Despite efforts, Americans still prefer cars over mass transit 

For most Americans — make that most of mankind — the car is an instrument of mobility, flexibility and speed. Yet officials in Washington, transportation experts, state and local functionaries, planners, and transit officials are consistently puzzled about why their efforts to lure people from their cars continue to fail.

The Obama administration is only the latest to be bewildered. It has proposed every mass transit alternative it can think of. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has embraced the “livability” movement, which is anti-car. He envisions soothingly “livable” neighborhoods with “affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths.”

Those are just the positive attractions. There are punitive policies, too, both active and passive. Urban growth boundaries have put a virtual wall around cities like Portland, Ore., to prevent sprawl and the cars that come with it. Limits in many locations on parking lots and on-street parking discourage the use of cars.

Refusal to ease traffic congestion by building more roads and inertia in the face of rising gasoline prices make driving a car less appealing, even if those policies are not pursued with that purpose in mind. Restricted lanes for buses and bikes often infuriate urban drivers.

None of this has worked. Nor did President George W. Bush’s warning about a nation “addicted to oil” or the Clinton administration’s support of technology-driven ideas like “smart highways,” which became a code for building fewer roads or lanes.

The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it’s convenient, which mass transit rarely is. They can go from place to place directly, choosing their own route and schedule. They can do so day and night. They can stop as frequently as they wish for any reason (do errands, drop off kids, etc.). This phenomenon has a name: freedom.

Subways made sense decades ago — in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago — when jobs were concentrated downtown. Now 90 percent of jobs are outside the downtown in the top 50 urban areas, where mass transit can’t compete with cars.

Now the average commute by car takes half the time of mass transit. And the supposed cost benefits of mass transit, based on the old center city model, aren’t applicable to decentralized metropolitan
areas.

Since 1982, when the Highway Trust Fund began to pay for non-highway projects, more than $200 billion in federal dollars has been spent on urban mass transit. Total spending at all levels of government has reached $1 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars).

The result: Transit’s market share of urban passenger miles has fallen from 2.5 percent to 1.6 percent. In Los Angeles — where two subway lines, three light rail lines, and one busway have been built — the ridership on mass transit is lower than it was in 1985.

Who’s to blame for the overwhelming preference for automobiles over mass transit? Do Americans have an irrational love affair with cars? No.

A car not only saves time — it’s safe, increasingly fuel efficient, and less polluting than ever. True, emission standards are a government intrusion loathed by conservatives. But they work.

Fred Barnes is the executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.

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Fred Barnes

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Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard

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