Yesterday a group of environmental advocacy groups, foundations and other organizations released a report, Moving Cooler, amid much fanfare, seeking to have us believe that it is a serious study of GHG reduction options in the transportation sector. It is immensely disappointing. The world could use a dispassionate, objective and broad-based assessment of petroleum reduction options as well as their positive and negative consequences. This is not it.
As one reads one can't help but feel that you are being hit with a sales pitch, or a legal brief from advocacy groups and those who would benefit financially from the derived policy options. The main point, amidst all the array of statistics, confirms the dogma of the already convinced that the only solution to greenhouse gases is major re-structuring of society.
These notions, critically, were already on the front burner of these same groups long before the climate change issue came to prominence. “Progressive” foundations, new urbanists, planners and urban landowners long have advocated the re-assembly of urban living into high density transit-oriented bikeable/walkable communities. Even though their numbers as reported in the text don’t bear it out, the rhetoric is all focused towards that end and the pricing out of existence the automobile and all the evils it represents: suburban living and long trips.
This is a report meant to be waved rather than read as the Congress goes about its fulminations in the coming months. It understates the prospect of gaining the full potential of greater energy efficiency from the vehicle fleet – the only way to justify the wholesale reorganization of society. In fact, if the vehicle/fuel assumptions had been as comparably optimistic as the land use assumptions, with a robust and honest assessment of fuel and vehicle technological development opportunities, one wonders whether this report would be worth doing at all.
We have been here before. In the struggle to improve air quality, it turned out that the solution was not so much changing people’s behavior as it was technological – largely the improvement of fuel and vehicle technology. In the 1970s we were told we could not have cleaner air and automobiles; yet in fact that’s exactly what happened, without having to heed a sermon about our need to repent and change our suburban, car-driving ways. Some people just have a penchant for telling others how to live.
Maybe the saddest part of it all, the authors appear not to take global warming or energy security very seriously at all. Rather these public concerns are just a convenient hook, the cause du jour, on which to hang their favorite solutions. If global warming matters – and it does; if energy security matters – and it does; then early action is clearly called for, particularly given the cumulative nature of GHG gases. But somehow the things easily done and carrying with them little in the way of disruption or public costs – carpooling, telecommuting, dispersed work – are largely written off. Such immediate, low-cost actions as highway operations strategies including better traffic signalization, improved traveler information and accident response systems receive little emphasis.
Overall, the treatment of costs and benefits will leave readers gasping:
- Travel times don’t get counted – so shifting from a 15 minute car trip to an hour on transit or walking has no penalty.
- Transit subsidies don’t get counted – so doubling subsidies to increase ridership has only benefits.
- Every possible pricing strategy is invoked – congestion pricing, cordon pricing, on-street parking fees, extreme fuel prices – in order to get people out of cars, and then the loss of their cars is counted as a benefit.
At the same time the benefits and the costs involved are so corrupted to be meaningless. It will take weeks for analysts to tease out what really was done in the way of assumptions to create winners and losers. And there is no effort to tally all the costs exacted on the average household, or the typical business or even governments for that matter. The costs would add up to a permanent recession.
I am sure the millions affected by these policies, particularly the middle and working class people who can now just barely afford a car, who would be priced out of the system by these policies, will say thank you for this “benefit”.
As we work our way through the recession, workers will be willing to travel farther and farther to find the right job – or any job. With continuing increased specialization in our society larger and larger market sheds for jobs and for workers, quality transportation will be critical to our national productivity. This is the work that transportation does and it is totally dismissed by this report. It can not be addressed adequately by rail or transit even with a complete radical reorganization of work and society.
In order to further bolster their ineffective case the proponents use a tool called “bundles” in which packages of actions are assembled for their “synergistic” qualities and either given a boost or cut based on the assertion that some things work well together. How this was done is not explained. So land use plans, which will take 30 years to come to fruition, are coupled with carbon pricing policies in a sort of horse and rabbit stew, that help make density solutions seem effective.
Those who see the solution of so many of our present ills by cramming people into ever higher densities miss the point. Residential density is one of the most fundamental choices households make. Changing residential densities to make transit work better is the smallest tail wagging the biggest dog I can think of. It puts planning dogma ahead of the most basic human needs and rights.
It is clear that most people, excepting a small but often very loud minority, opt for lower density living when income permits. As the society changes and choice patterns evolve, the marketplace must be ready to respond with development that is both responsive to household choices and to the demands of environmental needs. Any public policies that inhibit a market trend toward higher densities must be addressed. But the market place must be the final arbiter in a free society. People do not live “efficiently” in order to optimize some imposed societal goal, certainly not commuting.
The serious work that needs to be done in this area still awaits an independent and credible group to undertake this work. It can't come soon enough.
For almost 40 years Alan E. Pisarski has been involved in the national transportation policy scene, from vantage points at the original Tri-State Transportation Commission in New York, the Metropolitan Washington COG, the Office of the Secretary, U.S. DOT, or in a personal consulting capacity. In his work he has measured the transportation activities of our nation from the metropolitan, state, national and international levels. In the U.S. DOT he organized the major travel surveys of the nation and designed and managed the U.S. transportation statistical system under the Assistant Secretary for Policy, establishing programs that are still the basis of much of the U.S. transportation statistical system today.