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Our Transportation Secretary wants you out of your car!

Lone Shopping Cart in the Parking Lot at the Burlington County Mall

Empty parking lot photo by sameold2008 from Flickr

Ray LaHood, Transportation Secretary for the new Obama administration, has recently been quoted as wanting to “coerce people out of their cars.”

Good news? Bad news?

For many of the readers of this blog, this change in federal attitude towards how people live and get around is a welcome breath of fresh air. I personally agree that the United States has long needed a shift in priorities in terms of our lifestyle, ditching the car for most of our transportation needs. There seems to be, however, a qualm amongst many (and not only conservatives) with the federal government forcing it’s hand into how our communities are built and connected (see CNSNews article link below). I can personally understand this stance as well, seeing how the policies that will push zoning laws to create denser neighborhoods DOES infringe on our original founding beliefs of property rights.

What I believe the disconnect in the arguments to be though, is that many have forgotten that these rights have been infringed on for the entirety of the lives of anybody reading this, and the uphill zoning law battles of many pushing for greater densification in the recent past serves as evidence of this. The 180 that the federal government is trying to currently pull, is of it’s very own previous stances, both times forced with disregard to property rights. Post World War II decentralization was subsidized through tax breaks for industries leaving the city, insured mortgages on suburban homes, a transportation infrastructure focus on highways, and President Eisenhower essentially telling the nation that decentralization was proper damage control against a potential nuclear attack.

Okay, so why do I bring all of this up?

What we’re currently looking at in our nation, is a virtual culture war in terms of development policy. We fail to see that many of the denser “colonial-era” cities in America were built in an organic manner, often times with very little oversight from the local or (especially) federal government. Dense development was built solely based on the premise that it made sense to build in an efficient manner, in an age when oil-based transportation was neither viable nor affordable. It seems that we may once again be approaching a similar scenario.

The era of oil is quickly drawing to a close. The incentive of supporting an auto industry that is less and less an American industry, no longer has the justification of ensuring American jobs (there’s also the fact that a car-oriented lifestyle has proven to be physically, psychologically, and fiscally unhealthy). So it seems to me that if left to it’s own devices, free-market capitalism would once again reinstate the priorities that were originally responsible for dense development and infrastructure focused on mass-transit. We have already seen in younger generations a reversal of the perspective on cities. We are seeing a slight gain in the ratio of city-dwellers to suburban-dwellers.

So although I fully support the focus of this new administration on putting more money into mass-transit and things of the such that support our ideals, I’m wondering if we may be soon approaching the day where we can undo the practice of managing development altogether and reinstate a fundamental principle of our nation, the original intention of property rights. Or perhaps we need to be having the discussion on the very nature of what property rights actually are.

Read the CNSNews article here.

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9 Responses to Our Transportation Secretary wants you out of your car!

  1. Bret Ancowitz May 27, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    Interesting thoughts… I think we’re well past a libertarian-ish notion of shucking such policy for a simplified and liberated system of greater property “rights.” The problem is that “rights” aren’t neutral. Any system granting rights to some by definition limits the actions of others… As long as opinions exist, the rightness of a “right” is somewhat relative…

    That said, the current reality of the situation is that there seems to be a policy movement towards density and more mass transit options. That said, I think the ONLY thing that will validate and give any such policy push a chance of working is MUCH higher gas prices. The Great Recession itself won’t do it… The higher gas prices, through either the market or a higher gas tax, is absolutely critical.

    Oddly and ironically, the automakers may become one of the biggest pushers of such a gas tax now. The government, in their bailouts, is going to force those companies to make smaller, more efficient cars that the nation as a whole, historically, has never indicated they’ve wanted. The heartland, given the choice between a spoonful of caviar or a Big Mac will take the burger 9.9 times out of ten, and the same is true in autos…

    The automakers know those future small cars they’re going to be forced to build won’t find any market unless gas is probably over $4 a gallon. The polical fight will be really interesting…

  2. Corey May 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    The fact of the matter is that also, up until World War II, dense development and mass transit WERE the norms in this country. There was a tremendous amount of social engineering on behalf of the federal government after the war, to create a new middle class – the one we’re left with today – based on individual property ownership. The current system is actually the aberration here, relative to the overall scope of history and what was considered the norm for the majority of the time. If an entire new social infrastructure can be engineered in the space of 20 years after World War II, it can certainly be done now as well.

    I agree with Bret though, that it will take consistently higher fuel costs. The odds of the federal government actually legislating such a thing is pretty slim. Luckily though, gas prices are up about 50% from where they were in December despite the fact that the recession has continued to deepen since then and demand has remained low. As soon as the global economy enters a growth phase again, oil prices are bound to skyrocket, particularly in the US since we now have an administration that’s unwilling to subsidize the frivolous drilling of the last 10 years.

  3. John West May 28, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    I would gladly get rid of my car if I could get to work using mass transit. OK, that’s not fair. I can get there but it takes 1:30 to cover the 7 mile trip from Providence to Cranston. It takes 10 minutes if I drive. I’d be willing to spend 30-40 minutes a day in the bus, but not 3 hours.

  4. Jef Nickerson May 28, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    I don’t know what it is about you John, but all your comments keep getting corralled in the spam queue. I just click ‘approve’ though.

  5. weisenheimer May 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

    John, one step you can take today is to begin biking to work occasionally (or regularly)! Contact the Providence Bicycle Coalition for help in selecting a safe and convenient route; we’ll be happy to help you. Bikeprovidence.org

  6. Wesli Dymoke May 28, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    You’re right in that if we sit back and wait, the problem will take care of itself. However, absent government guidance — or ‘interference’ if you prefer that term — that will happen in ways that most of us will find most inconvenient and unpleasant.

    Exactly how should we prosecute a future of integrated living habits and mass transit, when by its very nature the latter is a matter of public fiat? We can’t have these nice things without government leading the way and making it happen. No one has successfully operated private mass transit in over half a century — coincidentally concurrent with the rise of private motor travel, itself a massive and very highly invasive government programme.

    We made this mess together, and we need to get out of it together.

  7. John West May 28, 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    weisenheimer, I think you missed the operative section of my post: “…if I could get to work using mass transit.”

    Jef, I think it knows me better than you… .

  8. Jef Nickerson May 28, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    Maybe I should stop approving them then. The machine is obviously smahtah than I.

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