The Consensus on Making Cars Happy

By Dom Nozzi

For the past century, Americans have been nearly single-mindedly focused on making it easy and cheap to drive a car everywhere imaginable. An unforeseen consequence is that doing so has now made it nearly impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot. That has led to enormous financial strain for households and government, strongly contributed to the obesity crisis, created severe environmental problems, dispersed and “uglified” our communities to make them less strong, and made our transportation system much less resilient to change.

One would expect this to result in a massive societal uprising to reverse this catastrophe. Tragically, no such thing has happened. Instead, shockingly, we have the reverse. All walks of life are at a near consensus that we must CONTINUE to spend every available dollar to make us even MORE dependent on car travel. Democrats, Republicans, Feminists, Environmentalists, Planners, Council Members, Libertarians, Socialists, Dieticians, and Academicians almost all join hands in DEMANDING that everything imaginable be done to keep us happily driving cars everywhere.

How did we become trapped in this downwardly spiraling vicious cycle?

In my opinion, the explanation is clear. By making it almost entirely impossible to travel by transit, bicycle or foot, nearly all of us have no choice but to make most all of our trips by car – even if we are green environmentalists SCREAMING about climate change.

Combined with that trap is the toxic mix of the large size of a motor vehicle coupled with the exceptionally busy nature of our lives. The huge size of our vehicles inevitably results in frustrating slowdowns in our travel, as nearly all of our fellow citizens are ALSO trying to travel in their huge vehicles at many of the same times. Roads and parking lots quickly fill to capacity when even a relatively small number of us are competitively jostling for space in our space-hogging sedans and wagons.angry-motorist-yelling

Add to that the fact that almost every time we drive, we are “running late,” or “in a hurry,” or “out of time.” With huge numbers of us in a hurry and driving a big vehicle, the
outcome is unavoidable: We are ENRAGED because SOME INCOMPETENT SLOW POKE IS IN OUR WAY!!

With high (yet mostly hidden) transportation costs, huge vehicles, lack of time, and extreme frustration, is it any wonder that nearly all of us insist that car travel remain cheap and easy, regardless of our “green” or “libertarian” values? Even an Earth Firster! is stuck if she cannot travel by car – cheaply and at high speeds. No-brainer proposals, such as user fees such as parking charges, and efforts to slow traffic to safe speeds are met – even by the most fair-minded and humanitarian of us – by blood-curdling opposition.

Happy Cars has become our way of thinking. Our worldview. Our paradigm. No other world is imaginable. Or politically possible.

When I see so many “progressives” and “intellectuals” and “environmentalists” and “growth management advocates” opposing things like traffic calming — and instead usually being fully supportive of pampering car travel with oversized, free-to-use roads and parking lots – I am seeing this societal worldview on full display.

One highly frustrating aspect of this I’ve noticed over the years is that because America is full-speed-ahead committed to car travel, it tends to be SO EASY for someone with even the most uninformed, simplistic understanding of transportation to immediately kill an idea at a public meeting focused on transportation reform. And conversely SO DIFFICULT for someone at a public meeting to get others agree to transportation reform.

I see it all the time.

For example, let’s say we are at a public workshop where the assembled audience is divided into groups of people at individual tables in the room. The task for each table is to come up with transportation reform tactics. Occasionally at a table or two, a person might, say, mention that shrinking a road from four lanes to three might be a good idea on a street. Or narrowing a street with curb bulb-outs. The person points out that traffic volume is low enough. It would be easy to put in bulb-outs. Or remove a travel lane (because there is no meaningful loss in road capacity). Almost always, someone else at the table will then say “That is crazy. It will cause unbearable gridlock.” Everyone else at the table feels uncomfortable — even environmentalists and bike/walk/transit advocates – and will quickly nod in agreement that shrinking a road is crazy. End of the reform idea. Move on to something else — like landscaping.

Over and over again, for similar ideas, the pro-car person is seen as being level-headed and the person calling for transportation reform (in this case, to give more space to people and less to cars) is ridiculed and seen as unrealistic.

A common outcome when someone is outside of the recognized societal way of thinking.

Here in Boulder, Colorado, this phenomenon is particularly noticeable and surprising because the city is very well known (accurately or not) for progressive transportation initiatives. Despite this reputation in Boulder, the city history shows that it frequently only takes one or two Board or Council members to kill an idea for transportation reform. Such members — who are seen as “reasonable” and “level-headed” because they live in a society that assumes complete dependence on cars is normal and permanent — are quickly and easily able to squelch effective, equitable transportation reform ideas all the time. Even when a majority of the Board or Council are supportive of the reform.

As a result, over the decades, it has only taken one or two pro-car Board or Council members in “enlightened” Boulder to severely compromise or stop occasional efforts to have the City shed its numerous outdated transportation policies.

Colleagues of these Board or Council members commonly don’t stand up to this sort of squelching of transportation reform ideas — despite knowing there would be a 4-1 vote in favor of the reform.

Why?

Largely because they realize that the societal “pro car” narrative also permeates “progressive” Boulder. They therefore understandably expect that the point made by the squelcher would be supported by large majorities (or a VERY angry minority) of Boulder residents.

Even in Boulder, opponents of many transportation reform ideas are seen as level-headed realists. Supporters of reform are seen as living in “La La Land.” Over time, the “realists” grow more bold, to the point of becoming political populists for motordom. The “reformers,” on the other hand, grow increasingly timid about suggesting reform, to the point where reform proposals become rare. And require a relatively large amount of political courage.

In the end, those promoting transportation reform in a car-dependent society must rely almost exclusively on leveraging a crisis. Only when traffic crashes result in a shocking number of deaths, or the price of gasoline skyrockets – to cite two examples — can there be enough motivation to overcome the squelching by the pro-car “realists.”

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Transportation, Walking

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