September 26, 2004
The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)
hen you drive into San Diego on Interstate 15, you can see the highway of the future. In fact, you can see two different versions of it in the same lanes.
In the center of each of the express lanes are faint black smudges, each a couple inches in diameter, spaced at intervals 1.2 meters apart. Beneath each smudge is a stack of magnets. A car with the right equipment can drive down the road all by itself, guided by the magnets and radar that tracks nearby cars. Here at last is the automated road that futurists have been promising for so long. Here is the ''beam control'' highway that ''Popular Mechanics'' envisioned in a fanciful 1940 article about a family's one-day jaunt from Washington, D.C., to visit Aunt Lillian in California. When engineers in San Diego sent a caravan of eight Buicks down I-15 at 65 miles per hour, the steady-handed computers at the steering wheels kept the cars spaced just 15 feet apart. By squeezing three times as many cars on the highway, this technology could drastically ease traffic congestion -- if only engineers could figure out a way to get millions of drivers to buy these systems. For now, the beam-control highway is still in the future.
Meanwhile, a much simpler technology is already eliminating traffic jams on I-15: a computerized gatekeeper that charges variable admission to the express lanes, raising or lowering the toll every six minutes, depending on how many drivers take the offer. If similar computers were charging variable tolls in other cities, they could not only ease congestion on existing roads but also generate the money to pay for new roads. Americans, liberated from bumper-to-bumper traffic, could rediscover the joy of driving -- and that, paradoxically, is one reason why it would be so politically difficult to actually install this technology across the country. Any policy encouraging drivers to use their axles of evil is now suspect.
Americans still love their own cars, but they're sick of everyone else's. The car is blamed for everything from global warming to the war in Iraq to the transformation of America into a land of strip malls and soulless subdivisions filled with fat, lonely suburbanites. Al Gore called the automobile a ''mortal threat'' that is ''more deadly than that of any military enemy.'' Cities across America, with encouragement from Washington, are adopting ''smart growth'' policies to discourage driving and promote mass transit. Three years ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new freeway just outside Los Angeles, Gov. Gray Davis declared that it would be the last one built in the state. Standing at the cradle of car culture, he said it was time to find other ways to move people.
I sympathize with the critics, because I don't like even my own car. For most of my adult life I didn't even own one. I lived in Manhattan and pitied the suburbanites driving to the mall. When I moved to Washington and joined their ranks, I picked a home in smart-growth heaven, near a bike path and a subway station. Most days I skate or bike downtown, filled with righteous Schadenfreude as I roll past drivers stuck in traffic. The rest of the time I usually take the subway, and on the rare day I go by car, I hate the drive.
But I no longer believe that my tastes should be public policy. I've been converted by a renegade school of thinkers you might call the autonomists, because they extol the autonomy made possible by automobiles. Their school includes engineers and philosophers, political scientists like James Q. Wilson and number-crunching economists like Randal O'Toole, the author of the 540-page manifesto ''The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.'' These thinkers acknowledge the social and environmental problems caused by the car but argue that these would not be solved -- in fact, would be mostly made worse -- by the proposals coming from the car's critics. They call smart growth a dumb idea, the result not of rational planning but of class snobbery and intellectual arrogance. They prefer to promote smart driving, which means more tolls, more roads and, yes, more cars.
Drawing on authorities ranging from Aristotle to Walt Whitman, the
autonomists argue that the car is not merely a convenience but one of
history's greatest forces for good, an invention that liberated the poor
from slums and workers from company towns, challenged communism, powered
the civil rights movement and freed women to work outside the home. Their
arguments have given me new respect for my minivan. I still don't like
driving it, but now when the sound system is blaring ''Thunder Road'' --
These two lanes will take us aaanywhere -- I think Bruce Springsteen got
it right. There is redemption beneath that dirty hood.
uppose you have a choice between two similarly priced homes. One is an urban town house within walking distance of stores and mass transit; the other is in the suburbs and requires driving everywhere. Which one would you pick?
If you chose the town house, you're in a distinct minority. Only 17 percent of Americans chose it in a national survey sponsored by the real-estate agents' and homebuilders' trade associations. The other 83 percent preferred the suburbs, which came as no surprise to the real-estate agents or others who spend time in subdivisions. For all the bad press that suburbs get in books like ''The Geography of Nowhere'' -- whose author, James Kunstler, calls America a ''national automobile slum'' -- polls repeatedly show that the vast majority of suburbanites are happy with their neighborhoods.
