Is the Problem Auto-Dependency or Suburbia?

Atlanta. Photo by Flickr user Nrbelex.

Atlanta. Photo by Flickr user Nrbelex.

Where someone lives is often a deeply personal choice. Sometimes it’s not so much personal as circumstantial (drive-til-you-quality) or temporal (no traffic! [not yet, anyway]). So questioning where someone lives is destined to create contention — we all know that.

If I criticize a portion of Bellevue’s cul-de-sac development, a commenter is just as likely to deride my urban elitism as seriously analyze the serious consequences of that development. And true, Seattle itself is hardly the best example of perfect development. We can’t get density on major rail corridors without seeing “threatening” images of Hong Kong.

Read on after the jump…

But development is not done in a vacuum. The policies that favor highway expansion over transit expansion indeed favor sprawl. The lack of strong building codes in expanding suburbs leads to cul-de-sacs or strip-malls that block shared access with egregous schrubbery and ditches. We all know what it’s like to have to get in your car to go to the Baskin Robbins in the next strip mall over. Is this an example of freedom? Not socio-economically, for certain. Not if you prefer to walk than drive. And crtainly this lack of oversight is not the best choice for the planet.

But the problem isn’t the suburbs themselves. It’s not even the suburbanites that occupy those houses and drive everywhere. The problem is the government policies that historically let developers do nearly anything with cheap land. It has been a failure at the federal, state, regional, and local levels that we cannot mindlessly blame on suburbanites themselves. Indeed, suburbs are a natural part of the metropolitan framework. Auto-dependency is not: therefore it is a product of poor governmental policies which are a form of social engineering that have accelerated climate change and have led to things like suffering through congestion as a requirement to get to work.

seattle-energy

Office energy use per worker.

You can have a suburban development that is the first step toward removing that car-dependency. The downtown areas of Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond are examples of that. You can suburban development that is relatively dense and walkable and near transit stops. The Bel-Red corridor in Bellevue is an example of that. The Growth Management work from the state and regional levels are good steps that we’ve seen in our lifetime. Indeed, we sense even greater change coming: McMansions are acceptable to deride on as signs of excess and ironic cheapness. SUVs are painted with a black brush while hybrids and bicycles can be status symbols. Having a bus pass is no longer a sign of thrift but one of environmental stewardship (usually).

co2-mode

CO2 emissions by mode

But there is certainly more work to be done. Transit is often a second priority to highway expansion (though not always) and suburban re-development is sometimes an uphill fight with people who fear a change in their lives. And we want our suburban readers to know: You are not the enemy. Government policy is. We’re seeing the first steps of this change, but to fully tackle pollution and the inefficiencies of congestion, we need more. So there’s nothing wrong with living in Bellevue or working in Redmond. But feel free — nay, encouraged! — to criticize the local planning decisions just as we in Seattle criticize our city’s policies when they hurt the earth and our quality of life.

(Charts from Huge Ass City/Seattle Planning Blog and Sightline respectively.)

Comments

  1. Multimodal Man says

    Government policies don’t exist in a vacuum; they are the result of short-minded public interests.
    The problem is cheap oil and feedback loops reinforcing oil consumption through more and more motoring. Zoning codes established separation between uses not only because people (including planners in government) didn’t like their home value to be threatened by “incompatible uses.” And we could afford to separate because people could drive the distances. Transit was merely though of as a safety net.
    When people make housing choices they often look short term: will the bank approve their mortgage and is it the biggest home they can afford. They forget the operating costs of living in the suburbs and the increase in VMT per capita necessary to survive in unwalkable areas.
    Kirkland is 100 years old. Downtown Bellevue is an urban landscape. Your definition of suburb seems to be anything outside of downtown Seattle. I would suggest that suburb in the pejorative sense is any non-rural area designed primarily for automobile travel between any given point.

    • Andrew Smith says

      I don’t agree with that definition even a little bit. I am currently in suburban Tokyo. You can’t tell me this isn’t a suburb, or some sort of independent city or whatever. There’s nothing big-city about it even a little bit: the place was farms 30 years ago, is full of big box stores, has separated residential areas from commercial areas, etc.

      But it’s walkable, you can very much live an auto-independent lifestyle here (though most families own cars), etc.

      • cjh says

        Well, he did say in the pejorative sense.

        In the technical sense even those scary Hong Kong pictures are often of suburbs:
        http://farm1.static.flickr.com/112/288994305_d8c7765cb6.jpg?v=0

        Note the clear separation from other built up areas and uses: basically, those people get on a train to go the “real” city. While slightly better for the environment than getting into a car to do the same, it is still antithetical to urban living.

        The genesis of zoning codes is also far more positive and complex. Unless one thinks that slum clearance is all bad.

  2. dang says

    To add to MM’s comments, short-sighted government policies that promote the individual and the here-and-now over our collective society and viable long-term decision making allow the continued development of suburbs. The policies that I refer to are the tax-breaks based on home ownership that play a large role in determining development patterns. Cars allow development of land that would otherwise be too distant to be viably developed, increasing the pool of housing and thereby making more housing available at much lower prices than would otherwise be experienced. Couple this with an an agrarian ideal that has existed in the US since its earliest days, and voila, we have the unchecked growth of suburbia as experienced over the last couple of decades.

    This has led to the expectation of car ownership and homeownership–not options, but rights and necessities. Instead of evaluating the costs of homeownership in a suburb versus renting in the city on a truly sound economic basis, our society has been led to believe that cars are a given and that homeownership is the only means for a vast number of Americans “to get ahead.” I could go into a bit on the speculative housing bubble here, but back to the point of this post–cars and their role in development. That cars have become a necessity is evident in the way that our land-use policies have been re-written across the country. Requiring accommodation of and dictating sizes relative to cars has resulted in environments that are scaled for cars, not people.

    Even here in the “urban” neighborhoods and villages of Seattle, we have development policies that require the accommodation of cars at the expense of sustainable densities or housing prices. When it comes to transit, we have leaders who prioritize commute times on expressways and unhindered freight traffic, over sound policies that would have a positive impact on a far greater portion of the population. For evidence, simply look to the debates surrounding any one of a number of ridiculous design-by-committee-before-putting-it-before-the-public-prior-to-legislating-to-kill-it-in-secret projects that have dotted our headlines of late. Learning to exist without cars would be huge; having those individuals in positions that establish policy would be unbelievable. I would settle for people to even be aware that it’s an option. Maybe then we could get somewhere.

  3. says

    I think these things are manifestations of a long term social problem. The good news is that society changes with time. One of the NPR stories about Tyson’s Corner in DC interviewed a guy who said something like “In the 50s, we really wanted this. We just didn’t realize how bad the quality of life would be.” There are a lot of people in slow-growing areas of the country or retirement communities for whom the quality of life still seems quite good because the traffic never came and fuel costs are still mostly affordable, but as a nation we are paying for it in greenhouse gases and health problems.

  4. says

    I disagree with the portion of the argument that blames the market for the bad aspects of sprawl. It’s a really simple rebuttal: how many times have you seen a zoning code applied to a suburban plot of land that specifies a minimum height, or a maximum number of parking spaces, or a maximum setback from the street, etc.?

    In my observation, most of the worst aspects of suburbia aren’t necessarily what the market would have provided if given the chance – they’re what the market provided given strict rules mandating low-density car-dependent sprawl. Certainly when those rules are relaxed here in Austin, we see far better results (a few developers continue to build low-density garbage; but most don’t).

    • dang says

      I agree its not entirely market-driven (no pun intended). But a lot of the regulations in place that direct and influence development act to reinforce market-related biases. The lower densities and heights, setbacks, et al are all derived in reaction to the problems of urban centers in the 19th century. Think open space, yards, separation from neighbors, access to nature… all highly desirable attributes, especially when compared to the conditions experienced in many overcrowded, filthy, and ad hoc urban centers of the time.

      Suburban development in itself is not bad–think of the early street car suburbs back east. They were planned around transit that was both focused/limited in its area of influence and secondary to urban cores. Bedroom communities, albeit for the well-to-do. Modern suburbs are still planned around transit, it just happens that the mode of transit acts to expand the potential developable areas and broaden access to a larger portion of the population. Combined with changes in attitude about where services are located, cars allow the focus of modern suburbs to become diluted (I’d argue its still there, just operating on a vastly different scale) and supplant traditional urban cores as primary centers of economic and cultural development.

      Unfortunately, land use regulations, the proliferation of cars and the incentive structure for development have led to the suburban norm we now know, which has completely failed to maintain the many of qualitative aspects of early suburbs that were found so appealing. We need a wholesale reimagining of our environment; a horizontal shift in thinking that upsets cultural assumptions…

  5. lee.watkins says

    suburbs is just another word for rural areas, except that traditional rural areas are self-sufficient. If long walking distances isolate you, then that’s what a rural area is. And that’s okay – before the industrial revolution 90% of the population lived in rural areas. The difference is that they relied on their land to support them, not access to the cities and ports. It is cheap gas and smoothly paved asphalt roads that make this possible, as well as our ability to leverage debt. Still, the whole world can not operate this way, because this is a system that requires good be produced cheaply somewhere else and transported cheaply as well. It is a royalty system at the top of a larger global order.

