War on Cars: The “Congestion Coalition” doesn't want cars on the road [Op-Ed]

The Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole takes on two groups he says are fighting the automobile.

A variety of interest groups have joined the war on the automobile. The one thing that unifies these groups is that they all benefit (or think they benefit) from congestion, so I call them the "congestion coalition."

Auto opponents fall into two categories. On one hand are the "greens" who dislike cars because they pollute and cause "urban sprawl." On the other hand are a variety of businesses and government agencies that financially benefit from the war on the automobile. These businesses and agencies often provide grants and other support to the greens to make it appear that waging war on cars is somehow a noble cause.

Among the greens, I would include the nation's 30,000 urban planners, most of whom work for government planning departments. These urban planners nearly all have universities degrees in their field, giving the war on the automobile an aura of academic respectability. But urban planning is far from a science; it is a best an art, and at worst a scam designed to give special interest groups undue power over property owners and taxpayers.

Planners often hold public meetings that they call charrettes that are supposedly designed to give people a say in the future of their communities. But the planners tightly control the agendas of the charrettes so that no one is allowed to build momentum against the planners' agenda. No matter what people at the charrettes say, the planners will conclude that the community wants denser housing and more alternatives to driving.

Most urban planning schools are affiliated with architecture schools, and they teach what is known as the "design fallacy," which is that human behavior can be shaped by urban design. Planners know that urban forms changed in response to new transportation technologies. When most transportation was on foot, people lived in high densities. When streetcars were developed, densities declined. When the automobile became dominant, densities declined even further. This much is true.

But planners fantasize that they can somehow reverse this process through land-use regulation. If they can increase densities to those of the streetcar era, they think people will suddenly stop driving and ride transit more. If they can increase densities to the pedestrian era, they think people will walk and bicycle more.

In reality, until you get to extraordinarily high densities--think Manhattan or Hong Kong--density has little effect on driving. Many planners are surprised to learn that the densest urban area in the United States is Los Angeles, which isn't exactly known for its high rates of transit ridership or pedestrianism.

(As defined by the Census Bureau, the term "urbanized area" includes a city and all its suburbs. In L.A.'s case, it includes Anaheim, Burbank, Pasadena, and other suburbs; in New York City's case, it includes much of northern New Jersey. The 2000 census found that the L.A. urbanized area had 7,000 people per square mile while the New York urbanized area had just 5,300 people per square mile.)

Also among the greens are traditional environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, which once mistakenly called Los Angeles "the granddaddy of sprawl," when in fact L.A. is the least sprawling urban area in the nation. The Sierra Club once posted on its website a claim that the "efficient urban density" was 500 households per acre, which works out to be more than twelve times as dense as Manhattan and more than 300 times as dense as the average U.S. urban area. At this density, everyone in the world could fit into the combined New York-Philadelphia urban areas.

In addition to traditional environmental groups like the Sierra Club, a new breed of groups has sprung up focused entirely on anti-automobile policies. Going by such names as Smart Growth America and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP), these groups issue a continuous stream of anti-auto propaganda, mostly aimed at elected officials and bureaucrats. Unlike the Sierra Club, which is a true grassroots organization, these other groups are funded mainly by grants from foundations and government agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has given millions of dollars to anti-auto groups with the express purpose of helping these groups lobby for alternatives to driving. The American Public Transportation Association, which is the lobby group for the transit industry, also gives grants to supposedly grassroots groups to lobby for more money for transit.

The greens are quietly allied to a variety of businesses that benefit from congestion and other anti-auto policies. These businesses include downtown property owners, who resent the fact that millions of jobs have moved to the suburbs. They reason that if they can make the suburbs as congested as downtowns, many of the jobs will return back to downtown areas, thus boosting the values of their property.

Another major supporter of the anti-auto agenda is the rail transit industry, which includes contractors and railcar manufacturers. Siemens Transportation is a German company that generously contributes to political campaigns for rail transit as well as to politicians who support rail transit. Siemens has also been a major force behind the high-speed rail movement.

