If there isn’t a “war on cars,” why isn’t there one? After all cars are the leading producer of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Also, the automobile as a form of transportation has been the central to a social engineering project that promotes far-flung single-family homes woven together by a web of expensive highways, punctuated by shopping malls.

But a war? Of course not. Even though Kemper Freeman quite unabashedly has declared war on transit in our region on behalf of the car, we (transit advocates, pedestrian advocates, environmentalists etc.) aren’t at war. We’re engaged in “messaging.” Messaging is another way of saying “persuading people to do the right thing,” and it’s failing.

The failure of Proposition 1 in my estimation is due to several factors not the least of which is a tough economy. But I think the other side had, to be consistent with my colleagues’ language, a better message. “Why spend your cash on elaborate and fanciful transit planning efforts when you just busted your axle on a gigantic pothole?” they asked. “And those Prop 1 people are just trying to get you out of your car.”

“Absolutely not!” answered the other side. The Prop 1 message was all about how spending $60 on registering your car would help fund things that you wouldn’t use—unless you got out of your car. “This isn’t a war on cars, it’s an effort to make all modes safer and faster.” More after the jump.

Some of my erstwhile colleagues are probably a bit annoyed with my Crosscut article a while back describing how I decided to vote ‘yes.’ My public deliberations are “off message” probably because I talk about “making it harder to drive.” Those words are forbidden in my circles because it gives credence to the idea that we’re waging a war on cars.

The campaign and all of us are in a tough spot when it comes to this messaging. Reveal that what the outcome of what we’re doing will do is lead to less driving and we lose the driver, which means most people.

But deny the simmering “war on cars” and we risk having a very public and embarrassing Captain Renault moment when we declare, “I’m shocked! Shocked that you’d suggest that we’re waging a ‘war on cars'”

How about this as a message: tell the truth. Cars are awesome. I love cars. I have my own Aston Martin fantasy and everything. But cars as a primary  mode of transportation are headed for the dustbin of history. It took 100 years for the car to emerge as the dominant form of transportation in the United States. There is nothing that says we can’t reverse that trend.

But if that is going to happen, we do need to create policies that increase the costs of driving and decrease the costs of other modes. That means density, so that transit is efficient and affordable. We are at war, not so much against the car, but against a conceptual framework built around the idea that somehow we can simultaneously subsidize cars while trying to coax people out of them with data. That is a war we have not alternative but to win.

53 Replies to “Proposition 1 Fails: Got the Message?”

  1. “…we do need to create policies that increase the costs of driving and decrease the costs of other modes…”

    Hopefully without punishing work-service or freight vehicles…I drive a van around for work to (guess what) work on transit equipment (electronics). I don’t want that to become unnecessarily difficult or expensive for my company.

    1. Why not? That will become expensive eventually anyway. Converting our economy away from a car-based one before oil becomes expensive will help your company in the long run. If it’s the type of freight that must travel over roads, you could actually benefit in a world with more expensive driving – there will be fewer cars in your way.

    2. I’m with Matt on this. An increase in that cost is a *tiny* component of transit overall. And because it’ll be imposed on all your competitors as well, you can pass it on in contract costs.

    3. Also with Matt. The “war” should be on greenhouse gas emissions because climate change is the biggest, most difficult, and most important problem facing humanity. Pricing them at full value would make people take them into account as they make economic decisions. That only works if every polluter is treated equally, so everyone has incentives to reduce pollution and efficient solutions are found. We might, in fact, not yet know what the most efficient solutions are, so we shouldn’t just make people exempt because they work in industries we think we like.

    4. “Hopefully without punishing work-service or freight vehicles…”

      Transit, biking, and pedestrian advocates are natural allies with trucking and work-service companies. The trouble is, each group is too busy being suspicious of the other to realize it. Every driver that is given a viable choice to use transportation other than their personal car is a driver not clogging up the roads or endangering cyclists.

      The problem is “creating more choices” comes across to the unconverted as “forcing people out of their cars” or “making drivers pay more”. There are enough people around who want to use their car less, or not at all, that simply providing efficient choices will improve things. Sightline’s series on “Dude, where’s my cars?” has shown that in many instances, the love affair with the car was already on the decline before the recession hit. Meanwhile, transit ridership, and other non-auto modes, continues to climb.

      Our culture still seems to think car drivers pay for all the roads but anybody who briefly looks city budgets knows that is not the case. “Making drivers pay more” really is more about exposing and correcting hidden subsidies.

    5. There seems to be some encouraging prospects of electric based delivery systems for short hall delivery that could even potentially be cheaper than petrol based alternatives.