    The term suburban itself describes an less dense developed area that is dependent on a nearby city. The suburb can not exist without external structures to support it – branching all the way out to Chinese factories. Shut down those factories in China and those oil wells in the middle east – and suburbia would be forced to again self-sustain like the rural areas they are. They are at the mercy of international whims.

  6. cannon says

    You make it sound as if “government policies” are imposed by fiat on an unwilling population. They’re not. Land-use laws and regulations are outcomes of the democratic process. If those laws were fundamentally inconsistent with the wishes of the people they would be changed. If laws really do favor highways and sprawl over transit and compact development (a highly dubious claim) it is because PEOPLE favor highways and sprawl. Land-use and transportation policy and patterns of development are not dictated by a ruling elite of politicians and commercial developers. They are driven by millions of individual choices by ordinary Americans about how to vote and what to buy.

    • John Jensen says

      I would argue that there is a relative disinterest in things like land use except among developers themselves. And often the problem isn’t the wrong regulations or laws, but simply the lack of them. These decisions quickly have effects outside the boundaries of a local municipalities: state and federal money is building the highways so why should we accept that it is a purely local decision?

  7. chriswnw says

    The suburbs can be made more bike and pedestrian friendly with a few minor modifications. Make sure that there is at least one low speed residential route running parallel to every major arterial street — this can be done by reconnecting residential streets with new segments of road or bike/ped cut-through paths. Build more bike/ped underpasses and bridges that allow for the easy crossing of railroad tracks and highways. Allow mixed-use development on main streets. Loosen zoning codes within neighborhoods, allowing medium density development (e.g., duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes). Convert four lane roads to three lane roads with wide outside lanes and center turn lanes. Problem solved.

  8. Mike Orr says

    “I agree its not entirely market-driven (no pun intended). But a lot of the regulations in place that direct and influence development act to reinforce market-related biases. The lower densities and heights, setbacks, et al are all derived in reaction to the problems of urban centers in the 19th century. Think open space, yards, separation from neighbors, access to nature… all highly desirable attributes, especially when compared to the conditions experienced in many overcrowded, filthy, and ad hoc urban centers of the time.”

    Yes, but then it got extreme. The state-of-the-art houses of the 1950s with their built-in refrigerator and one-car garage and one outlet per room looked positively wonderful back then, but now they look extremely cramped. Biff and Happy grew up in the same room, and so did the Brady kids, but now each kid needs their own room.

    What’s ironic is that the little houses on small plots around N 80th Street and Mount Baker, which are some of the most sought-after in the city, are illegal to build now due to minimum lot sizes and setback requirements.

    The libertarians point out that the “ideal” world of 1930s NYC or a small Main Street town were built without zoning laws, implying they would come back if only those pesky laws were changed. On the other hand there’s Houston and Arizona, where lack of zoning led to the worst sprawl in America. So probably we do need zoning laws, but human-friendly ones rather than automobile-friendly ones.

    “The Option of Urbanism” talks about how suburban-type densities are the result of both zoning and finance. Previously real estate was a long-time investment (many decades). Then as developers stared getting Wall Street financing, investors demanded a return within a certain number of years (9? 19?), and they would only finance projects that conformed to the nine most popular site designs. So even though a third of the market wanted small dense walkable places, 90% of the construction was low-density sprawl. There is still a pent-up demand for these walkable places, which is why everywhere in-city townhouses and condos have the highest price per square foot. He predicts it will take 30 years for the supply of these to catch up to the demand, and thus for the price of condos to be proportional to their size again.

    • dang says

      Yes, I completely agree. But getting back to the question posed to kick off this post, I would argue that it is the automobile dependency that is really at fault, not the notion of suburbia. The built environment has become very car-centric over the last 60 years. Cities used to be scaled relative to the people that used them. The people responsible for building cities used to understand the need for humanistic elements. People used to be intrinsic to the very form of the built environment. But that has disappeared by and large in suburbs where human-scale has been replaced by car-scale. Where the primary means of interacting with the surrounding environment has shifted from foot and face-to-face contact to being encapsulated in individual metal pods.

      But, I don’t think that this is just an issue in suburbia. I think its an issue in urban areas as well, where the space of streets have been ceded entirely to the automobiles. Where new development is required by regulations to accommodate cars or where market demand expects cars because our society has developed that expectation (e.g highway and roadway capacity, job choice and commuting times as givens, etc).

      • Chris Stefan says

        The fact that large surface parking lots can make any sort of economic sense anywhere near an urban downtown I think says a lot.

        For that matter there are people who choose to drive SOVs to places like midtown Manhattan every day, despite the traffic congestion, tolls, and parking costs. There is a lot of inertia behind auto-oriented solutions even when they are wildly inappropriate.

      • says

        Houston has all the bad parts of suburban zoning – they have mandatory minimum lot sizes, mandatory minimum (wide) streets; and a parcel of other such requirements, as well as more deed restrictions than anybody in the universe; and I’ve never heard the claim about Arizona before.

      • says

        Cities used to be scaled relative to the people that used them. The people responsible for building cities used to understand the need for humanistic elements.

        Cities as we know them are a creation of the industrial revolution. That’s what caused a dramatic shift away from rural areas into large cities. These cities weren’t designed so much as formed by Adam Smith’s invisible hand and were for the majority of the population rather wretched places to live. Natural and man made disasters helped drive populations more and more into the cities. By the late 50s early 60s, with a few exceptions more people in this country were trying to get out of the cities than were moving in. That trend didn’t start to reverse it’s self until the 80’s when it was apparent that if something didn’t changed cities one after another were going to go the way of Detroit.

        It’s not accurate to say the automobile drove either the migration from or the return to cities. Interurban lines existed before automobiles dominated and would have fed urban flight. Urban centers require mass transit because of the density but there are wonderful walkable towns all across America that have little or no public transit and are walkable. It’s the small town feeling that was the ideal suburbs were trying to achieve. Some did OK but didn’t stand the test of time. Most that failed can be tied to economic and social changes more than street size and layout.

      • dang says

        These cities weren’t designed so much as formed by Adam Smith’s invisible hand and were for the majority of the population rather wretched places to live.

        Yes, cities were wretched places to live during the industrial revolution. But the idea that they were formed solely as a result of economic forces is a bit of an over simplification. No matter the larger political or economic forces at work, people were able to shape their spaces, form neighborhoods and interact with extended communities, finding ways to interact.

        My point about the human scale is simply that we were more directly tied to and interacting with our immediate environment when our dominant means of transit was feet, not cars. There is an intimacy between being and environment that is interrupted when the sole means of interaction is by car.

      • says

        But the dominant means of transit in cities isn’t walking. It’s not even transit; it’s cars. Everywhere you look 24/7 there’s cars. How many people interact on crowded sidewalks or talk to strangers on the bus. If I pass someone walking in suburban Bellevue it’s far more likely to involve a “hi” or at least a smile and a nod. Try that downtown and you’d be a bobble head figure. Up on Queen Ann or other neighborhoods that were the original suburbs sure there’s more interaction. But there comes a point where density creates it’s own form of isolation. I think that’s the problem likely to occur with large areas of concentrated (4+ story) residential. On Queen Ann you can actually know your neighbor and have some connection with the people on your street. When you don’t even know who’s living on your floor let alone in the entire building that’s when the defensive wall of isolationism kicks in.

      • John Jensen says

        But the dominant means of transit in cities isn’t walking. It’s not even transit; it’s cars.

        That is untrue in many cities across the world, and in this country you don’t have to look further than NYC. Do you have evidence that this is the case in Seattle or specifically urban Seattle? I’d be surprised if most trips in Capitol Hill were served by cars.

        Everywhere you look 24/7 there’s cars.

        And there’s also people on the sidewalks! Cities have more people, so they have more cars.

        If I pass someone walking in suburban Bellevue it’s far more likely to involve a “hi” or at least a smile and a nod.

        Auto dependence doesn’t make Bellevue residents more friendly. The thesis of this blog entry is that suburbia and auto-dependence are not the same thing, and it’s about time people stopped linking them where an attack on auto-dependence is an attack on your way of life.

        Suburbia is a natural part of the urban fabric. I think a suburb such as Bellevue can be designed and built to consist mostly of comfortable and even large single-family homes while have the vital components of walkability and the link to transit that create less dependence on automobiles.

        Like Jane Jacobs wrote generations ago, cities and suburbs are nearly disjoint subjects. One can’t talk about them apples to apples. As such, ways we create walkability or transit use in the cities isn’t the same way we create those in the suburbs. So, density across the entirety of suburbia is not an answer nor was it my prescription.

