only people who love that are the ones who use car commuting as a place to smoke, eat, listen to radio and/or get away from their family. Or, most pathetic of all, because they have a fancy car and it makes them feel good just to put themselves on display, even if stuck in traffic.

  • Steve F

    There is a difference between the car as transportation,
    and the car for going on ego trips.

    Europeans and Japanese own cars, usually very good, fancy cars, but they don’t use them to go to the same place, at the same time, every day – the don’t commute by car. They use transit, they use bicycles, and they use bicycles to transit, and then bicycles from transit at the other end, or they just walk. There are huge bicycle parking lots, even bike garages, at stations, and the trains take bikes (some at extra cost.)

    Copenhagen streets are not congested and not slow for driving and bicycling, because so many trips DO NOT USE CARS. That ‘line’ – “transit is for the other guy, so that my drive is less congested” – it really happens in Copenhagen. There is too much trouble and cost with parking to drive. And owning a car is very expensive in the first place, and parking is expensive and very short supply in the city. You better have a damned good need for a personal motor vehicle to drive there.

    These fancy cars are being used just as BicyclesOnly describes, to carry several people, to unusual places, at random times. Or they just rent a car or truck, or use a taxi, for that unusual trip or unusual need. Just as many inner city residents here use ZIP Cars for that 1/2 ton Ikea shopping trip.

  • OK what monuments do we tear down to make way for asphalt or how many homes to we level to the ground. We in Orange County, California have added lanes right up to the property lines and we still have congestion. If you don’t offer options you will never make a dent in traffic. If you don’tmake other means available no one will get out of their car.

  • Early Man

    I think the main reason Americans love their cars is that they look so much better in them–from the shoulders up you don’t see the excess adipose tissue. If you want to have some fun just go to a mall parking lot and marvel at the difference between the sleek automobiles parking and the lard butts getting out of them. As noted elsewhere in the comments, the market is already responding to the desire for livable cities. Our genetic code is also responding but is impeded by drugs and treatment to thwart metabolic syndrome–gene expression meant to kill off dysfunctional survival behavior. So the Republicans should start with Personal Responsibility Health Care reform. No coverage for illness related to alcohol, smoking, excessive eating or inactivity. Save the government (and insurance companies) billions!

  • It’s fascinating to see alleged conservatives so caught up in the kind of thinking that Barnes is selling. We had a privately owned transportation system when my grandfathers were dealing with World War I issues. By the time I came home from overseas in the Army in 1971, that private investment had been almost completely written off due to massive intervention in favor of auto sprawl– at every level of government.

    As a Republican, I find many other individuals who are conservatives and think that we should have alternatives. Reasoning ranges from the “fire department” idea that transit is needed as a back-up, the “national defense” idea that our country should not voluntarily make itself a serf of oil-producing countries, to the “economic development” idea that transit improves the mobility of labor and consumers, to the point that the higher level transit fixed facilities lead to investor confidence in TOD projects. These are all legitimate conservative ideals. Somehow, when people get to the level where they need campaign funds, these all go out the window.

    When I worked for Oregon DOT in the 1970’s, we heard confidentially that people at the “highest levels” in Washington, DC were concerned that our growing dependence on imported oil would distort our economy and compromise our foreign policies, ultimately threatening our national existence. It’s been interesting in a morbid sort of way to see that being played out as one step backward every time we take two steps forward.

    I’ve recently had the opportunity to see how Weld County, Colorado was ravaged by high gas prices, sucking down their economic and even social life. And, they are doing little to nothing about it, because they are so far gone that they can’t even see what they are doing to themselves. That is repeated over and over across the country, where areas dependent on urban centers pretend to be rural. [For Google Earth fans, check the location of Weld Central High School, south of Keenesburg, and analyze the effects that high fuel prices have on their education, school social life, etc.]

    My fellow Republicans who were alarmed at the sight of our president bowing to an oil potentate had better get used to it. Given the views of many of our elected officials and network-apointed commentators, they should prepare themselves to see the next president KNEELING before an oil potentate.

  • I think it’s a class-war, with generational aspects at plat. Those populations, far from the coastal elite, resent being told that their late-stage attainment of the “American Dream” (ie, a Cherry-Red Mustang Convertible)is not only obsolete, but illogical, and responsible for much of our country’s suffering. They’re just arriving at the party, only to be told the “party’s over.” Why live in America if you can’t have a big, fat, obnoxious gas-guzzler to take out on Sunday afternoons? Since we live in a Youth Culture, however, some cold comfort might be taken from results of recent studies positing that young Americans are losing interest in car ownership. Would it be more useful to let the car become a cultural relic, through cultural initiatives, like film, music and theatre? Who wants to be that old white guy, stuck in traffic and listening to talk radio? Why not start some film festivals and cultural initiatives rewarding and publicizing artists who can demonstrate the obsolete status of our Fossil-Fuels-Based society? Just a thought.

  • Bob L

    And if a frog had wings…

    The public doesn’t want to pay taxes either, yet we do for the benefit of our society.

    But why not do the O’Toole and Cox thing and build HUGELY expensive multi-level highways and pack them with gasoline burning, pollution spewing vehicles. What happens in just a few years when fuel prices hit $10/gallon or the earth’s supply of crude is tapped out?

    Think those options are in the distant future??? China has as many cars per capita as the US did in the 1920s, but the numbers are growing exponentially faster. Alternatives are needed immediately.

  • StevenF

    R. W. Rynerson:
    Mr. Rynerson, very well said.
    Just surprised you are still calling yourself a Republican, given who has come to the party. But you’ve been there, done that, and probably will outlast the latest party crashers.

    Re Colorado:
    A guy moves to BackAss Colorado to buy a house with lots of land and does not want a lot of new development or neighbors.
    Then complains bitterly that gas prices have to be kept cheap because he has to drive 200 miles a day for work and he needs that big SUV because the roads are awful and the weather is real bad, so he can’t possibly use one of those tiny hybrids.

    Well, I’m from Washington and I’m here to help him.
    That guy needs the gas tax.
    Really, because he wants his wide open spaces and the gas tax will help him keep it. If we make gas cheap and build great roads to his house, all those other people will move right in next to him and crowd him out.
    Raising the gas tax would be preserving his wide open life style.

    The sad part, is that there is way too much truth in this story.



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