While auto haters speak derisively of the "highway lobby," that lobby hardly exists. Auto manufacturers and oil companies never played much of a role in lobbying for new roads. Instead, that was left mainly to road builders and users such as trucking companies. Most road builders can make as much or more profit building rail transit, so for the most part they have stopped lobbying for new roads. The annual budget of the American Public Transportation Association is several times larger than the collective budgets of all the remaining highway lobby groups in Washington, DC.

In addition to greenies and businesses that thrive on congestion, the anti-auto agenda is supported by a variety of government agencies and officials who feel threatened by the freedom of the automobile. These include transit agencies and environmental bureaucracies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. They also include big-city officials who, like downtown property owners, resent the loss of people and businesses to the suburbs. They support the anti-auto campaign because of its focus on returning people to dense inner cities.

One of the shared goals of all the members of the congestion coalition is to divert as much gas tax as possible away from highways and into transit. Oregon was the first state to pass a gas tax in 1919 and by 1931 every state had a similar tax dedicated exclusively to road construction and maintenance. In 1956, Congress dedicated federal gas taxes to the highway trust fund that was initially used to build the Interstate Highway System. While local roads and streets are often paid for out of property or other taxes, most state and interstate highways have been exclusively financed out of gas taxes, tolls, or other user fees.

In 1982, as the Interstate Highway System was nearing completion, the transit lobby persuaded Congress to divert one penny of the federal gas tax to transit. Today, thanks to lobbying by groups such as STPP, more than 15 percent of federal gas taxes go exclusively to transit, and another 15 percent is "flexible," meaning state and regional governments can spend the funds on either highways or transit. In practice, about a third of that 15 percent, or 5 percent of the total, has been spent on transit, which means more than a fifth of your federal gas taxes go to subsidize some transit rider's cushy ride.

In addition, the transit lobby has convinced many state legislatures to "bust the trust fund" and divert state gas taxes or tolls to transit. In 2008, New York spent 30 percent of its highway tolls on transit; Massachusetts spent 44 percent of its gas taxes on transit; and Maryland spent 40 percent of vehicle registration fees on transit. Overall, more than 10 percent of these state "user fees" have been diverted to transit.

Most of this money has been frittered away building expensive light-rail and other rail transit projects. Although subways play an important role in New York City's economy, for the most part rail transit elsewhere is nothing but a huge money sink. Before 1970, transit was largely private, but since 1970, American taxpayers have given more than half a trillion dollars in subsidies to transit. Despite these subsidies, per capita transit ridership is about the same today as it was then. The main effect of the subsidies has been increased roadway congestion because highway agencies haven't had the funds to keep up with traffic--which is, of course, the real goal of the congestion coalition.

Every six years, Congress passes a new law, known as "surface transportation reauthorization," specifying how federal gas taxes will be spent for the next six years. The last bill, passed in 2005, mandated that Congress spend money on more than 7,000 earmarks and a variety of ridiculously expensive transit projects even if gas taxes were not sufficient to cover those costs. When oil prices went up in 2007 and 2008, gas tax revenues declined and Congress was forced to appropriate general funds to keep the money flowing to highways and transit.

Auto opponents claim that these supplemental funds were somehow a subsidy to highways, when in fact they were subsidies to pork barrel. Many members of Congress have promised to eliminate earmarks and other mandates from the next reauthorization bill, which could be passed this year. Some groups, such as the Reason Foundation, have suggested that Congress rededicate federal gas taxes to highways and fund transit out of other funds.

Naturally, the anti-auto groups go ballistic at that idea, as they want to divert even more gas taxes to non-highway programs. The Obama administration was hoping to divert tens of billions of dollars a year to its high-speed rail program even though its own advocates admitted that high-speed trains would require huge subsidies and never carry more than a small percentage of Americans.

For example, Americans travel an average of 4,000 miles a year on interstate highways, but they would ride high-speed trains an average of less than 100 miles a year. Whereas the interstate highways cost about $425 billion (all of which came from highway user fees), Obama's high-speed rail program would cost at least $500 billion, none of which would be covered by rail fares.

The election of fiscally conservative governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin has killed high-speed rail plans in those states. But it will still take some work to make sure that Congress does not reinvigorate the high-speed boondoggles by diverting gas taxes to this program in the next reauthorization bill.

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."