        Automobile dependence can have obvious negative attributes with health, climate, social patterns, productivity, and infrastructure investment. While it is clear that a modern society requires modern transportation, it is not obvious that those transportation needs are best met with everyone having an automobile and a highway to serve their commute. While rail certainly uses energy, it has better capacity and scalability qualities. All forms of social transportation, such as vanpools, buses, and rail, will always have better energy use properties than even the most efficient personal automobile. Walking or biking will always beat transit.

        I totally reject that the status quo is perfect just because you happened to move on its block. That isn’t a very critical analysis of a serious issue.

        P.S. It’s Queen Anne with an e at the end. She’s very offended! :)

      • says

        John,
        I agree with you. My comments were in response to other comments on this post. I’d have to do some digging to come up with number of trips. I think there are stats on number of employees which use transit. I’d be surprised if even downtown Seattle the number isn’t tipped in favor of personal vehicles. That doesn’t make cars good or evil but there are too many cars in downtown Seattle.

        Cities realized they needed to change if they wanted to exist. A lot has been done to improve quality of life in the cities that have thrived. Suburbs have a lot of room for improvement. Since they’re (for the most part) not lacking in demand from people that want to move there it’s harder to get those improvements implemented.

      • says

        Comment by John Jensen
        2009-04-14 20:19:56

        > But the dominant means of transit in cities isn’t walking. It’s not even transit;
        > it’s cars.

        That is untrue in many cities across the world, and in this country you don’t have to look further than NYC. Do you have evidence that this is the case in Seattle or specifically urban Seattle? I’d be surprised if most trips in Capitol Hill were served by cars.

        Don’t know about Capitol Hill but it’s not even close for Downtown. According to the Urban Mobility Group (Downtown Seattle Association, King County Metro and the City of Seattle) it’s 70% private automobile (58% SOV) and only 28% transit. Given that downtown has far and away the best transit connections, driving is a pain in the bucket seat and parking is more than what some people pay in rent I’d expect this to be one of the highest rates of transit use over personal vehicles.

      • John Jensen says

        A lot of auto-dependent suburbanites work in Seattle and Downtown Seattle greatly swells in population during the day. The numbers you shared are commutes to or within downtown, which doesn’t reflect the trip patterns of those who live in the city (or, what I’m wondering, urban Seattle).

        A commute is one trip, but there are other types of trips obviously. You asserted that the dominant means of transportation in cities isn’t walking nor transit — I assumed you meant transportation of city residents given the original blog entry.

        What I mean is that Capitol Hill being walkable doesn’t mean that people who live in Redmond are going to be able to get to their Hill job by walking. I don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about that Redmond resident. I want to know if that Capitol Hill guy walks to the grocery store instead of driving, or even buses to his job in Redmond, because he has closer access to a bus line.

        Additionally, do we really have the option to expect Seattle to be the model? We don’t have a rail network and won’t have a real one for a very long. ST2 will significantly grow that transit percentage according to the PSRC.

      • says

        That link defines downtown as a pretty big area, and is a lot larger than what most people call “downtown”. The CBD, the part that you say has a great transit connection, transit has 40% commute share, and driving a little less than 50%. That “downtown” is the one with all the buses and the really tall buildings. LQA is the mid-rise area next the seattle center. Not my definition of downtown, and certainly not the downtown with all the buses.

        Lower Queen Anne has about the same level of transit service as Capitol Hill, and no where near the level of service of the CBD. You can’t include LQA in “downtown seattle” and then say “downtown Seattle has great transit service” because LQA doesn’t really have great transit service.

        Don’t combine the two in once sense and separate them in another.

      • says

        I think the best solution is to balance living space with job creation. Downtown, which in that study was fairly broad (included part of Capitol Hill) has way more jobs than housing and it’s projected to get even more skewed in that direction. Of course people have to want to live there which means better schools, public safety, open space and recreation (besides bars and professional sports). Too much emphasis on transit just makes the downtown even more of a place most people are trying to get away from as soon as work is over.

        Walking I noticed is already pretty high downtown (4% is equal to the ferry, do the cost comparison there!) and work from home is also pretty darned good at 14%. Instead of trying to lure people out of cars onto transit doubling these numbers would be far less expensive and I think a lot more likely. Number one reason people said they drove, to save time. They hate driving already but door to door transit is going to be hard pressed to compete. For some percentage that live next to train stations it will but the area covered by rail is so limited it can’t make the type of difference they’re looking for. Sure you can encourage residential development near the train stations but why not just encourage it near the job center in the first place.

        You said, “suburbs are a natural part of the metropolitan framework”. It’s true, all of Seattle’s neighborhoods were suburbs when they were formed. Somewhere along the way cities seem to have forgotten to keep up with that demand. Of course they can’t mirror outlying suburbs or even neighborhoods like Capitol Hill but I think they can offer an alternative different to either of those that people will choose to live in. They already hold the number one advantage, less time commuting.

      • says

        Andrew,
        Lower Queen Anne and Capitol Hill seem to have great transit connections to this farm boy out in Bellevue. Of course the free ride area and tunnel are the epicenter but getting there from any of the areas defined as “downtown” (City Center?) in this study is pretty easy even off peak.

        The goal stated in the paper was to try and push transit use vs autos for new employees over this entire broad definition of city center up to the 50/50 mix for the CBD. Even if you blanket the area with coverage equal to the part with the really really tall buildings that’s going to be an up hill battle and of course isn’t even possible by 2015.

        FWIW, when us hicks out in Bellevue make a trip into the big city to go to a ball game or the Seattle Center we call it downtown Seattle. And downtown Bellevue is Main & Bellevue Way up to around Safeway or Welch’s Drugs; we don’t got none of them really tall buildings ;-)

      • Andrew Smith says

        I would need to take two buses from my home in the U-District to LQA or First Hill. I would need to take only one bus to the Ride Free Zone, and I suspect 80% of the people in King County served by at least one bus are in the same situation.

        I agree that the stadiums are downtown and so probably is Queen Anne (at least “greater downtown” if you want to be really picky), but all I’m trying to say is it’s definitely not the same meaning of the word “downtown” as used in the following sentence: “downtown is easily available with single-seat service from any where in the county”. That definition is only for the Ride Free Zone, aka the CBD.

  9. CriticalWonk says

    A really good discussion was had on hugeasscity. Lots of links to great information and some of the arguments showing the urban-suburban divide.

    http://noisetank.com/hugeasscity/2009/04/08/lets-see-if-this-blog-can-accomplish-something-useful-for-once/

    While there was a natural trend toward the ‘streetcar suburbs’ early on, driven by the desire to live outside the crowded center cities and get away from industrial areas, I agree that the big problem is created by the automobile. The concept that I learned about as the Keynesian compact between labor and business expressed as a living wage included ownership and operation of an automobile. Then you have Post WW II highway programs that continue to this day. And the huge influence of big auto.

    It’s not suburbanization per se, when one considers older dense suburbs that had their own ‘main street’ and ‘town centers’. Since the 60s we have housing developments with no near access to economic life, except auto based strip malls. Large houses on large plots with wide streets.

    Then bring in transit and the lack of investment since the 80s. We have had waves of New Towns: The Greenbelt movement and the developments of Columbia MD and Reston Va. Those, while denser communities, basically set the basis for more housing development in surrounding areas, more roads as they were built with no relationship to transit. And they were not constrained.

    We inhabit a small percentage of the land in this country and I have an interest in not building a lot of new roads to build up a lot of new areas. I think it should be easier to say: Leave that land alone. At least the voters agree as shown in King County. There is another interest at play, and I contend that interest had a big influence on the crafting of the Growth Management Act as a defense against a threatened citizen initiative. I wish the initiative had happened instead. This interest was also at play with this incident: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2009022300_whistleblowers11m.html

    It’s not just ‘cheap land’. It’s them who pay the freight for the political campaigns, coupled with narrow municipal interest in increasing the tax base.

    I suppose someone could come along and try to build a new Columbia Md, totally outside of the Growth Area. I would contend that if we had good rail service we might be able to redevelop some of our small towns around the state.

    Big auto is being told to retrain and refocus their skills. Transit as a public investment means that we need to build it where we have the most need. Suburban towns should dense up and diversify uses if we truly constrain growth. With mass transit being cut back all over the nation, we see the inequity created by having housing built further and further from social and economic life. Sad but still true, the automobile is the greatest equalizer and provides the best basis for those coming out of poverty to have the flexibility to work wherever a job can be found.

    Rather than ideological debates over density versus the right to have a big yard, we should be engaging people in all our settled areas to fight for what makes a great place to live: can my kids walk to school? can I bike to the community center? can I get to work nearer to where I live? is my neighborhood safe? is there a nice shopping district close by?

    If, along with these considerations, people consider the critical value of having local farms, local economies and transit, we can all work together with a positive framework.

