The Policy Problem

By Ralph Buehler8.06.2015Culture and Society, Global Policy

Americans may want to travel more by foot, bicycle, and public transport, but the car will remain king as long as government policy makes driving easy, and everything else hard.

The biggest challenge to increasing the use of public transport, cycling, and walking in the U.S. are not individual attitudes, but government programs and policies that together make the car the only viable transport option for most Americans—even for those who wish to walk, cycle, or ride public transport. In fact in most metropolitan areas, Americans cannot choose what mode of transport to use, because walking, cycling, and public transport are impractical, inconvenient, or dangerous. Thus, even Americans without a “car culture” are forced to drive for almost every trip, because policies and regulations by all levels of government have made driving easy, convenient, and cheap. Changing these government programs and regulations is the key for other modes of transport to be successful and for providing Americans with a choice of mode of transport.

In the following I provide some general observations. I am aware that there are always exceptions to these broad generalizations.

Parking and Zoning

First, local governments “mandate the supply()”: of ample car parking on private property. With a few exceptions, local zoning ordinances throughout the country mandate the supply of a minimum number of parking spaces for every new house, store, school, and any other structure. To avoid any parking shortage and potential complaints from drivers, many of these “minimum” parking standards are actually based on observed peak-demand for parking during the busiest days of the year—typically at locations that do not have public transport access and are not walkable. Mandating a vast supply of parking assures that 95% of all car trips in the U.S. end with free parking.

Second, in most U.S. municipalities, governments strictly separate land-uses and make it illegal for developers to build offices, stores, or restaurants close to homes. In fact, regulations in the U.S. are much stricter than in many European countries, where planners often allow corner stores, doctor’s offices, or restaurants in so-called residential zones. In the U.S. this is typically forbidden, resulting in long trip distances between homes and almost all trip destinations—making walking or cycling impractical.
Additional low population density requirements in zoning ordinances also make public transport financially unattractive, because there are simply too few riders living within walkable distance of a public transport stop. Recent experience shows that in localities where planners and zoning allow the mixing of uses and higher population densities, land values often skyrocket—especially in metropolitan areas—because demand is so high for these islands of mixed use in a sea of government mandated single use.

The High Price of Roads

Third, all levels of government subsidize road building and maintenance. In the U.S., revenues from gasoline taxes, vehicle registration fees, roadway tolls, and other roadway user fees have traditionally not sufficed to pay for government expenditures on roadways. Instead, governments use revenues from other sources—income taxes, sales taxes, or property taxes—to pay for roadway expenditures. Keeping gasoline prices lower than the actual cost of driving has been a big incentive for car use. The federal highway system has been an exception to this rule until the mid-2000s. Typically, federal gas tax revenues covered government expenditures for federal roadways—but not for the roads needed to access the federal highway system. For several years now, however, the federal government has also used general funds to pay for its highway system. Recent experience showed that Americans actually drive less when faced with high gasoline prices—as seen during the most recent period of high global crude oil prices.

Fourth, revenues collected from roadway users do not pay for any of the external costs of driving—such as air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, or traffic fatalities. In fact, in the U.S. over 30,000 people die each year in traffic—mainly killed by or in cars. Any U.S. president would come under intense pressure if other civil systems (or even wars) would kill 30,000 Americans a year—but it seems to be acceptable for the transport system. Interestingly, proposals to build more facilities for pedestrians and cyclists are often met with resistance by traffic engineers in the name of safety—as if a system that kills 30,000 per year were an achievement. In any case, not including the external costs of driving into the price of driving is a big incentive to drive.

A Need for Speed

Fifth, roadway planning and engineering in the U.S. focus on vehicle throughput and speed. Traffic engineers are trained to avoid slowing down vehicular travel. Any measure that reduces vehicular travel speed is seen as problematic, including bicycle lanes that would require narrowing car travel lanes or pedestrian crosswalks or traffic lights that would slow car travel while allowing pedestrians to cross. Focusing on moving and speeding-up cars has led to very dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, most urban areas do not have bike infrastructure networks—or only splintered lanes and paths that are not well connected. Additionally, many suburban sub-divisions do not even have sidewalks and many local roads and state highways lack or have only very few pedestrian crosswalks—requiring pedestrians to make long detours or risk their lives top cross unmarked roadways.

Sixth, all levels of government have long favored driving. For example, the federal government paid 90% of Interstate Highways in urbanized areas starting in 1956—only requiring a 10% match from local governments. However, it took many decades for the federal government to help fund the then mainly privately or locally owned public transport systems. When the federal government finally intervened, many public transport systems had gone out of business—for various reasons, but also because they were unable to compete with subsidized driving. Still today, most states and the federal government earmark the vast majority of gasoline tax revenue for exclusive roadway uses.

In spite of these government regulations and policies for driving, popular demand for walking, cycling, and public transport has been increasing over the last decade. Many localities—often large cities or small university towns—are trying to change the paradigm and promote walking, cycling, and public transport. But it is of course very difficult to change laws and regulations that have been in place for many decades. Thus, improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users will be a long term process. More choice in transportation option will show how strong so-called American “car culture” really is once government policy and regulations favoring driving are removed.



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