War on Cars, Part 1: LaHood sets the stage [Op-Ed]

In this first installment of Leftlane's "War on Cars," Ronnie Schreiber takes a look at some disturbing comments made by U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.

Fewer teenagers and young adults are getting drivers' licenses and buying cars. That phenomenon was first noticeable in Japan, generally considered to be a car crazy country, and is now being seen in the United States as well. Frankly, it's not surprising. The environmental movement has been influential for the past four decades, creating the dominant environmental narrative in politics, the media (news and entertainment), and most significantly in education.

Why shouldn't teens and 20-somethings hate cars, or at least not be enthralled by them? They've been indoctrinated since kindergarten that the planet is endangered by the automobile. It's not just the matter of emissions. Everything from urban sprawl to conspicuous consumption to road rage to plastic suburban life to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, has been blamed on the car. Eventually those messages seep in.

So it's not surprising that young peoples' attitudes towards cars are less positive today. It's also not surprising, after nearly half a century of environmental activism, that some of those activists have gained positions of political power. With the environmental movement being one of the constituent interest groups that inform the policies of the party currently in power in Washington, that political power has increased and those policies environmentalists endorse are becoming real in the form of government regulations and funding.

The past January, following the federal government's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, a large delegation of Washington politicians descended on the big North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In fact, the first event at the media preview was a press conference for Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who expressed enthusiasm for the American auto industry. He talked about the new, clean, technologies the auto industry was implementing, like hybrids and electric cars, and about the exciting new products on the show floor as well as those in the pipeline at the domestic automakers.

Only a couple of months later, though, LaHood showed that he was even more enthusiastic about transportation alternatives to the personal automobile. At a congressional reception for the 10th Annual National Bike Summit in Washington in March, the transportation secretary was so excited that he got up on a table to address the crowd:

"People get it. People want to live in livable communities," he proclaimed. "I've been all over America, and where I've been in America I've been very proud to talk about the fact that people do want alternatives. They want out of their cars."

LaHood is gung-ho about teaming up with HUD - the Department of Housing and Urban Development - to reshape America, but one might think someone directing transportation should collaborate with the Deptartment of Commerce.

It used to be said that the business of America is business. LaHood spent a lot of time waxing poetic about "livable communities" where families can "hang together and have fun" on bikes and on foot, but he should be more concerned with how people get to work and how businesses move materiel and goods.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer was also at the bike summit. He called LaHood "a man who has been pushing back the forces of darkness on the Hill."

If pedestrians, streetcars and bicycles are the forces of light, one can presume that the personal automobile is the tool of Satan.

If you're an automobile or truck enthusiast, even if you're true green, drive a Toyota Prius and have both a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt on order, the Secretary's comments have to put a chill down your spine. In a recent DoT blog posting, he spoke of a "sea change." In no uncertain terms, LaHood declared "the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized." Moreover, he advocated the treatment of walking and bicycling as "equals with other transportation modes."

Now, I happen to have a unique perspective on this issue. I'm enough of a car guy that I get paid to write about cars and the car biz. I am, however, also a serious cyclist and one of the few Americans who actually uses a bicycle for transportation beyond a spin around the park with the kids. I ride at least 2,500 miles a year and before I started working for myself I commuted via bike on an eighteen mile round trip 7 months out of the year.

Unlike LaHood, I use a bike for more than just fun times with my family. I also walk anywhere between one and three miles a day, most days. I think Ray LaHood is a fool on a fool's errand when he puts non-motorized transportation on equal footing with cars and trucks.

The average commute time in the U.S. is about 26 minutes, with an average one way distance of 16 miles. A person in good health can walk at a speed of about three to four miles per hour. Hardly anyone is going to be interested in walking an hour to work, let alone taking a 16 mile hike. Weather conditions permitting, bicycles can be a viable alternative for shorter-than-average commutes. The truth is that anyone in good health can ride 10 miles on a bike, assuming it's 72 degrees, clear, and breezy. And there is effort. Unless you are dawdling along, riding a bike is aerobic exercise. Your heart rate will go up and you're going to sweat, a lot, enough to need a shower when you get to work if you don't want to get called into HR for stinking up the place.

Some will argue that denser urban planning can result in more opportunities to live close to one's workplace. That might work for a bachelor, but for the average working American, there's no guarantee his or her spouse or children will work or go to school in the same vicinity, regardless of density. People also change employers more frequently than ever before.

LaHood is deluding himself if he thinks that people are clamoring to get out of their cars and onto a bike. Right now bikes represent 1 percent of trips that Americans make, for all reasons. That doesn't sound to me like people are rushing to get in the saddle. As a matter of fact, if I tell people that I ran an errand on my bike and ended up riding 10 miles, their eyebrows go up and they say, "Ten miles?! That's a long ride!" If you tell them that you did a 50 mile ride, you start hearing Lance Armstrong comments.

I think the transportation secretary actually knows that a minuscule number of Americans will use their legs to get to work. That's why he spends so much time on family and recreation. Is that, however, what the Secretary of Transportation should be all about, quality family time and a walk in the park?


"The War on Cars" is a new Leftlane op-ed series focused on the efforts of some to undermine the motoring experience in North America. Hiding behind the veil of environmentalism and "sustainability," a small number of activists are having a big influence on tax policy, urban planning, and government regulation with the hope of shifting our society away from the individualism and freedom afforded by the automobile.