    • Finish Tag says

      From SDOT:
      MODE CHOICE GOALS – PROPORTION OF WORK TRIPS MADE USING NON SINGLE OCCUPANT VEHICLES:

      Downtown   
      2000 = 56%
      2010 Goal = 62%
        
      1st Hill/Capitol Hill    
      2000 = 31%
      2010 Goal = 37%  

      Seattle as a whole                   
      2000 = 39%
      2010 Goal = 42%

  10. cannon says

    Houston has all the bad parts of suburban zoning – they have mandatory minimum lot sizes, mandatory minimum (wide) streets; and a parcel of other such requirements, as well as more deed restrictions than anybody in the universe

    And yet it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. As are other sprawling, low-density, car-oriented cities like Phoenix and San Antonio. Which suggests that lots of people disagree with you about what constitutes “bad” zoning policy.

    • dang says

      Or is it that the incentive structure is such that people are in essence rewarded for making a decision to live in, develop or work in a low-density, auto-oriented environment. If we had a truer sense of the costs associated with sprawl (be it along the lines of gasoline procurement and environmental degradation; or the first costs and maintenance of the infrastructure that supports this type of decision making, such as road and highway construction, storm water treatment; or longer-term costs, such as the reliance on a finite supply of a single resource, greenhouse gas emission and the loss of arable land) and were held more individually responsible for these costs, the choices would be very different.

      • CriticalWonk says

        Yeah the problem is auto based development. The challenge is having any guarantee of transit, which really is a guarantee of economic options, in the absence of an automobile.

        If we really could quantify the costs, the wealthy can go ahead and pay for themselves. I’ve heard of places in California where the government decided that people who choose to live there are completely on their own. People who can afford it will reform themselves into a new municipality.

        Does that concern me? If I completely individualize it, who cares what a few really wealthy people do. If I consider that once land is built on, there is no going back, then I get furious.

        The trick is, in this individualistic country that values each of us (good thing), how do we come together to show benefits for everyone in how communties can be recreated and cause people to see those benefits in their own interest.

        Land tenure precedent and laws in the USA are most privatized in the world — at least when I studied it in the mid-70s. The government really has no role and we are deluding ourselves if we think land use planning is not an oximoron, or if we think that it can be neatly divorced from socio-economic realities, which are also nearly all privatized in the USA. The interest of one who uses land is fundamentally different than the interest of one who owns land, rendering a home owner a bit schitzo unless combined with social and community drivers.

        Sure the southeast valley of Phoenix could have been planned out for towns with mixed uses instead of a series of office parks and housing sub-divisions. That was virgin territory that cried out for a rail based transit infrastructure to be the development driver. More, it would have had to be coupled with drawing strict boundaries on where people could build.

        Three prescriptions. Change the laws to raise gas taxes and allow that money to be applied to transit. Hoo boy. Draw the boundaries on growth areas strictly, and draw boundaries within growth areas to preserve towns versus farms and open space. Have better oversight with some teeth of comprehensive plans, but that also take better control over some of the state agencies. Good luck.

    • Chris Stefan says

      The fundamental question is does the land use drive the infrastructure or does the infrastructure drive the land use? Put more simply would Houston, Phoenix, or San Antonio continue to sprawl if roads, sewers, water service, etc. were no longer extended out to greenfield developments?

      • CriticalWonk says

        I happen to be somewhat familiar with the area around Gilbert, AZ as a friend was a Planning Commissioner for many years. He’s really jazzed about Seattle’s Light Rail and pretty cynical regarding Arizona’s Smart Growth laws.

        The whole area was planned as auto based suburbs and a bunch of retirement communities. Government did build the basic infrastructure, but each development was required to build their own infrastructure. I had relatives in Sun Lakes. To drive there from Gilbert was an adventure of mixed dirt and paved roads and might still be.

        http://www.maricopa.gov/planning/Resources/Plans/ComprehensivePlan.aspx has the Maricopa County Comp Plan, and Gilbert’s plan is http://www.ci.gilbert.az.us/planning/

        Ironically, home prices were a lot lower than here so on that level there was some success. Having many individual players in the market makes it tons easier to manage by just laying out the road grid. The public will to set out a rail infrastructure to shape new development, or finding a consortium of businesses that would do so, seems like it needs an almost insurmountable cultural shift.

  11. cannon says

    America has been sprawling and suburbanizing for over half a century. So, to a lesser but still very large degree, has western Europe. If you think you can make a serious case that sprawl and car travel are and have long been massively underpriced and that this has created massive “excess” demand, then please do so. I see your claim all the time from critics of sprawl, but no one ever seems to be able to make a serious empirical case for it.

    • Chris Stefan says

      How much has been spent on just building roads? That is a massive subsidy to the automobile and to new development on wherever the greenfield edge happens to be.

      Would many Southwestern cities even exist were it not for the massive water projects that ensure the golf courses and lawns can be watered?

      Many metro areas are starting to slam hard into limits to suburban sprawl. They are running out of land, or at least land within a reasonable commute of the jobs. They are running out of water. They are running out of money to pay for new infrastructure to feed new greenfield developments.

      On the other side of the coin we see demand for new urban development. We see run down neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying. We see a migration back to the central city in many areas.

      • says

        How much was spent on building railroads? For every mile of track the railroads were granted one square mile of land on alternating sides of the ROW. The railroads were built because it took too long to go west in a horse drawn wagon. It’s not about the technology.

        The automotive industry is a net contributor to tax revenue. Sure the interstate system was a federal giveaway. It would have been great if someone had seen the inequity and the near death experience it brought to the railroads but we have a strong freight system today and it’s growing.

        Passenger rail will/is coming back but will never be able to serve even a fraction of the population door to door. Transportation, including transit is always going to need roads. It’s amusing how transit advocates talk about the giant subsides for cars and then turn around a want a piece of the tax revenue generated by driving; gas tax (State and Federal), Sales tax on cars, parts, repairs and accessories, MVET, license tabs. Public transit is totally dependent on support from tax dollars but somehow it’s roads that have this huge government subsidy?

      • Chris Stefan says

        My point isn’t that other transportation modes haven’t received subsidies, they have. Take a look at air travel for another example. My point is sprawl and auto-oreinted development has received massive subsidies as well, often at the expense of center cities.

  12. cannon says

    How much has been spent on just building roads? That is a massive subsidy to the automobile

    Roads are funded mainly through user fees – gasoline and vehicle taxes. How is this a “massive subsidy” to the automobile? Transit users, in contrast, pay only about 27% of the cost of providing transit services. That bus or subway ride for which you pay $1-2 dollars actually costs more like $4-5 dollars to provide. If anyone if massively subsidized, it’s transit users, not drivers.

    On the other side of the coin we see demand for new urban development. We see run down neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying. We see a migration back to the central city in many areas.

    Census Bureau data shows that even in recent years population growth in suburbs has far outstripped population growth in central cities. Many major central cities have in fact lost population since the turn of the century, continuing the trend of suburbanization that goes back at least as far as the end of World War II. I see no serious evidence of any significant “back to the city” movement. Just anecdotes and isolated instances.

    • Jim Cusick says

      Doesn’t it occur to anyone to ask why a private enterprise didn’t compete with the Interurban lines by building a parallel toll road using private money?

      Is it any wonder why the Interurban lines went out of business, when they were competing with what was a ‘free’ service to the users?

      Here’s another fun book:
      Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City
      by Scott L. Bottles

      Great book. No agenda, it just describes why LA did what it did.

      Generally, road building was a major ‘social engineering’ project to protect ‘the people’ from the transit companies.

      Jim

      • says

        None of the Interurban lines were built exclusively with private money and most were 100% publicly funded. The more you argue free market the more you advocate for the elimination of public transit. Beyond that, you’re advancing the position that publicly funded transit should have no bearing on zoning of land development.

      • Zed says

        “None of the Interurban lines were built exclusively with private money and most were 100% publicly funded”

        That is absolutely false. The majority of streetcar and interurban systems in the early 1900’s were privately owned and financed. It wasn’t until the systems began to falter, due to the increase in car ownership and publicly funded road building, that reformists pushed for local municipalities to buy out the systems.

      • says

        This is absurd. I would like to see Bernie provide even one example of an interurban line built with public funding. It certainly would not be the Huntingdon empire in Los Angeles. My own guess is that there might be one or two lines built with public money, but I’m guessing that because there’s always an oddball exception, not because I can actually think of any.

      • says

        I stand corrected. The interurban lines and even in city rail were privately financed. And so were the electric utilities that provided the traction power. It seems they were doing pretty well until governments took them over or clobbered them with anit-trust regulation. More and better roads were the final nail in the coffin.

  13. Chris Stefan says

    If you add up all the money ever collected in gas and vehicle taxes it doesn’t begin to match the amount spent since 1920 building and maintaining roads and highways.

    Furthermore road building is a massive subsidy to sprawl. Those greenfield developments aren’t nearly so attractive if you can’t get to them.

