Emily Badger, a perceptive writer for the Atlantic Cities blog, makes a number of excellent points in a commentary published today but manages to confirm conservatives’ worst fears that liberals and progressives are engaged in a war against cars. The libs may say they are “pro-transit,” “pro-bicycle” and “pro-transportation choice,” but when you scratch the surface, their real goal is to get people out of cars. It may be politically inexpedient to say so out loud — too many people like their cars — but that’s where liberals’ social-engineering instincts take them.
In the piece, Badger discusses the many trade-offs that Americans make when deciding which transportation mode to use on any given day. The implicit goal is to shift commuters out of single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation such as biking, car pooling, walking or transit. “We can incentivize transit by making all of those other options more attractive,” she writes. “Or we can disincentivize driving by making it less so. What’s become increasingly apparent in the United States is that we’ll only get so far playing to the first strategy without incorporating the second.” Then she writes:
The question is really how far we can get down the path of least resistance, pursuing only the politically easy tactics. If the goal at the end of the day is changing behavior, how much can you really achieve by showing people a nice new bike lane?
Ka-boom! With one phrase — “if the goal is changing behavior” — Badger triggers conservatives’ reptilian fight-or-flight instinct. You don’t change anyone’s behavior through the political process except by mobilizing the coercive power of government. In other words, Badger wants to force me to change my behavior to advance her vision of society.
Ironically, Badger dances along the edge of true insight. She alludes to important ways in which federal, state and local governments subsidize automobility — particularly through so-called “free” parking and gas taxes that fail to cover the full cost of building and maintaining roads. Then, for a brief, flickering moment, she really gets it:
“Behavior change” sounds vaguely manipulative. … But in this context, the disincentives are really about removing subsidies and distortions from the market.
Bingo! If Badger and her allies would re-frame the debate along those lines, they would make much bigger inroads with moderates, conservatives and others who resist social engineering at the hand of liberals. A couple of pointers for making Smart Growth palatable to conservatives:
Adopt mode agnosticism. Don’t make “getting people out of their cars” the foundational goal of transportation policy. People like their cars, and for good reason — they offer flexibility, convenience and privacy. Instead, make transportation policy mode-agnostic. Create a level playing field between cars, transit, bikes and walking by eliminating governmental carrots and sticks altogether. The message: You’re welcome to drive your car if that’s what you prefer — just don’t expect us to subsidize your preference.
End free parking. The way to curtail excessive car usage shouldn’t be to create artificial scarcities of parking, it should be to cease creating artificial surpluses of parking. Municipal policy subsidizes parking in many ways: mandating that property owners provide parking spaces, using tax-free municipal bonds to erect new parking garages and providing on-street parking for free, to name a few. Eliminating parking mandates and subsidies will increase the cost of car ownership, achieving liberal-progressive ends, but will do so in a way that deprives conservatives any philosophical basis for objecting. Continue reading