How Politics Thwarts Alternative Ways of Getting Around

Transportation agencies know that policies prioritizing single-occupancy vehicles are bad for their cities. Yet in too many cases those agencies are the ones standing in the way of needed changes.

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Urban American transportation has been stuck in a multi-decade status quo. Most of a city's road space goes to cars and other single-occupancy vehicles, which can use it unlimited for free. Curb space is also mostly for those vehicles, which park along it day and night at free or below-market rates.

There long have been calls to change this, due to the environmental, safety and quality-of-life problems posed by automobiles. Activists who want a more balanced approach to rights of way demand bike lanes, bus lanes and wider sidewalks, arguing that this will foster alternative transport. Innovative businesses, such as ride-share or bike-share companies, ask for space to operate, knowing this will help them scale. If some free on-street parking were replaced with per-minute drop-off space, for example, Uber drivers wouldn't have to double park so much. Or if cities used some of that space for bike racks, Lime bikes could be stored rather than littered onto sidewalks. And if cities replaced some parking spaces with designated bus lanes, both public and private bus companies could utilize them, moving more people more efficiently.

The possible alternative uses of right of way really are endless, but cities have largely ignored them, instead continuing to prioritize king car. Where have transportation agencies been through all this? After all, city and metropolitan transportation agencies are full of people who understand how pro-car policies hurt cities and how pragmatic changes can level the playing field. So why aren't their goals turned into policy?

Turns out, the interest-group politics that block so many other policy reforms apply to urban transport too. In the worst-case scenario, transportation agencies themselves behave like special interests, viewing any new innovation as a threat to their fiefdoms or engaging in protectionism for others.

Take the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees public transit, paratransit, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It has, through hard caps and other regulations, unilaterally prevented private bike-share, scooter-share and moped-share companies, as well as private buses, from scaling in the city. SFMTA helped cause the closure of bus startups Chariot and Leap, for example, by outlawing them from running routes that competed with city-run Muni buses.

New York City's Department of Transportation oversees roads and parking, and hasn't made big shifts to how either are run; the right of way it manages still overwhelmingly serves single-occupancy vehicles. The agency also controls the private bus industry, both intercity and intracity, and has been stingy over the years with permits while cracking down on companies that work in the shadows. In both cases, the DOT demonstrates what transport behavior it does and does not want.

Los Angeles has long been America's car capital, and the DOT there hasn't been out front about changing anything either. But it has found time to suspend Uber's permit to rent electric scooters and bicycles because the company wouldn't share its data with the agency.

Some transportation departments aren't opposed to right-of-way shifts and alternative transport options, but they don't lobby heavily for them. Again, it boils down to special-interest politics: Any time there's a public meeting about changing right of way (for example, by removing on-street parking spaces to build bike lanes), car owners come out with their pitchforks. Elected officials capitulate to their demands, enacting legislation or issuing directives that transportation department staffers must follow. It seems that there's no objective party around to ask why one segment of the commuting populace (single-occupancy vehicle drivers) should get so much more space and legal protection than another (alternative transport providers and users).

My hope is that city transportation departments become that party, asking the smart questions about balancing transport rights and planning right of way accordingly. In fairness to the agencies I called out above, they sometimes have. The SFMTA, for example, recently spearheaded the Better Market Street Project, which has made most of San Francisco's main thoroughfare free of private cars. The New York City DOT battled through years of NIMBYism and lawsuits to turn Manhattan's 14th Street into a busway pilot. And L.A.'s DOT has installed "pedestrian scrambles" citywide, allowing pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction including diagonally.

But activists are still calling for these agencies to more vocally share their institutional knowledge, educating residents on why public right of way shouldn't be solely for single-occupancy vehicles at everyone else's expense. At the very least, these agencies shouldn't be going out of their way to obstruct alternatives to king car.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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