    • says

      If roads are so heavily subsidized, where does the money come from? Show me for example in the current State Budget where road construction dollars come from and tell me please how much federal money in excess of the money collected from the Federal gas tax, MVET, excise tax on tires, etc. is going to road construction. If you can provide some specifics then maybe we can address the alleged inequity.

      I suppose the $8B for HSR all came from railroad use taxes?

      • Jim Cusick says

        Money for roads is spread around like butter.

        Politics determines who gets what monies, not by who drives on what roads.

        If a given road segment was able to generate revenue, it would be a toll road. About the only road where the gas tax actually could be construed to be paying for the road is one which required minimum property takes to expand and existed as a heavily congested suburban arterial for its 30 year lifespan.

        The gas tax is NOT a user fee, since what it happening is that I am being taxed excessively to pay for projects that benefit a few.

        To translate that last statement, it is blindly assumed that congestion relief on urban highways is paid for by the users, since they pay a gas tax. However, as I drive during non-commute hours, and on non-congested routes, my gas tax contribution is not being spent on my roads proportionately. It is going to subsidize those who demand an uncongested commute.

        I’ve estimated that the users of freeways receiving congestion relief (i.e. I-405 project, of which the Bellevue-Renton portion is being built right now), pay around 10% of the cost.

        And by the way, Federal dollars aren’t “free”. They are tax dollars collected from us. Actually, before 2000, Washington State was a net receiver of federal funding. In other words, people in other states were subsidizing us. The problem with funding our projects now is that we have now become one of the ‘donor’ states who still have interstates to finish.

        That’s why there’s such a funding shortfall for all the local mega-projects, we’re finding out what it costs when we have to pay for everything.

        Why do think there has never been a ‘Roads-Only’ version of Prop 1?

        You bring up a good point about where all the money is coming from… essentially, it isn’t. Gas tax revenue has been dropping with higher mileage cars and people driving less. However, the more insidious issue is how these mega-expansion projects are being funded. Deferred maintenance. The I-35 bridge in Minnesota, for example.

        Jim

      • says

        That’s why there’s such a funding shortfall for all the local mega-projects, we’re finding out what it costs when we have to pay for everything.

        A lot of what you said I agree with. But the reason we have a funding shortfall on the 520 replacement is because most of the cost isn’t for the roadway replacement but all sorts of parks projects which have no source of revenue on their own.

        I strongly agree that special purpose roads such as 520 should be tolled, and tolled heavily. Other special purpose “roads” would include ferries which should per mile carry the same burden as 520.

      • Zed says

        A tax is a tax is a tax. It all comes from the same place in the end. Is it really worthwhile to be debating where taxes for roads come from and where taxes for transit come from? There is a finite amount of tax money that the populous is willing to part with, so shouldn’t the real debate be focused on what we want that tax money to go to in the future? As far as roads being “subsidized” I think it’s fairly obvious that the cost of automobile based transportation goes far beyond the price of building and maintaining roads. So is it really possible to calculate to what extent roads are subsidized and to use that to make any meaningful comparison to the cost of public transit?

      • dang says

        Just want to point out that perhaps a tax is a tax is a tax, but its not like the federal government has been doling out funds that are backed by taxing measures to compensate for the spending. We have a deficit, have had a deficit and will continue to have a deficit for some time to come.

        As far as costs, for roadways and the other related infrastructures necessitated by the proliferation of cars and a built environment that continues to caterer primarily to cars, its hard to track the costs sure, but consider these thoughts: Where did the first costs for the interstate system come from to do the initial massive build out in the 1950s? Are the true costs for the massive infrastructure that supports cars, roadways and an auto-centric lifestyle really accounted for? I’m thinking about our expenditures as a nation to “safeguard” a cheap supply of petroleum. Or the expense associated with rectifying the environmental damage to air, water and land. Or the massive burden placed on municipalities to provide, upgrade, expand and maintain infrastructure that serves private enterprise. Or the expenses individual municipalities agree to eat in order to lure development to their domain.

  14. cannon says

    If you add up all the money ever collected in gas and vehicle taxes it doesn’t begin to match the amount spent since 1920 building and maintaining roads and highways.

    Please present the data on tax revenues and highway spending to support this assertion.

    • Chris Stefan says

      You first. After all you are the one asserting roads aren’t subsidized. Remember too that public spending on roads includes much more than just highways.

    • Jim Cusick says

      Just go to your local library, cannon.

      Its in the reference section where the city budgets are kept.

      Look up the specific projects and it will explain.

      In general, approximately 65% of the average road project is covered by the gas tax.

      Jim

    • Jim Cusick says

      Read the book:
      “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”
      by Robert Caro

      Wikipedia has a overview:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_Broker
      but from reading the book you can see that Robert Moses was using money from all over the place (besides highway funds) to help build his projects. HUD money to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway for instance. And all of those quaint little ‘Parkways’ that lace the local suburban counties surrounding NYC? They were ‘connecting roads’ between his parks, and were built with the help of Parks money.

      Great idea, find the the documentation that shows in detail where all of them money comes from around here.

      You won’t, until we decide to treat road building like we do transit projects.
      Set up the project list, put a price tag on it, include the funding sources, and put it up for a vote. Maybe that will clear up the discussion.

      Jim

  15. cannon says

    After all you are the one asserting roads aren’t subsidized.

    No, I said roads are funded mainly through user fees – gasoline and vehicle taxes. You can find financial data in the Bureau of Transportation Statistic’s report of Financial Statistics, and passenger-mile data in its report National Transportation Statistics.

    For 2001, the most recent year for which data is reported, highway subsidies (expenditures minus revenues) were $23,726 million. Highway passenger-miles were 4,643,794 million. So the highway subsidy was about HALF A CENT per passenger-mile. If you do the math for any other year you will find a similar figure.

    For transit, subsidies were $19,733 million. Passenger-miles were 49,070 million. So the transit subsidy was about 40 CENTS per passenger mile.

    So we subsidize transit at a rate EIGHTY TIMES GREATER than we subsidize highways. And this vastly greater transit subsidy has existed for as long as the BTS has collected data.

    • mike_w says

      cannon I believe you mean that current HIGHWAY projects are mostly from user fees. The local roads that I use everyday are not.

      Of course you ignore the initial capital expense that was from the Feds, and the fact that highways are far behind in being kept up (a drive on I5 north of Seattle makes me think my car is falling apart for instance)

    • Andrew Smith says

      There are two big problems with what you are saying.

      First, you’re ignoring externalities. Cars are highly pollutant compared to transit (see graph above) and thus shouldn’t be subsidized at all. Also, driving causes congestion which is hugely expensive. Both of these externalities are not paid by the driver but should be.

      Second, you’re including a ton of expensive para-transit and on demand transit with normal passenger service. Para-transit is a service for the disabled and on demand transit is general for the disabled and the elderly. Including these low-ridership, high-cost systems along with normal passenger service (as the statistics you site do) dramatically inflates the “subsidy” for transit.

      • says

        Andrew,
        If you’re saying we need more diesel cars I would agree. But, I also think buses need to clean up their act. Man, they stink. Even over here on the eastside the stench from buses is obnoxious. It’s even more obnoxious that off peak those buses are virtually empty. Really, diesel with current technology is much better than gasoline; especially for cars. Look to Europe for cars that are clean, quite and kick ass. I love hot rods and big old V8 muscle cars but they’re not transportation; they’re an avocation.

        The non transit stuff (Access, DART) is important but it’s also really important that we separate the mandated services from transit.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Luckily in the city most of the buses are electric trolley-numbers! Another reason to live in the city I guess…

        Also, I’m pretty sure those metro buses you are complaining about are diesel buses (or diesel-electric hybrids)…

      • says

        A prime reason to not live in the city. Buses stink and there’s even more stinky buses in the city. Bikes and buses don’t mix. Even if they are running on overhead wires the fact that electric peak demand is largely met by oil burning plants only shifts the burden.

        Seriously we do need to shift public policy toward “clean” diesel. I know that sounds like an oxymoron but given that the trade off is gasoline there are significant benefits to promoting a changeover of our refining capacity to diesel.

      • Andrew Smith says

        A prime reason not to live in the city is that the buses are electric instead of the diesel buses you called stinky?

        Not following the logic.

      • says

        Except for the tunnel what areas of Seattle are exclusively electric?

        Metros fleet:
        156 electric trolly buses
        236 Hybrid (less stinky)
        879 Diesel buses

        http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/air/cars/diesel_exhaust_information.htm“>Diesel exhaust doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. Mercedes is able to meet even California’s tough emissions standards (GM had the same system ready for 2010 but they’re having a wee bit of financial problems just now). While cars and light trucks have met increasingly ridged pollution requirements heavy diesels (including but not limited to buses ferries and trains) are lightly regulated and enforcement barely exists.

      • John Jensen says

        Even if they are running on overhead wires the fact that electric peak demand is largely met by oil burning plants only shifts the burden.