You could argue that Americans are deluded because they haven't been given a reasonable alternative. Smart-growth advocates say that suburbs have flourished at the expense of cities because of government policies promoting cheap gasoline, Interstate highways and new-home construction. What if the government, instead of devastating urban neighborhoods by running expressways through them, instead lavished money on mass transit and imposed high gasoline taxes to discourage driving?
As it happens, that experiment has already been conducted in Europe with surprisingly little effect. To American tourists who ride the subways in the carefully preserved old cities, the policies seem to have worked. But it turns out that the people who live there aren't so different from Americans. Even with $5-per-gallon gasoline, the number of cars per capita in Europe has been growing faster than in America in recent decades, while the percentage of commuters using mass transit has been falling. As the suburbs expand, Europe's cities have been losing people, too. Paris is a great place to visit, but in the past half-century it has lost one-quarter of its population.
''Cities are spreading virtually everywhere in the world despite all the antisprawl measures,'' says Peter Gordon, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development. ''As soon as people have enough money, they want their car.''
Of course, just because individuals crave cars doesn't mean that cars are good for society. Jane Holtz Kay, the author of ''Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back,'' sums up the popular anxiety about the social and environmental costs of cars when she writes, ''A nation in gridlock from its auto-bred lifestyle, an environment choking from its auto exhausts, a landscape sacked by its highways has distressed Americans so much that even this go-for-it nation is posting 'No Growth' signs on development from shore to shore.'' But while Kay is right that Americans resist new development near their homes and fear the traffic it will bring, they might feel differently about sprawl if they understood it better.
Consider some of the prevailing beliefs:
Sprawl traps drivers in traffic hell. It's true that highways have gotten much more congested, but the worst traffic tends to be in densely populated urban areas that haven't been building new roads, like New York and Chicago -- the kind of places hailed by smart-growth planners but now avoided by companies looking for convenient offices. During the 1990's, the number of suburban workers surpassed the number downtown. These commuters still encountered traffic jams, but by not driving downtown they could still get to work reasonably quickly. The length of the average commute, now about 25 minutes, rose just 40 seconds in the 1980's and about 2 minutes in the 1990's. Sprawl didn't trap drivers -- it gave them an escape.
Suburban car culture traps women. Critics complain that mothers in the suburbs are sentenced to long hours chauffeuring children to malls and soccer games and piano lessons, which are tasks that do indeed require a car. But so do most of their jobs. In his book ''Edge City,'' the writer Joel Garreau traces the golden age of sprawl to the surge in women entering the work force in the 70's and 80's, when the number of cars in America doubled as developers rushed to build office parks and malls for women who didn't have time to take the bus downtown. The only way to juggle all their responsibilities was to buy a car and find a job close to the stores and schools and day-care centers near their homes.
Sprawl is scarring the American landscape. If by ''landscape'' you mean the pasture or forest near your home that has been paved, then sprawl does look like an abomination. Who wouldn't prefer to be surrounded by greenery, especially when you're not paying property taxes for it?
But if you look at the big picture, America is not paving paradise. More than 90 percent of the continental United States is still open space and farmland. The major change in land use in recent decades has been the gain of 70 million acres of wilderness -- more than all the land currently occupied by cities, suburbs and exurbs, according to Peter Huber, author of ''Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists.'' Because agriculture has become so efficient, farmers have abandoned vast tracts of land that have reverted to nature, and rural areas have lost population as young people migrate to cities. You may not like the new homes being built for them at the edge of your town, but if preserving large ecosystems and wildlife habitat is your priority, better to concentrate people in the suburbs and exurbs rather than scatter them in the remote countryside.
Mass transit is the cure for highway congestion. Commuter trains and subways make sense in New York, Chicago and a few other cities, and there are other forms of transit, like express buses, that can make a difference elsewhere. (Vans offering door-to-door service are a boon to the elderly and people without cars.) But for most Americans, mass transit is impractical and irrelevant. Since 1970, transit systems have received more than $500 billion in subsidies (in today's dollars), but people have kept voting with their wheels. Transit has been losing market share to the car and now carries just 3 percent of urban commuters outside New York City. It's easy to see why from one statistic: the average commute by public transportation takes twice as long as the average commute by car.
Anthony Downs, an economist at the Brookings Institution who favors giving more aid to transit, says the subsidies have social benefits (like helping people without cars), but he warns it will make little difference in highway congestion. O'Toole and Wendell Cox, a transportation expert and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, estimate that even if Congress miraculously tripled the annual subsidy for transit, the average driver's commute would be reduced by a grand total of 22 seconds.
