Wednesday, August 5, 2015

One Path Among Others Not Taken

By Jim Vaughn, Senior Advisor

After reading the good news from Washington that the Senate approved a highway bill on a vote of 91-4 (the bad news is the stopgap measure will finance federal highway and transportation projects only for three months!), I came across these interesting approaches from the states— 

Iowa DOT chief Paul Trombino said nobody is going to pay to rebuild the state’s roads. It’s not affordable. Iowans will have to figure out which roads “we really want to keep” and let the others “deteriorate and go away.” 

Converting 83 miles of roads from paved to unpaved is an unintended consequence of prosperity in Texas. The affected roads have been so heavily damaged by truck activity related to oil and natural gas exploration that they have become safety hazards, said TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton. 

So what if Iowa and Texas are on to something? What if we can’t afford a lot of the roads we’ve got? What if the best solution is to plow them under? And what if we change our priorities on building and rebuilding our roads and highways? 

Of course we have to repair and build roads because we chose to build car-dependent cities back in the 1960s. But did we? University of Virginia historian Peter Norton says “the car-dominated city wasn’t the inevitable path of progress, but one path among others not taken.” 

In her excellent Washington Post Wonkblog post, The Myth of the American Love Affair With Cars, Emily Badger quotes Norton to tell the history that has been lost about how automobiles came to own the road: 

Americans’ love affair with the car “is one of the biggest public relations coups of all time,” Norton said. “It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. [But] everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.” 

This “love affair” was coined, in fact, during a 1961 episode of a weekly hour-long television program called the DuPont Show of the Week (sponsored, incidentally, by DuPont, which owned a 23 percent stake in General Motors at the time). The program, titled “Merrily We Roll Along,” was promoted by DuPont as “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.” 

The show aired at a time when cars were facing steep criticism, as plans for the new interstate system threatened to destroy or disrupt neighborhoods in many U.S. cities. Highways were on their way to remaking Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Interstate 95 would ultimately raze entire black neighborhoods in Miami. In Washington, a grassroots group called the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis was protesting “white men’s roads thru black men’s homes.”

In New York, urbanist hero Jane Jacobs had gone to battle against a proposed road through Washington Square in Greenwich Village that would have replaced a public park with a thoroughfare for speeding cars. 

The “love affair” story, Norton says, was a response to all this protest, and it successfully helped seed two ideas that have been entrenched ever since: that we’re bound to cars by something stronger than need, and that people who challenge that bond are just turning up their noses at their fellow Americans. 

In the half century since then, we have largely rebuilt American communities to accommodate this love, retrofitting cities to make space for cars, bulldozing old buildings so that we can park them, constructing new communities where it’s not possible to get around without them. 

This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who love their cars. The phenomenon of sports cars, weekend cars and collector cars is real. So, too, is the allure for many people of road trips, scenic highways or weekend drives through the country. Rather, the story Norton disputes, which he has written about in the book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” is the history that says that we’ve built car-dependent cities and suburbs because that’s what Americans wanted, the story that says all our surface parking lots and spaghetti interchanges are a pure product of American preferences. 

Now, about 86 percent of Americans get to work every day in a private car – a statistic that’s often interpreted to mean that the vast majority of us chose to travel that way. 

This conclusion conflates preferences with constrained options. “I actually drive most of the way to work,” Norton admits. “I do it because the choices stink.” To extract from today’s ubiquitous parking garages, drive-through restaurants and busy roads a preference for cars ignores all the ways that public policy, industry influence and economic incentives have shaped our travel behavior. 

“If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed,” Norton says. 

We make the same mistake, he says, with the history we tell of the car. And this popular story of that past makes it hard for us to envision alternative futures before us. 

So in three months, when the stopgap highway bill expires, what are we going to do about our transportation infrastructure? 

If Norton was right—that the car-dominated city wasn’t the inevitable path of progress, but one path among others not taken—it stands to reason that continuing to build and rebuild freeways and highways is but one path today. 

Imagine passing a long-term, balanced and sustainable transportation bill that leads to significant public and private investment in cities designed for people and not just for cars. That’s a bill that could result in a real love affair: an American love affair with cities.