        How many power plants in America are burning oil?

      • John Jensen says

        Right, and the energy profile of the PNW and Seattle in specific is very different than the rest of the US.

      • says

        Which is interesting but irrelevant since we’re talking about a west coast grid (we send power to CA in the summer and get power from CA in the winter. Hydro is tapped out and the nuclear plants don’t have any excess capacity to offer now either. That’s why we have places like the Centralia Plant to meet peak demands. The energy for Acela real does come from the same source as the steam engines of yesteryear.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      You’re completely ignoring the lack of a sales tax on gasoline, as well as all of the negative externalities associated with driving, which society at large pays for.

    • Zed says

      I think your calculation ends up comparing apple to oranges. There are a ton of highway passenger miles in those statistics that occur on interstate highways outside of metro areas that were paid for decades ago by the defense highway act. How about coming up with those numbers for a metro area and then comparing? There are a million ways to come up with statistics for either side, it doesn’t mean that they are meaningful or fair.

  16. Jim Cusick says

    One problem with the comparisons you’re making cannon is that the totals are for the whole country, not broken down into competing corridors.

    Transit doesn’t cover the same miles the road system does.

    Jim

    • says

      Transit doesn’t cover the same miles the road system does.

      And there you have it. In a nutshell, transit relies on roads to cover what it does and still can’t meet the need. Transit is important but attacking roads is so misplaced it’s laughable.

      • Andrew Smith says

        What? Who ever attacked roads? Roads are one thing, giant fatty monster roads are another, and auto-dependency is yet another.

      • says

        Roads can be made more efficient. STB has had a series on how this should be done. WSDOT (the great satin) has done a lot to promote this. City streets with stop and go grid networks are part of the problem. Less exits on I-5 in downtown Seattle are part of the solution. Ultimately, (well right now in Seattle) we need more than road improvements. And there are certainly areas were more roads are more of a problem. Part of the solution must be to shift demand away from these areas.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Sorry if I become very indignant when someone accuses this blog of being anti-roads. I supported both the roads and the transit part of the Prop. 1 in 2007, I own two cars and I have no problem with roads.

        I have a problem with giant mega-roads (smaller roads are often better).
        I have a problem with the amount of money we spend on roads relative to the amount we spend on transit. No one blinks twice when you mention a $11 bn (in 2003 dollars) I-405 widening, but people will debate an $10 bn transit system endlessly when the transit system will in fact move more people (see 2007 prop 1).
        I have a problem with crazy sprawl because it’s expensive (we have to pay to run roads, utilities, etc out there), ugly, and boring.
        I have a problem with badly designed 100% auto-oriented communities.

        But I don’t have a problem with roads, and I’ve argued in favor of roads here before.

      • Chris Stefan says

        Well to circle back to my original point I wasn’t really arguing for or against subsidies for roads. I was simply stating spending on roads is one of the many ways auto-dependency and sprawl has been subsidized.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Another thing, we $5.8 billion of State Gas Tax Money was spent on roads in King County between 2001-2007. That’s twenty years worth of transit spending at 2004 levels (all revenues, farebox, advertising, etc. – not just subsidy) just on state roads.

        Not on gas.

        Not on cars.

        Not on police to patrol the roads.

        Not on parking.

        Not even all roads, local roads are paid for by cities and the county.

        Just on the bloody state roads themselves. twenty years worth. Think, the gas tax is only a fraction of the cost of gas. Think about how much money we’re spending moving cars around.

        That doesn’t include the 520 bridge (20 years worth of transit spending) or the viaduct (12 years).

        And some how still 10% of commute trips were done on transit (about 85% were done in cars). I have no idea how that works, but roads are expensive.

      • Jim Cusick says

        Bernie,

        No one is “attacking” roads.

        I’m only asking the same questions of the road system that are asked of any given transit system.

        One simple one: “Who pays for what, and who receives what benefit?”

        Another good one is: “What determines when a road gets built? Density? Why build a road?”

        Try this one on: “If the rural communities didn’t like the treatment they were receiving from the railroads (Hence the formation of the Grainge associations), why didn’t an industrial person build a competing road to serve them cheaper?”

        The other flavor of that last one is “Why was govermnent money used to pave roads to the rural communities?”

        Jim

  17. cannon says

    mike_w,

    cannon I believe you mean that current HIGHWAY projects are mostly from user fees. The local roads that I use everyday are not.

    No, I mean all roads and highways. As stated in the BTS report, the spending covers:

    Maintenance, operation, repair, and construction of regular highways, streets, roads, alleys, sidewalks, bridges, tunnels, ferry boats, viaducts, and related structures.

  18. says

    For me, the wheels came of the post with this paragraph-

    “But the problem isn’t the suburbs themselves. It’s not even the suburbanites that occupy those houses and drive everywhere. The problem is the government policies that historically let developers do nearly anything with cheap land. It has been a failure at the federal, state, regional, and local levels that we cannot mindlessly blame on suburbanites themselves. Indeed, suburbs are a natural part of the metropolitan framework. Auto-dependency is not: therefore it is a product of poor governmental policies which are a form of social engineering that have accelerated climate change and have led to things like suffering through congestion as a requirement to get to work.”

    So much wrong here. The “government policies that historically let developers do nearly anything” are what we call “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. THERE WERE NO GOVERNMENT POLICIES! That’s why the developers could do “almost anything”.

    Shrugging off the first major hit, we go on to “It has a been a failure at the federal, state, regional, and local levels” that we “cannot mindlessly blame” on the actual voters. It seems a sinister cabal has cleverly conspired to do NOTHING! This is the kind of case that would have intrigued Sherlock Holmes.

    But it gets better- suburbs are a “natural” part of the urban framework, but “car-dependency” is not. How suburbs you can only reach by car are “natural”, while the car you need to get there is not, utterly eludes me.

    So we finally come to the product of this “logic”- the government polices that don’t exist are a form of “social engineering” causing global warming and congestion.

    John, there were no policies or regulations- that’s why developers and buyers could do what they wanted. When the city expanded to take in development on the edges, developers and homebuyers moved further out to another place without regulations. This became really easy for them to do because of the automobile, and the ease with which it was possible to build one road at a time with no overall plan or policy.

    Even the first twenty years of the interstate system were just a huge smash-and-grab with no real planning at all behind what was built. This should be pretty obvious from the fact that they essentially destroyed the places they claimed they were trying to connect.

    And who would I blame other than the voters who live here? The only pre-existing system of land tenure was that of the Indians, which was unwritten, did not include private property, and was totally ignored until the early 70s, when the obligations to the treaties that were made was first recognized in the courts. There was no federal, state, or county policy that needed to be or could be changed until about the 50s. In fact, I have long thought that one reason people moved to the suburbs was to be able to govern themselves, instead of being governed by big-city gangs. It’s pretty hard to find a better example of a blank-slate environment where voters could create the society they wanted.

    It may be that if you do the math, canceling out the double-negatives and filling the negative spaces with the baseless assertions, there is a good idea buried in the post. It might have been better to do that before putting the post up for comments.

  19. cannon says

    Andrew Smith,

    First, you’re ignoring externalities. Cars are highly pollutant compared to transit (see graph above) and thus shouldn’t be subsidized at all.

    This is not true. You need to look more closely at that chart. It does not compare average emissions by mode, but only emissions at selected levels of occupancy. On AVERAGE, transit emits as much, or almost as much, CO2 per passenger-mile as cars.

    Also, driving causes congestion which is hugely expensive. Both of these externalities are not paid by the driver but should be.

    Most roads are not congested at any time, and most roads that do get congested are congested only at certain times of the day and only on certain days. Transit subsidies would only be justified to offset the negative externality costs of road congestion on routes and at times where the road alternative was actually congested, and only in an amount equal to the externality cost of that congestion.
    If you think you can make a serious case that road travel has negative externality costs averaging 40 cents per passenger-mile (the amount we subsidize transit) then please present it. No analysis I have seen suggests that the externality costs of roads are remotely as high as that. A serious quantitative analysis would, of course, also have to calculate the negative externality costs of transit (e.g., CO2 emissions) and factor those into the subsidies calculation.

    • Andrew Smith says

      Now you’re just making things up. It’s ridiculous.

      The chart says co2 per passenger mile. Cars have more. end of story.

  20. cannon says

    Chris Stefan,

    I was simply stating spending on roads is one of the many ways auto-dependency and sprawl has been subsidized.

    But you have produced nothing to support this claim. The data shows that we subsidize road travel at only a TINY FRACTION of the rate at which we subsidize travel by mass transit. Government subsidies provide much greater economic incentives to use mass transit than to drive a private automobile. That is why in most cities you can buy a monthly transit pass that provides unlimited travel for around $50-80. This fee is just a small fraction of what it costs the government to provide the transit services.