Drivers are getting a free ride. Yes, the government spends a lot more money on highways than transit, but most of that money comes out of the drivers' pockets. If you add up the costs of driving -- the car owner's costs as well as the public cost of building and maintaining highways and local streets, the salaries of police patrolling the roads -- it works out to about 20 cents per passenger mile, and drivers pay more than 19 of those cents, according to Cox. A trip on a local bus or commuter train costs nearly four times as much, and taxpayers subsidize three-quarters of that cost.
Drivers do avoid paying some indirect costs of their cars, like the health consequences of the pollution from tailpipes. One of the most thorough attempts to measure these social costs was done by Mark Delucchi, a cost-benefit analyst at the University of California, Davis, who factored in everything from expenditures in the Persian Gulf to the cost of the real estate devoted to free parking lots. Autonomists complain that he overestimated the car's costs, but even so, his calculations show that when compared with the social costs of transit systems (like taxpayer subsidies and noise from buses), the car is at least twice as cheap per passenger mile as transit.
New highways just make things worse. Environmentalists and smart-growth planners say that more highways merely create more problems because of ''induced demand,'' also known as the if-you-build-it-they-will-come theory. They argue that any new stretch of highway will fill up quickly because drivers discover new uses for it. Adding new lanes or roads may ease traffic temporarily, they say, but ultimately you're doomed to become like Los Angeles.
A new freeway does indeed attract new drivers, but that doesn't mean it's not worth building. Besides benefiting those drivers (no small thing), it eases the strain on the road network. This year's report from the Texas Transportation Institute confirms other research showing that when you take population growth into account, traffic congestion has been increasing more rapidly in the cities that haven't been building roads. The reason for Los Angeles's traffic morass is that it didn't build enough freeways, incredible as that sounds. The great symbol of sprawl is not what it seems when you compare it with other cities using the Census Bureau's definition of an ''urbanized area,'' which extends until the point where there's open countryside. By this definition, Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in America, with 7,068 persons per square mile of urbanized area. Its traffic is terrible because it built only about half the freeways originally planned, so that it now has fewer miles of freeway per capita than any other major city.
Politicians in Los Angeles are not about to build those missing
freeways anytime soon, but that doesn't mean they can't learn how to
unclog the ones they have. All they have to do is drive a couple of hours
south, to I-15.
rivers sitting in a traffic jam outside San Diego used to glance across the median strip of I-15 at a maddening sight: car-pool lanes without any car-poolers. The lanes were so empty that engineers decided to let solo drivers share them for a price, which is displayed on electronic signs at the entrance to the lanes. A computer counts how many cars take the offer and then recalibrates the price every six minutes, raising the toll if too many cars accept, cutting it if not enough do.
The morning I watched, the computer set a price of $1.25 at 7:10, raised it to $1.50 six minutes later, then jacked it up to $2.25 at 7:22 and added another quarter at 7:28. The $2.50 toll apparently scared off drivers, and the computer reacted by dropping the toll to $1.75, at which point traffic increased and the toll went back up to $2. As rush-hour traffic waned, the toll fell quickly, and by 8:20 the computer was willing to let drivers into the lanes for a dollar. Those who paid could drive into San Diego without slowing down even to pay the toll. It was collected by radio transmitters overhead that could read each car's FasTrak transponder (California's version of E-Z Pass) at speeds up to 120 miles per hour.
When this experiment began in 1996, some critics said it was unfair to create these ''Lexus lanes.'' But by now, even drivers who won't pay the toll have come to appreciate the lanes because they divert traffic from the regular highway. And while affluent drivers are more likely to pay the bill, surveys have found people of all incomes using the lanes. Most of the ones I interviewed were budget-conscious, middle-class commuters who used the free lanes when possible. But when the traffic got heavy, they considered the toll a bargain.
''Isn't it worth a couple of dollars to spend an extra half-hour with your family?'' said T.J. Zane, a political consultant who drives a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta. ''That's what I used to spend on a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Now I've started bringing my own coffee and using the money for the toll.''
These toll lanes have become so popular that they're being extended 12 miles farther out of town, and the concept of variable tolls has become highway engineers' favorite solution to traffic jams. After decades of working on technological fixes like beam-control roads, they've turned to basic economics instead. They now see traffic jams as the equivalent of bread lines in the Soviet Union, a consequence of an unimaginative monopoly run by politicians loath to charge the market price for a valuable commodity. To be fair to the Soviet politicians, though, at least they didn't blame the public for the problem that they created. They didn't promote a smart-diet program urging people to eat less bread.
