Hope for Car-Haters

Cities are beginning to rethink their relationship with automobiles.
March 2018
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Let me start with a confession: I have grown to really dislike cars and what they are doing to our cities. I know that sounds elitist and faintly un-American, but I can’t help it.

My wife and I just left our relatively quiet neighborhood on the D.C.-Maryland border and moved closer to downtown, to a neighborhood that existed well before the city became the nation’s capital. Even in our previous neighborhood, suburbanites used to roar through the streets in their cars during rush hour, seeking shortcuts to the main thoroughfares they used in their commutes. It was illegal, but they did it in such numbers that the police gave up trying to enforce the law. The best the local residents could do was put up signs pleading with drivers to watch out for kids.

Our new neighborhood is far more urban, so you’d expect more traffic congestion. And indeed there’s a lot more. The residential streets are narrower, forcing cars to slow to a crawl and residents to fold back their side mirrors when they park to avoid having them sheared off. The two main boulevards are a mess, tempers are short and red-light running is common.

Our move has led us to reflect on just how hard it is to escape the car culture in America. It’s in the suburbs, it’s in the countryside, it’s in the most venerable urban districts whose roads were built for the horse and buggy.

America’s car culture seems as deeply rooted as ever. Mass transit ridership is actually down in cities across the country, as more and more commuters are choosing to drive themselves instead of taking the bus or a train. We’re a nation obsessed with cars: A couple months ago, the North American International Auto Show opened its doors in Detroit, just as it has every year for more than a century. This year more than 800,000 visitors flocked to see the latest offerings of some 40 automakers spread across almost a million square feet of exhibit space.

But there are some signs on the horizon that the dominance of cars might be fading.

The scary levels of carbon emissions in Western U.S. cities such as Salt Lake, the endless traffic on major urban highways, and the everyday rising commute times in many metros across the developed world are taking a toll. Millennials have lower rates of car ownership than previous generations. And many baby boomers are choosing to ditch their cars (or downsize to just one per household) in favor of a more urban retirement lifestyle.

Cities everywhere are beginning to rethink their relationship with automobiles. The idea of “complete streets” is redesigning roadways to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and transit, as well as cars. Boston, Milwaukee, Portland, Ore., Rochester, N.Y., San Francisco and overseas cities including Seoul, South Korea, have either removed or downsized existing highways. Paris is going further, banning private cars from some of the heavily used streets along its historic quays and preventing vehicles with high rates of polluting emissions from entering the city core altogether.

We could also see congestion pricing in our largest city. New York is once again floating the idea of charging private automobiles to drive in various congested areas of the city during certain times of the day, something that’s already been put in place in London and Stockholm.

But the greatest threat to the car culture is money. Simply put, it may soon become a lot more expensive to own and drive a car.

That’s because governments are finally starting to realize that, thanks to flat gas prices and ever-more efficient engines, our traditional reliance on taxing gasoline receipts simply isn’t enough to maintain our existing system of roads and bridges. While Congress hasn’t touched the federal gas tax since 1993, states have begun to raise their own revenues. At least 22 states have raised their gas taxes within the past six years. Some localities, such as Los Angeles, have also passed tax increases to fund new transit projects aimed at easing congestion.

Even more of a game-changer is the emerging model of dynamic tolling. Similar to the use of congestion pricing in urban cores, these are road-use fees that fluctuate based on congestion and the time of day. Sometimes the costs can be jolting. Virginia in December introduced dynamic tolls for express lanes on its Interstate 66 corridor into Washington, D.C. Daily tolls have averaged about $13.50, but on Day 2 of the new dynamic pricing, some morning rush hour commuters were shocked to find the rate topping out at $44 per car. With more dynamic tolling -- and more tolled roadways in general, which are significantly on the rise across the country -- drivers are beginning to bear more of the actual costs of driving. That could lead them to rethink their reliance on cars. Or at least they may start carpooling.

Taming our car culture will most likely have to happen at the state and local level, at least in the near future. Congress doesn’t seem at all interested in tackling it, and President Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan does nothing to move beyond an obsession with automobiles.

We need to branch out to help finance other forms of transportation. We need smarter policies that better reflect the true social and environmental costs of cars. It’s not going to come from Washington anytime soon. Here’s hoping that more governors, state legislators and mayors have the political courage to make it happen.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com