    The fact that Americans still do almost all of their traveling by car despite these huge economic incentives to use transit just illustrates how much people value the benefits of car travel – speed, convenience, comfort and flexibility.

    • Chris Stefan says

      Excuse me but do you honestly believe that the total spending on roads and highways over the past 100 years in the US has entirely been covered by “user fees”? If that is the case then I have some Oceanfront property in Wyoming I’d like to sell you.

      Even taking current spending I believe others have shown that the portion of road spending not covered by auto taxes exceeds county spending on transit.

      The very existence of the “user fees” you crow about is a form of social engineering to fund infrastructure for auto related uses. Remember too that right now we’re only talking about the cost of road building and maintenance. Lets not get in to all the other ways auto use is subsidized both directly and indirectly.

      Lets take park & ride lots for instance. This would be an example of transit spending funding auto use by building large free parking facilities. Parking isn’t cheap, a space in a surface lot is a couple thousand per space to build and any sort of parking structure is tens of thousands per space to build.

      • says

        Even taking current spending I believe others have shown that the portion of road spending not covered by auto taxes exceeds county spending on transit.

        King County roads budget is ~$120 Million (85% property tax/ 15% gas tax, sales tax on cars goes to the general fund which doesn’t finance roads). Metro’s operating budget is $600M. About 25% is recovered through fares and other revenue but that’s offset by the capital budget. So at the county level tax payers are putting up five times more for Metro than they are for roads.

      • Oran says

        That’s really not a fair comparison. Metro provides transit service to most of urban King County, over a million people. King County Road Services only maintain roads and bridges in unincorporated King County, around 340,000. When all the urban unincorporated areas get absorbed into cities, the remaining will be the rural population outside the UGA of around 150,000, less than 10% of county population.

      • says

        The subsidy to Metro though is still staggering. It’s about equal to the entire County General Fund (Law enforcement, cost of government, health and human services). Yet, even though fares represent only a quarter of the cost of providing it transit still only provides 10% of the vehicle trips?

  21. cannon says

    Chris Stefan,

    Excuse me but do you honestly believe that the total spending on roads and highways over the past 100 years in the US has entirely been covered by “user fees”?

    No, I don’t believe that. For the third time, the financial data on roads and highways shows that most spending is funded by user fees – mainly gasoline and vehicle taxes. Subsidies amount to about half a cent per passenger-mile. You have provided no evidence whatsoever to support your claim of “massive subsidies” for roads and highways. The mode of transportation that DOES receive massive subsidies is mass transit – about 40 cents per passenger-mile. Transit fares cover only about 27% of the costs of providing transit services. The bus or light rail ride for which transit users pay $1-2 actually costs more like $4-5 to provide to them.

    • John Jensen says

      Sales tax revenue from vehicles going toward roads and the lack of it on gasoline is a subsidization and it is revenue that is unavailable for a host of other governmental investments.

      • says

        Sales tax revenue from vehicles doesn’t go toward roads. In King county a large chunck does go toward transit. Car are one of the few things we pay sales tax on over and over again because they tax used vehicles every time you apply for a change of title. The MVET also stills providing funds to Sound Transit.

        The gas tax is over 18% if you’re paying $3 a gallon. You’re right, that revenue isn’t available for other uses because it’s paying for roads. If you think there should be a sales tax of 9.5% on top of the gas tax I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed but the gas tax is already one if not the most regressive form of taxation we have. Putting the tax back on food would probably be less of a burden on low income wage earners.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        Carving out sales tax on cars and dedicating it to roads would be a subsidy, but yes, that’s not the current situation. Not levying it on gas is also a subsidy.

        As for whether sales tax on gasoline it’s regressive or not, a large chunk of the poor don’t have cars at all and so wouldn’t pay it. If you’re trying to help out the poor that do drive there are much more efficient ways to do it than giving a huge tax break to the middle and upper classes.

        Furthermore, the spending that the additional revenue provides is likely to be extremely progressive. Taking a chunk of cash out of every household that drives and then using it do fund something like health care for the poor, better transit service, or better public education is likely to be a huge net gain for the lower classes.

      • says

        I’m not opposed to the sales tax being added to gas but really, on whole the price of driving back and forth to work is a huge bite out of most low wage incomes. Typically the lowest wage earners are the ones that have to live farthest from their jobs because the close in property is too expensive.

        A better start would be for the legislature to repeal the stupid law that allowed the taxable amount of a car purchased from a dealer to be reduced by the amount claimed as trade in value. But our legislature would rather whine or try to pull additional taxes from the general public than revoke a special give away to a special interest group (the automobile dealers association).

      • John Jensen says

        Many states dedicate their car sales taxes to roads infrastructure — I was undermining his nationwide report not reflecting on our local situation. However, the state does apply an addition 0.3% sales tax to vehicles that goes into the “Nickel” revenue stream.

        I’m not arguing for changing the gas tax — that’s another conversation — but the revenue it generates is a subsidy. For example, if we had a coffee tax that went to coffee factories and infrastructure at the exclusion of other government programs, that’d be a subsidy for the coffee industry. Government should of course be the developer of our roads infrastructure, but it isn’t honest to argue that roads are unsubsidized.

        Moreover, these use taxes aren’t the sole generating source of money: $36 billion from the feds alone for 2008-2010 from the general fund. That’s a lot of money to just glance over. Transit is heavily subsidized, and transit advocates admit that. Roads advocates have to understand that there is heavy subsidization for roads, as well. The difference with the transit subsidy is that it scales better and doesn’t have the severe environmental and health impacts as roads subsidization.

      • says

        The difference with the transit subsidy is that it scales better and doesn’t have the severe environmental and health impacts as roads subsidization.

        The difference is that road subsidies are paid somewhat in correlation with use but transit is subsidized by the population as a whole. Transit may help everybody (so do roads) but the primary benefit is to relatively few. Environmental benefits are dubious. I look out my window and see empty buses going back and forth on 148th Ave NE all day. Even full buses at peak commute are actually only operating at 50% of capacity because they typically end up driving back almost empty. Inner city buses may do better but they’re stopping and starting every couple of blocks. How efficient is that?

      • Martin H. Duke says

        Bernie,

        We don’t have to speculate or reason from first principles on the environmental impacts of transit. The chart’s at the very top of the post.

        Part of what makes transit on 148th unattractive is auto-dependent land use that makes walking unappealing, which is the whole point of the thread!

        If you really think that buses running empty on the Eastside are a waste, an Eastside voice would be really helpful when we start arguing about 20/40/40 and transit cuts.

      • says

        The chart above paints a little different picture than the one on the All Aboard Washington site. See the link is at the bottom of the page titled “Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. The results are fairly close except in the chart above real world bus transit isn’t listed. As Sightline points out in the sources and citations link.

        On its face, bus transit doesn’t do all that well, since many buses around the US run almost empty. Late-night buses carrying only a few passengers are pretty much efficiency duds. But a full bus — like many of the rush hour buses in Cascadia — is quite efficient.

        Also comparing only CO2 emissions of diesel bus to a gasoline powered car doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. Diesel’s excel in this area but are horrid with respect to other pollutants (like NOx).

        Part of what makes transit on 148th unattractive is auto-dependent land use that makes walking unappealing, which is the whole point of the thread!

        148th between NE20th and NE85th is about as transit perfect as you could imagine. At the south end you’ve got retail. The entire west side of the street is multi unit housing and the entire east side is relatively dense employment. It’s a straight shot four lane road that off peak is uncongested. It’s just that hardly anyone needs to go anywhere mid-day. Why is it that so many people in Seattle need to be on a bus at 2 in the afternoon?

        20/40/40 seems to be an idea with perhaps a worthwhile goal but poor implementation. Buses running empty are a waste no matter where they are.

      • John Jensen says

        148th between NE20th and NE85th is about as transit perfect as you could imagine. At the south end you’ve got retail. The entire west side of the street is multi unit housing and the entire east side is relatively dense employment. It’s a straight shot four lane road that off peak is uncongested. It’s just that hardly anyone needs to go anywhere mid-day.

        The 253 runs along this corridor and is one of the busier routes on the Eastside. I used to ride it daily.

        But why it’s no Seattle route is also why that area isn’t Queen Anne. There’s no density aside from the apartment buildings so everything is spread out with massive parking lots in-between. North of 51st it’s single-family. The “retail” is Sears and Fred Meyer (set back with a football field of parking) without a decent walk. Every apartment comes with its own parking spot for “free”. Every retail location has a hundred parking spots for “free”. Clearly the area is designed around automobile use. It isn’t walkable, so why would it be the perfect corridor for transit? It isn’t.

        I think you make the mistake and finding attributes that could give it success, but success in the real world should be learned than predicted.

      • Chris Stefan says

        The 255 gets good all day ridership. It doesn’t quite compare to Seattle routes but for the Eastside it isn’t bad. I don’t think it is an accident that the 255 goes through one of the more walkable/bikable areas of the Eastside.

