Bicycling and the Straw Man Argument

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Earlier in the summer of 2011, what passes for a transportation debate in Gainesville FL caught my attention. It seems that representatives of the “Make Cars Happy at All Costs” crowd (ie, “take all transit, bicycle and pedestrian funds and use them to help us widen all our roads for cars” advocates) have been suggesting that we shouldn’t spend money for bicycle lanes or paths because too few people are bicyclists in Gainesville. And it is impractical, for example, to “carry lumber on a bicycle.”

By arguing this, these dinosaur representatives are trotting out the straw man argument that bicycling cannot replace car travel.

But no one is suggesting that.

No one is suggesting that all car trips should or can be replaced by bicycle trips. That we ask people to lug home a refrigerator on their mountain bike.

Instead, many of us are simply asking that we level the playing field so that motorists are not so heavily subsidized.

These Gainesville “Happy Car” lobbyists make the common – yet quite mistaken – observation that motorists subsidize bicyclists via the gas tax. Yet Todd Litman convincingly shows that it is bicyclists who are subsidizing motorists: http://www.vtpi.org/whoserd.pdf

I’m sure the Happy Car people would agree that in our transportation system, we should strive for fairness, equity, and an end to market-distorting (socialist) subsidies for any form of travel. The first place to start, as Donald Shoup convincingly shows in his The High Cost of Free Parking, is to end the biggest subsidy, by far, in the US: free parking for motorists. No other subsidy in the US is anywhere near as high as the subsidy motorists enjoy when parking.

Shoup accurately refers to free parking as a fertility drug for cars.

I am not going to delve into other categories of motorist subsidy: free roads, an artificially low price for gas, and an excessively low gas tax.

In these times of dire finances for governments, it is essential that we end socialism for motorists. Economists inform us that socialism inevitably led to bread lines in the Soviet Union. Economists also know that free roads and free parking leads, similarly, to congested roads and congested parking lots. If socialism was bad when the Soviets tried it, is it not also bad when we apply it to motorists?

I should also point out that we have poured trillions of public dollars into trying to “build (widen) our way out of congestion” for several decades. Studies and the several decades of congestion in the US show us that we cannot build our way out of congestion (as Anthony Downs “Stuck in Traffic” points out). The bread lines (road congestion) keeps getting worse and worse.

The Happy Car people seem to have not learned that lesson. Or the failure of economics in the Soviet Union. They insist on believing we can successfully use socialism for happy motoring. On the contrary, as my Road to Ruin book demonstrates, spending public money to widen our roads is ruinously counterproductive. The congestion quickly gets worse after the widening (BECAUSE we widened, NOT because we didn’t widen enough). And the more we spend on widening, the worse our quality of life becomes.

I suspect we’d see a lot more bicycling in Gainesville if we ended welfare for motorists. If we ended market-distorting, Soviet-styled socialism for motoring.

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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

One response to “Bicycling and the Straw Man Argument

  1. Pingback: Motor Vehicle Socialism & Subsidies, They Keep Adding Up… « Transit Sleuth

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