Tollways were common in the United States until the decision in the 1950's to finance the Interstate system with gasoline taxes, which was politically appealing -- an unobtrusive tax instead of hated toll booths, an illusion of equity because everyone pays the same rate. But a driver on the Long Island Expressway at rush hour imposes a much bigger strain on the Interstate system than a Montanan on Interstate 90 at noon. Once traffic reaches a critical mass, drivers slow down so much that a four-lane expressway carries only as many cars per hour as a three-lane road with free-flowing traffic. If a computer were using tolls to manage traffic on Long Island, more drivers could speed through at rush hour.
The trick is persuading them to pay. Long Islanders accustomed to a free highway would resist no matter how many economists tell them that the time they're wasting in traffic jams is worth more than the tolls. Politically sensitive highway planners don't even use the T-word -- they call it ''value pricing.'' But traffic has gotten so bad that even longtime opponents of tolls, like the A.A.A. and trucking groups, now support tolls on new lanes and roads, if only because there's no other way to pay for them. New tollways are open or being built in more than a dozen cities, and there are proposals to span entire metropolitan areas with networks of what are called HOT lanes -- high-occupancy toll lanes like the ones in San Diego that would be free for buses and commuter vans but also open to paying drivers. Some would be converted car-pool lanes, and others would be created by building new roads or widening existing ones, like the beltways around Washington and Atlanta.
''The toll lanes in California are the prototype for the future,'' says Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, who came up with the idea of HOT lanes a decade ago. ''Instead of giving every driver the same miserable service, there will be premium lanes with money-back guarantees for drivers and special truck lanes with stronger pavement and gentler grades and curves.''
Premium service is already being offered on Route 91 express lanes, built by a private company near Anaheim, Calif., and probably the most intensely monitored road in the world. If a driver slows down anywhere along it, sensors in the pavement instantly alert engineers in a control room, and video cameras along the road swivel to give them a view of the car. When there's a problem, the road's managers guarantee help will arrive within five minutes. They keep two service crews on perpetual standby, ready to rush to the scene and change a tire, replace a fan belt or tow a car, all at no charge to the driver. The extra service pays off by keeping traffic moving and by attracting customers, particularly women, who say they're willing to pay the toll because they feel safer on the road.
It's hard to imagine traffic ever flowing freely in New York, but engineers say anything is possible for a price. Peter Samuel, the editor of Tollroadsnews, has proposed getting trucks off the streets by building them a tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn and turning some of Brooklyn's railroad tracks into truck roads. Samuel I. Schwartz, who coined the term ''gridlock'' when he was chief engineer for the city's Department of Transportation, envisions tunneling underneath streets and highways to create new lanes, and he wants to unclog Manhattan's streets by charging tolls, as London Mayor Ken Livingston did with his streets.
Some politicians still object to tolls as unfair to the poor, but the opposition seems to be dwindling. Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in passing changes in the current highway bill to encourage new toll lanes. ''If we want to expand road capacity to meet the growing population, we have to rely on tolls,'' says Robert Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute, the research arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He sees tolls as a progressive tax system: the more affluent drivers pay for new toll lanes while less affluent drivers get a free benefit because the existing roads become less congested, and bus riders get to use the new express lanes without paying for them.
Environmentalists have also supported tolls, but generally with a fatal caveat. They like using tolls on existing highways to reduce congestion, because fewer idling cars means less gasoline burned and less air pollution. The Environmental Defense group helped lead the successful fight to reduce congestion on the Hudson River crossings by raising the tolls at rush hour. The Sierra Club supports converting part of the Washington Beltway into HOT lanes. But propose building new tollways -- the ones most acceptable to drivers and politicians -- and you can expect lawsuits and public outcry over environmental degradation.
To highway engineers, these objections are reasonable but not
insurmountable. Despite the huge increase in driving in recent decades,
the air has gotten notably cleaner by most measures in most places because
cars emit so much less pollution, and they'll keep getting cleaner. Noise
can be mitigated; roads can be carefully built without destroying
ecosystems. Autonomists insist that there could be protections
guaranteeing minimum levels of air quality and noise for people near new
roads, but they haven't made much headway against their enemies, because
this war is about much more than the environment. It's about two visions
of the Radiant City.
The autonomists' first reaction was horror -- partly at the price drivers would be paying, but mainly at the thought of all that revenue going to federal legislators eager to spend it on suburban monorails. The autonomists didn't want any of the money going to Washington even if much of it paid for new roads, which they prefer to finance with tolls. But some of them finally agreed to a gas tax if all the new revenue was refunded to the public through tax cuts, tax credits and other means. That way people who don't drive much would get back more than they paid in gas taxes. Less affluent people tend to drive less than average, so they would come out ahead, and there could be further help to the poor in the form of travel vouchers that could be used for either transit tickets or car expenses.