  22. cannon says

    I’m not arguing for changing the gas tax — that’s another conversation — but the revenue it generates is a subsidy.

    You seem to be confused about the meaning of “subsidy.” A subsidy for road usage would be money used to fund the costs of road construction/maintenance/repair paid by SOMEONE OTHER THAN the road users. A gas tax used to fund roads is NOT a subsidy for roads. It is a user fee. The whole point of buying gas is to enable the driver to use roads. The more he uses roads, the more gas he will buy, and the more he will pay in gas taxes to fund that usage.

    • Zed says

      And you seem to think that every road and highway in the nation was paid for by a gas tax, they weren’t. Take a look at the history of road construction in the US and you’ll see. Yes, current road construction projects are paid for by the gas tax, but you can’t ignore the history of public subsidies to the highway system that got us to where we are today. Public funding of road construction put privately financed transit systems out of business and now it is taking public money to reverse that mistake. The streets of Seattle were not paid for by a “user-fee” but they have been completely turned over to automobile users. Try walking down the middle of the street some day and see how much of a right you have to use the public right-of-way.

      • cannon says

        you can’t ignore the history of public subsidies to the highway system that got us to where we are today

        What history of public subsidies? Show me this alleged history. I keep asking for this assertion to be substantiated with evidence and data, but no one seems able to produce any evidence that it’s true.

      • Zed says

        Alleged history? You can’t be serious. Where do you think the money came from to build the national highway and interstate systems? A gas-tax? Do you really think there was an income stream from gas-taxes to build a highway system before the highway system existed? Do you think that gas taxes were used to build city streets?

      • cannon says

        Zed,

        I asked for evidence and data to substantiate your claim of a “history of public subsidies to the highway system that got us to where we are today.”

        Expressing surprise and asking a bunch of questions is not evidence.

        Can you substantiate your assertion or can’t you? If you can’t, I can only assume your assertion is simply guessing or wishful thinking on your part.

      • Zed says

        Here you go. Tabulated from historic data provided by the Federal Highway Administration. There is not enough space here to post year-by-year data, so I summed it by decade. It also doesn’t include data prior to 1921 because the gas-tax wasn’t implemented until that year. User-revenue includes gas taxes, vehicle taxes and tolls. Other revenue includes property taxes and general fund appropriations. The figures are in millions of dollars and not adjusted for inflation. This includes federal, state and local highway funds. And by the way, I wasn’t making an assertion. It’s history and it’s out there for anyone who cares to learn it.

        Funding for Highways

        User-revenue Other revenue Percent subsidy
        1920 3,484 10,406 74.92%
        1930 8,686 13,551 60.94%
        1940 14,087 9,938 41.37%
        1950 42,700 16,974 28.44%
        1960 104,648 24,965 19.26%
        1970 190,750 64,307 25.21%
        1980 329,152 151,828 31.57%

      • cannon says

        Zed,

        Here you go. Tabulated from historic data provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

        Where are you getting those numbers from? Give us a link.

      • John Jensen says

        How about this: $36 billion from federal funds in the last one year. $8bn general fund => highway trust fund. $28bn stimulus.

      • says

        $36B out of a $3.6 trillion dollar federal budget. 1% is a massive subsidy? What percentage of tax payers benefit from roads; about 100%. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the transfer from the general fund was only $8B (same as what’s been earmarked for HSR). In 2004, governments collected $58 billion in gasoline excise taxes (that doesn’t include the amount collected on Diesel). That total dollar amount has been static or decreasing since 1993. Indexed for inflation that’s more than a 40% cut. What other part of the budget is getting by on 40% less spending? Domestic oil companies pay about twice the amount collected by the gas tax in corporate taxes which isn’t earmarked for roads. We haven’t touched on federal excise tax on tires and new car sales or weight based fees paid by truckers.

        Trying to argue that transit deserves more money because roads are massively subsidized by general tax revenues unrelated to road use just doesn’t fly.

      • John Jensen says

        Your last sentence is a straw man. Cannon is claiming that roads are funded purely from use taxes and he is obviously wrong.

        $36 billion is a large figure, and factoring that as a percentage of our budget is just meaningless — transit is also less than 1% of the budget, so I guess your concern don’t matter? 36,000,000,000 is a lot more than zero. Would you dispute that?

      • cannon says

        John Jensen,

        Cannon is claiming that roads are funded purely from use taxes and he is obviously wrong.

        No, I have not claimed that roads are funded PURELY from use taxes. Roads are funded MAINLY from use taxes. This is about the fourth time I have had to correct this misrepresentation of what I wrote.

    • John Jensen says

      A subsidy for road usage would be money used to fund the costs of road construction/maintenance/repair paid by SOMEONE OTHER THAN the road users.

      I do not rely on Wikipedia but will quote it show a consensus definition of “subsidy”:

      In economics, a subsidy (also known as a subvention) is a form of financial assistance paid to a business or economic sector. A subsidy can be used to support businesses that might otherwise fail, or to encourage activities that would otherwise not take place.

      Would there be a highway infrastructure on this scale without government funding? No.

      Of course, the government should create transportation infrastructure to remain competitive. But yes, government funding of highway infrastructure is a subsidy. A toll is a user fee. Raising revenue in California to build highways in Arkansas is not a user fee.

    • Jim Cusick says

      Cannon,

      “A gas tax used to fund roads is NOT a subsidy for roads. It is a user fee. ”

      You need to clear up one thing. How do you allocate what portion of the gas tax goes to the roads I drive on?

      Are you allocating the (approx) 2 cents per mile I am contributing in gas tax to the roads I drive on?

      How are you using that money? Are the roads in my local neighborhoods getting repaved in accordance with the money spent?
      Or are they being spent on projects such as the widening of I-405. I rarely drive on I-405, and certainly not during the heavily congested commute hours that this construction is adressing. If I am being taxed and money is going to benefit someone else, then I am Subsidizing them. Why not allocate only the gas tax paid by the users of I-405 for that project?

      Actually, maybe the argument needs to be defined more precisely, such as “What exactly are we building and why?”

      Do we build new roads to ‘relieve congestion’? What about rural highways? Is there enough ‘ridership’ to justify their existence?

      The gas tax is NOT a user fee. A toll is a user fee, just as a fare is a user fee.

      Jim

  23. CriticalWonk says

    This whole conversation is getting really confusing. How much was spent on roads versus transit over a hundred years based on today’s dollars and how was it funded seems to be one debate. Operations and maintenance and how it is paid for is another.

    I agree setting priorities and payment mechanisms is a tangible issue for now. I like to look at the aggregate costs, no matter where the payment comes from. Doesn’t the IRS allow around $.40 per mile driven? So, calculating the aggregate investment in operating an automobile might pertain. Then, there is the fact that cars occupy public space that could have been used differently.

    What am I driving at? Not the end of cars or the end of roads. But, there is a valid social interest, yes it’s a redistribution of wealth, to subsidize mass transit for all who will use it. If someone who could have afforded the $.40 per mile cost of driving takes transit, then it’s a wash. People who cannot afford a car are subsidized. Sounds like a good deal to me. Better mileage, hybrids, car pooling, etc., are other forms that should be rewarded.

    Still, if the predictable future of either mode has that kind of operating expense, why not go ahead and make the I-90 funnel and the 520 bridge rail ready?

    • cannon says

      What am I driving at? Not the end of cars or the end of roads. But, there is a valid social interest, yes it’s a redistribution of wealth, to subsidize mass transit for all who will use it. If someone who could have afforded the $.40 per mile cost of driving takes transit, then it’s a wash. People who cannot afford a car are subsidized. Sounds like a good deal to me. Better mileage, hybrids, car pooling, etc., are other forms that should be rewarded.

      Your argument here is totally incomprehensible. Where does your figure of “$.40 per mile cost of driving” come from? And what is the alleged social interest in subsidizing mass transit “for all who will use it” rather than just for poor people? How large a subsidy for transit (in cents per passenger-mile) is justified by this alleged social interest?

      Simply waving your hand and declaring that current transit subsidies, whatever their size, are justified on the grounds of vague allusions to helping the poor is not serious analysis of transportation funding policy.

      • CriticalWonk says

        http://www.irs.gov/taxpros/article/0,,id=156624,00.html shows some relationship to costs which are not overly generous. I certainly take a reimbursement when forced to drive for work related reasons.

        Funding anything built or maintained by the public means we are asking who pays and who benefits, yes? Separating what we pay in taxes from what we pay period means that we are not adding up all the numbers that need to be added up.

    • says

      yes it’s a redistribution of wealth, to subsidize mass transit for all who will use it. If someone who could have afforded the $.40 per mile cost of driving takes transit, then it’s a wash. People who cannot afford a car are subsidized.
      That was true in Atlanta 50 years ago but I’m not so sure it’s valid today; at least not in the Puget Sound. The majority of the ridership is commuting to/from work but the types of jobs served by transit here are to a great extent high paying white collar.

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