      Both wind and solar can be brought online quickly and with low environmental impacts. In the fraction of the time it takes to bring a natural gas based peaker or nuclear facility online, we could build equivalent output with zero emissions. Further prospects in hydrogen and we could move ourselves rapidly away from oil. But it will take a unified effort akin to winning a war to accomplish this. It means our oil industries will eventually convert to only supplying oil for petrochemicals and things like rubber for tires. It means we stop sending a $Trillion each year out of the country that makes our balance of trade lopsided. It means not having to spend a $Trillion each year on defense of this dwindling resource.

  2. I voted against it because:

    1) On top of the King County hike, I was looking at a doubling of my car tabs. If it weren’t a regressive tax (Thank you Tim Eyman) I might have been more inclined to vote for it.

    2) Many of the things I wanted were things I had already voted for. Sidewalks North of 85th for example. All the money allocated for those projects got sucked to other projects, I have no reason to believe it wouldn’t happen again.

    3) Those hipster [ad hominem] at the SECB recommended 2 people they themselves said were unqualified, so I figured all their recommendations were an ironic art piece, so I strongly considered just using their guide to know who not to vote for.

    1. 1) Yes, obvious costs are harder to swallow. Small percentages over large numbers of purchases are harder to understand, and therefore easier to pass.

      2) Yes, the results were not clear or binding.

      3) Why do you think they made those recommendations? It’s often ok to have an unqualified person if they can do less *damage* than the current person.

      1. Regarding #3, the SECB wasn’t advocating a “lesser of two evils” model when they endorsed Pusey over Rasmussen or Ferguson over Clark (they went so far as to call Ferguson a “dolt”). They were advocating reducing Rasmussen’s and Clark’s total % of votes received to make them look less formidable in future races so legitimate contenders might emerge. Not necessarily a horrible strategy, but I agree with Darkmane that the way the SECB presented their endorsements made it hard to take them seriously. If they hated both candidates so much, why not endorse a viable write in candidate instead?

      2. Sometimes I get the sense that the Stranger is more interested in never meeting a liberal, ERR “progressive”, candidate or cause they don’t like than actual good governance.

    2. Voting against something because the Stranger says to vote for it is a flatly stupid thing to do. I mean, that’s not actually why you voted against Prop 1, so it doesn’t reflect badly on you. The Stranger’s voting recommendations, anyway, were perfectly earnest, reflecting the disaffection the authors feel toward their representatives and our peculiar electoral process. These feelings don’t become “ironic” when you don’t feel them any more than complex ideas become “pretentious” when you don’t understand them.

      But we seriously, seriously do need to stop screwing over the neighborhoods without sidewalks. First, because completing the sidewalk network will make it easier to sell various improvements we need all over the city (including/especially in areas that currently don’t have sidewalks). Second, and more importantly, because it’s simple social justice. If we need to fix the sewer system (as I’ve read) so that more pavement isn’t such an environmental problem then we need to FIX THE FREAKING SEWER SYSTEM ALREADY. We should do that even if we don’t build any sidewalks. We should do it yesterday, if not years ago.

      1. For those that don’t know about this issue (because it isn’t discussed much), here’s my understanding: Much of Seattle has combined sewer systems – your roof drain can be hooked up to the same sewer pipes as your toilet. This is bad. Why it’s bad is that the enemy to sewage treatment systems is water – when it rains a huge amount of water flows into our treatment systems, which can cause raw sewage to dump into the Sound. To compensate, we’ve been building and building our sewage treatment systems, when the real solution is to build a rain water system seperately from our sewage system. This is massively expensive and complex (for example: is the gutter of my 110 yr old house attached to the sewer? or does it just go to a french drain, diffusing into the ground? it’s difficult and expensive to find out). But it needs to be done, and it’s costing us more every year to treat our sewage until we deal with this.

      2. You’re both right, but sidewalk construction isn’t necessarily tied to ‘fixing’ the sewer system as much as it is adding capacity. The single largest portion of a lot of new sidewalk construction in Seattle is dealing with drainage. Traditional curb/gutter sidewalks in neighborhoods without sidewalks often mean putting in the drainage that wasn’t built when the neighborhood was. You can look at some of the alternative options to try to get around the issue, you can hope that natural drainage helps save some costs, but in the end it’s going to be horribly expensive to retrofit all Seattle neighborhoods without sidewalks. Best bet for the time being is focusing on safe routes to schools, transit access, and arterials. Which is most of what we’re doing, albeit slowly.

