By Dom Nozzi
May 21, 2005
I was told by a local elected official and friend that a new city commissioner for a college town we both lived in would mean that things might be better for transportation policy in our town.
When I heard this, I informed him that I was certain that it would NOT lead to such changes. Much as I like most of the views of the new commissioner, the problems I face at my city planning office had little to do with who was in the majority for the commission. With a weak mayor form of government (both technically and with regard to who is in that seat at the moment) and a total lack of leadership from other commissioners, the commission is nearly irrelevant to what the planning staff decides to do (and, more importantly, not do).
This vacuum means that a bully on the commission who, as a muscular motorist, intimidates the commission majority with his populist views regarding happy cars, can continue intimidating other (cowering) commissioners and staff so that his views are considered the majority view (even though he has only one vote).
No, the problem remains what is has been for over nine years at the City: Staff that is anti-planning, staff that is anti-city, staff that is pro-car, and elected officials who have no power or courage to do anything about it.
Given the fact that nearly all citizens in America (including our town, and despite the survey my friend mentioned to me) are aggressively pro-car and pro-big roads (because material conditions force them to be that way), only strong, wise, courageous leadership at the staff level and at the commission level can make any sort of headway with regard to averting an auto slum future. In the meantime, given the overwhelming citizen support for cars, it only takes ONE bully commissioner pushing a pro-car agenda to bully a commission to agree to his ruinous views — even if there were nine progressives on a hypothetical commission of 10 commissioners.
With regard to the survey results, as I had said to my friend before, I was almost completely unimpressed. I know enough about survey methods and survey results from graduate school to know that what folks say in surveys tends to be WILDLY different than what they do when push comes to shove in the real world (this is known as the “social desirability” bias). For example, people LOVE to claim they favor, say, energy conservation in large majorities. Why not? It costs nothing to say such a thing in a survey, it helps ease a guilty conscience, and it helps the person feel like a “good citizen.” It comes as no surprise at all, however, to find that nearly all of those citizens thumb their nose on serious conservation when asked to spend a little more to do it.
Precisely the same thing would happen with the results my friend cited. I was confident that the vast majority who expressed support for those progressive ideas were thinking about OTHERS who would bike or use transit. The vast majority of these people would continue making nearly all of their trips by car even if our community had the best bike/ped/transit facilities/programs on earth.
Due to dispersed land use patterns and enormous car subsidies (free roads and free parking and underpriced gas, mostly), it is completely irrational, economically, to not drive a car everywhere. If there were safe bike paths and transit routes that led from every employee house to their office, there would still be less than 5 percent who would bike commute. Why turn your back on that $100 a month subsidy embodied in that free parking space to opt for something that takes so much energy and time, and is considered so embarrassingly unhip?
As a result, local elected commissioners can safely ignore the results of the study. Commissioners who naively strive to implement them would be quickly removed from office.