Urban planner to motorists: You’re not as special as you think

I ran across this story on NPR today with the unfortunate title: “Motorists to Urban Planners: Stay in Your Lane“. Although not as incendiary as it could have been in the hands of, say The New Yorker, I wish it had done more to move us past the “car wars” rhetoric that gets bandied about.

The reporter manages to get some juicy soundbites from drivers stopped at a light adjacent to a bus-only lane complaining that the lane is reserved for buses. I was dying for him to ask “where do you live?” Any bets on what percentage actually live in the District? And of course you’ll hear a cab driver complain – he has every economic incentive to maximize the space available for cars. Next interview: a conversation with NFL team owners about reducing the number of games in the season.

Oh, do I have to say anything about interviewing the AAA and not talking to a single bike/ped advocacy organization? When NPR does a story about gun control do they only talk with the NRA?

Furthermore, I wonder why the report didn’t also feature bus riders who are now enjoying more reliable, faster service to their destinations.

Of course, there’s also no discussion about the fact that drivers are only drivers until they get out of their car. How many people driving in the District end up walking some amount to get to their destination? If you didn’t pull up to the drive-through for your fancy dinner at a restaurant downtown and then catch a movie at the drive-in theater down the street, you benefited from some of the city’s non-vehicular transportation infrastructure as well.

And finally, of all news outlets I would have expected NPR to dedicate a bit more time debunking the whole “war on car” trope. They finally get to talking to Harriet Tregoning, the Directory of Planning in the District, but the question of transportation balance never really gets more than a fleeting reference. I think this should have been the whole crux of the article: we’re not getting rid of cars anytime soon, but we’ve also realized that cars alone can’t do for our cities what we need.

According to the report, roughly half of trips made in the District occur without a car. One estimate puts total transportation spending in 2010 in DC at $680 million. I don’t have data on the breakdown of that money, but my guess is that less than half is paying for bike/ped and transit infrastructure. The so-called “war on cars” is not about excluding cars completely; it’s about making transportation investments that work for all users of the system – drivers and others.

For decades we have actively promoted car travel as the preferred mode of transportation in essentially all circumstances and in virtually every locality in America at the expense of sidewalks, park space, natural habitat, and even people’s homes. If there is a war, I think we’re mistaken to peg bicyclists and buses as the aggressors.

4 responses to “Urban planner to motorists: You’re not as special as you think

  1. “for decades” could read (we are really getting there) “for nearly a century”!
    (Federal Aid Road Act of 1916)

    • thegetaroundblog

      This brings up an interesting question. I would love to see statistics on the breakdown of transportation spending over the entire last century, although I doubt such a dataset exists. As Mr. Norton points out, the victory of the auto was absolute for a few decades, but I couldn’t really say at what point our transportation policies became truly unbalanced. Presumably, there were enough people still using other viable modes (walking, bikes, streetcars, etc.) that officials and professionals couldn’t strip away funding overnight, so how steep was the decline?

  2. Also note how the story assiduously avoids any mention of local, regional or national highway fatality statistics. I’d argue that America’s annual body count is the only factor in this entire conversation that bears any resemblance to an actual war.

    • thegetaroundblog

      Too true – a point that I neglected. As one of the comments on the story’s website points out: if bikers have declared a war on cars, how come they’re the only ones that are dying?

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