    3. I could support the Stranger’s reasoning in other cases, but not to lose one of the most pro-transit incumbents we have. It’s not irony; the Stranger does research and makes serious endorsements. Their recommendations are worth considering, in spite of their potty-mouth hyperbole. But they don’t value transit and density as much as some of us do, so they sometimes ignore positive credentials in those areas.

    1. That’s why gas taxes are so great! Too bad they’re constitutionally limited to being spent on highways only.

      1. Gas taxes aren’t even high enough to keep up with highway needs. And with increased fuel economy and alternatively fueled vehicles, it will only get worse.

  3. I know lots of people have tried many ways to make clear how much money we spend individually and collectively to enable an SOV-dominated transportation system (and society). But I don’t think anyone has made it simple enough for everyone to understand. For most people the costs are so spread out and abstracted into one-time, monthly and annual payments that nobody has a clue what it all costs. This doesn’t include the costs that can’t be measured in dollar values (quality of life, pollution, etc).

    Until most people understand just how much society spends on enabling this auto-centric society, we can’t move ahead. The only thing that seems to have an impact is the price at the pump and highway tolls.

      1. That and employer subsidized parking! OMG, my company pays over $100 month in reimbursements for parking.

  4. If you create a society where cars are necessary, then you can’t turn on people and say “bad people for using cars”. You have to re-architect the entire living pattern to get where you want to get.

    1. Wow, a Bailo post I 100% agree with. Truly this is a sign of the apocalypse.

      As many good reasons as there are to discourage automobile use, we live in a city where for a great many people the automobile is synonymous with mobility. “Slightly faster buses to all the places they currently go” just isn’t going to sell a tax on cars and transit reliability improvements that could very well make car commuting worse.

    2. Within the City of Seattle, a private car is a luxury, not a necessity. Kent, maybe a necessity. Maple Valley, definately. But Prop 1 didn’t raise car fees in those places, just in Seattle.

      1. My 17 mile commute takes over an hour and a half by Metro. My wife works slightly off hours (so she can’t take an express bus) her 6 mile commute takes over an hour on Metro.

        We both live in Seattle. Now she drives and pays for parking. 10-15 minutes each way.

        I’ve reached my limit of 3 hours of daily commuting so I’m going to go buy a car this weekend.

        We both live and work in Seattle. A car is not a luxury for us, it is a neccesary for us to get our valuable time back.

      2. I’m curious. Did Prop 1’s failure have anything to do with your decision? It could certainly just be coincidence that Seattle just set the value at getting around faster by bus at below $60, right before you buy a car. But it sure seems connected.

      3. @Matt

        Has nothing to do with the decision. The $60 car tabs is nothing compared to the insurance, maintanence, and fuel of the car. All of that added up, it’s still worth it. There are real problems with some of the Metro routes here, and I don’t see them getting fixed anytime soon.

      4. Chad, Seattle is not there yet. Seattle’s built space is predominately single family homes, many on medium size lots with setbacks (e.g. front yards), wide drive ways, multiple car garages, on steep hills or craggy valleys.

        Right now, for the vast majority of people that live in the city of Seattle, a car is still a necessity. The Transit system is only useful for limited purposes (e.g. to downtown or U-District) and much of that requires substantial costs of time to ride.

        But there is substantial change happening in bringing density to several neighborhoods and the upcoming services changes to Metro will make many routes more efficient and connections potentially easier to make. So, there will be an increasing trend where transit becomes more viable for more people. But because our built space is as it is, it will in my view not be in our life times before we can truly say a car is a luxury in the city.

        But then again, peak oil could make your position quite true.

      1. I’m sure he didn’t intend to include himself in the people he’s talking to. In other words, he’s accusing us of “social engineering”, not himself.

  5. “we do need to create policies that increase the costs of driving”

    We actually only have to wait here. The cost of fossil fuel is rising as the easy to get oil is gone.

    Thing is a city that gets ready for this by spending on infrastructure to support that future will do better than if it waits for it to happen. The most egregious recent example is spending $2Billion on the waterfront tunnel for cars. When that same $2B could have bought miles of Light Rail to say West Seattle & Ballard eliminating the need for so many cars to need a tunnel in the first place.

    1. Then imagine a world where just 25%[1] of the Indians and Chinese end up with American-sized addiction to oil. Two of them (625 million + growth) for every one American (308 million + growth) demanding that same hard-to-get should-really-stay-in-ground oil. Couple that with continued speculation in oil commodities, and maybe a recession that affects North America worse than Asia and South America… interesting times indeed.

