War on Cars: How governments are attacking the way we like to live [Op-Ed]

Cities across the country are taking on both drivers and suburban sprawl at the same time, argues the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole.

Few will be surprised to know that some people are hostile to the automobile and what it has done for America. Yet many may be surprised to know that many city and state governments have effectively declared war on the automobile.

In 1991, an Oregon state land-use commission issued a rule requiring major cities to reduce per capita driving by 30 percent (later reduced to 20 percent) within 30 years. Not to be outdone, the Washington state legislature passed a law requiring a 50-percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. The California legislature also passed a law requiring all cities to reduce per capita driving.

Auto opponents object to the pollution caused by driving, but this is a problem that is rapidly going away. New cars today emit only about 1 percent as much pollution as cars built in 1970. Although we drive nearly three times as many miles as in 1970, total automotive air pollution is only about a third as much as in 1970 and the skies will only get cleaner as new, cleaner cars replace older ones.

What auto opponents really object to is that cars give us the freedom to go where we want to go when we want to go there. Of course, they don't put it that way; they say cars have led to "urban sprawl," sprawl used as a pejorative term for the suburban lifestyle that most Americans seem to prefer.

Few low-density suburbs would exist without the automobile, which liberated working-class families from having to live in high-density tenements located within walking distance of the often-dirty factories in which many worked. Wealthy people who already lived in the suburbs didn't like noisy working-class families moving in next door, so they decided to call it sprawl and use the power of government to push low- to middle-income families back into the cities.

The war on sprawl and the war on the automobile are one and the same thing. Sprawl warriors fight auto driving by deliberately making streets more congested. Auto opponents fight sprawl by creating artificial housing shortages, forcing all but the wealthy to live in apartments or other multi-family housing.

They use appealing names as smart growth, livability and new urbanism to disguise their real agenda, which is to greatly reduce auto driving. But sometimes they let slip their true goals by promoting events such as "car-free days" and designing web sites that focus on "moving beyond the automobile."

Several states and regions have declared war on automobiles or sprawl. In addition to Oregon, Washington, and California, these include Hawaii, Florida, Massachusetts, as well as regional governments in Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and several other urban areas.

Anti-auto plans have two basic aspects. First, they divert money from highways to transit, usually expensive rail transit projects that cost far more yet will carry far fewer people than any highway. Second, they include land-use rules designed to make the region more congested so as to force people to stop driving. Those land-use rules are also supposed to make neighborhoods more "pedestrian friendly," promote cycling, and encourage more transit ridership - although there is little evidence that any of these things work.

Moreover, the Obama administration has joined the war on the automobile. What President Obama calls his "livability" program is really a war on cars and sprawl. According to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, livability means "being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids at the park, all without having to get into your car."

To promote this agenda, LaHood wants every metropolitan area in America to include anti-automobile concepts in its long-range transportation plans. Under federal law, metro areas are required to write such plans every five years. The administration wants the next round of such plans to incorporate anti-auto policies such as expensive transit projects and land-use rules aimed at discouraging driving and encouraging other methods of travel.

Obama's war on the automobile is partly an example of Euro-envy: A desire to make America look like Europe. Bureaucrats at the European Union recently issued a white paper proposing to ban cars from cities and increase rail's share of intercity travel from its current 10 percent to 50 percent by 2050. Now that would require a major war on the automobile.

Yet despite Europe's high fuel taxes, the continent really is not that much different from the U.S. Many tourists return to the U.S. believing that Europe consists exclusively of high-density cities inhabited by people who live in apartments or condos and who walk or bicycle to work, take the metro for longer journeys, and ride high-speed trains between cities. The truth is, however, that the Europe experienced by American tourists is not the real Europe.

Most western Europeans actually live in suburbs that aren't much different from American suburbs. While we car-happy Americans drive for 85 percent of our travel, those supposedly "green" Europeans drive for 75 percent of their travel. While France has Europe's most extensive high-speed rail network, the average resident of France rides high-speed trains less than 500 miles a year while they travel almost 7,500 miles a year by car. Although Europe has rail transit lines in four times as many urban areas as the United States, the average European rides rail transit just 106 miles a year compared with 90 miles for the average American.

Europeans drive less than Americans because their incomes are lower than ours. But their incomes are lower partly because onerous fuel taxes make driving so expensive. This limits access to jobs and other economic opportunities that Americans take for granted. As eastern European governments demonstrated most spectacularly before the fall of the Soviet Union, the best weapon in the war on the automobile is poverty.

If they could, American auto opponents would add several dollars per gallon to our own gas taxes and then spend the money building high-speed trains, subways, light rail - anything but new roads. Since voters resist such huge increases in taxes, auto haters use other, more subtle means to try to reduce driving. I'll describe some of them in the next issue of this series.

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It."