      [1] Mostly because Bogotá has just a ~27% private car ownership rate (yet somehow still suffers from chronic congestion) and also that 25% works out nicely to 2:1.

      1. Link it to a website for the true cost of raising children, we will achieve Zero Population Growth! oh wait

  6. “Even though Kemper Freeman quite unabashedly has declared war on transit in our region on behalf of the car.”

    One of the dumbest statements I have ever read on this blog.

    1. Equating Kemper Freeman with the bogeyman is an accepted theme on this blog. A lot of it has to do with Freeman’s wealth and political positions, but a lot of it just has to do with Seattle’s contempt for the Eastside. That’s also a pretty strong theme on this blog.

      1. AP: I’m not sure why you say that this blog has contempt for the Eastside. There have been dozens of posts on this blog about East Link. Most of these posts start with the assumption that East Link is a highly important regional priority. Other posts have focused on RapidRide B, transit-oriented development on the Eastside, and the Eastside transit network in general.

        There are certainly commenters and guest posters who aren’t huge fans of the Eastside, but they’re hardly representative of the blog, any more than anyone else is.

        Can you cite a specific example of a post by a regular contributor (not a guest post) which you believe shows contempt for any particular part of Puget Sound?

        You’re definitely right that there’s no love lost for Kemper Freeman, but does that really surprise you? We’re talking about a man who single-handedly spent over a million dollars of his money in an attempt to ban congestion pricing and stop East Link. Would you expect a labor union blog to speak well of Walmart’s CEO?

      2. Aleks, I was referring mostly to comments. Most of the posts on this blog are pretty straight journalism–that’s why I keep reading the blog. Comments are a different matter entirely. There’s a lot of uninformed contempt on these pages.

    2. If Kemper had ever lifted a finger to support Transit of any kind, except for the personal helicopter, I’d agree with you. Seriously, he’d get much more traction if he had pushed an itiative to fund and build a comprehenisve Eastside BRT system. Instead, he just fights Sound Transit while building more parking in a city already choking on “free” parking…

      I’d probably vote for it.

  7. It’s not cars that are the problem, it’s cars that burn gasoline or deseil fuel. The battle is to find clean energy now, not incrimentally over the next 25 to 50 years.

    1. While removing the toxic exhaust from cars would be awesome, it would not solve other problems cars create: the cars would still demand massive parking infrastructure, the cars would still easily congest (what city has paved their way out of congestion?), and the cars would likely still promote the associated construction and maintenance costs of low density development splashed out to the Cascades. So no, I still see cars as a problem, even without their exhaust.

      1. As an example: have you noticed what you drive on? Effectively, rocks soaked in oil. This needs to be redone every decade or two as heavy vehicles break up the surface. Of course there’s an alternative: concrete. But that’s massively energy and resource intensive (plus I believe concrete is still made with coal here in WA). And we could also go into how space-inefficient a car-based world is.

        Cars exist because of cheap oil. Electric cars will probably exist after oil, but they will be expensive.

      2. (wandering off topic) I went to verify that WA concrete is made using coal. Yep, 50% of their feedstock in Seattle is coal. Terrible for both our health locally, but also one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters.

        Great article from the pavement industry here, complete with pictures of the process.

      3. Yes. And that brings up another oil-dependant product an electric vehicle uses: rubber. Good luck finding a suitable replacement once oil becomes expensive. Though I guess we could always re-open Fordlandia.

      1. Finally, someone else has come out and said the obvious, which is what I’ve been saying to my friends for years. People keep saying they want to get fuel-efficient cars and that will definitely help with pollution levels. But, replacing a 1993 Buick with a 2012 Toyota Prius will still crowd the roads just as much. Now, take that car off the road, as well as another 20-25 cars and replace that with one bus, then you can start to free up some capacity on the roads.

      2. Cinesea: It’s all about scarcity. The scarcity of fuel affects all drivers. The scarcity of built space and road capacity only affects people who live in relatively-dense urban environments. Thus, the former has been a bigger political priority.

        As far as this “green” stuff goes, I may be a hardcore hippie, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that fuel economy is about anything other than saving money.

        I’ve long advocated for both a carbon tax and a VMT tax, the latter of which is higher in areas with more traffic and/or less capacity. The former internalizes the externality of pollution, and the latter does the same for congestion. They’re two separate problems, and we should address them separatel.

  8. We still have a long way to go with the “war against cars”, but it should be more accurately named, “war against inefficiency’s”. Inefficient means of transportation that pollute the environment are only going to become more congested unless we DO SOMETHING!

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