But when I took the deal to the other side, they wouldn't go for it. ''I believe in no more highways, intellectually and environmentally,'' said Jane Holtz Kay, the ''Asphalt Nation'' author. Others said they weren't necessarily against any new pavement, but they set so many preconditions -- new rail projects, new smart-growth zoning, whole new kinds of communities -- that the roads would not be built for decades, if ever.
''Our first order of business is to shape our cities and regions to provide viable alternatives to the car,'' said Peter Calthorpe, a ''new urbanist'' architect and a leader of the smart-growth movement. ''Only then can you begin to use taxes to set up an incentive system that levels the playing field.'' Neha Bhatt, the coordinator of the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, doubted a gas tax would do much good. ''People will pay to keep driving,'' she said, ''because the harsh reality in America today is that you need to transport yourself pretty long distances. We need a more holistic approach to planning.''
But if people are willing to pay to keep driving, why are they and their cars any more objectionable than the commoners who offended the Duke of Wellington with their desire to ride the railroad? Intellectuals' distaste for the car and suburbia, and their fondness for rail travel and cities, are an odd inverse of the old aristocratic attitudes. The suburbs were quite fashionable when only the upper classes could afford to live there. Nineteenth-century social workers dreamed of sending crowded urbanites out to healthy green spaces. But when middle-class workers made it out there, they were mocked first for their ''little boxes made of ticky-tacky'' and later for their McMansions. Land Rovers and sports cars were chic when they were driven to country estates, but they became antisocial gas-guzzlers once they appeared in subdivisions.
''Aristocratic attitudes toward mobility for the masses haven't really changed from the Duke of Wellington to the Duchess of Huffington,'' says Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, referring to Arianna Huffington, one of the wealthy Hollywood activists behind the Detroit Project, which has been running ads against gas-guzzlers. (She and a colleague in this campaign to save energy, Laurie David, the wife of the comedian Larry David, have inspired a new term: Gulfstream liberal, in honor of the jet their set uses. Critics like to point out that on a cross-country trip, it burns 10 times more fuel per passenger than an airliner, and twice as much as a Hummer.)
The autonomists have been losing the public-relations war, but they're trying to fight back. O'Toole has founded the American Dream Coalition to do battle with what he calls the ''congestion coalition,'' his term for opponents of new roads. The autonomists collect stories of smart-growth problems, especially from Portland, Ore., which became planners' poster city by building light-rail lines, eschewing highways and severely restricting suburban development. But nearly 90 percent of its commuters still drive, and highway congestion increased in Portland more than any other American city in the 15 years after the first light-rail line opened. Meanwhile, housing prices rose sharply, making Portland one of the less-affordable cities for home buyers.
But the autonomists want to do more than play defense. They want Americans to love the car again. They quote Walt Whitman from ''Leaves of Grass'': ''Lo, soul! seest thou not God's purpose from the first?/The earth to be spanned, connected by net-work.'' They cite historians like Macaulay, who observed in the 19th century that ''every improvement of the means of locomotion benefits mankind morally and intellectually, as well as materially.'' They celebrate the car's role in the famous Montgomery bus boycott, when blacks shunning the segregated transit system relied on carpools and an informal taxi service. The police, aided by the laid-off bus workers, tried to stop them by enforcing minor traffic violations -- Martin Luther King was arrested for going 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone -- but the drivers persisted and triumphed. The private car also became a popular symbol of liberation behind the Iron Curtain. When Communist leaders imported the movie ''Grapes of Wrath'' to illustrate the evils of capitalism, audiences took away a different revolutionary lesson. Watching the dispossessed farmers head for California, they were amazed that even unemployed Americans owned cars and could drive wherever they wanted to find work.
In an essay called ''Autonomy and Automobility,'' Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Virginia, invokes Aristotle's concept of the ''self-mover'' to argue that the ability to move about and see the world is the crucial distinction between higher and lower forms of life and is ultimately the source of what Kant would later call humans' moral autonomy. ''The automobile is, arguably, rivaled only by the printing press (and perhaps within a few more years by the microchip) as an autonomy-enhancing contrivance of technology,'' he writes. The planners determined to tame sprawl, Lomasky argues, are the intellectual heirs of Plato and his concept of the philosopher-king who would impose order on the unenlightened masses.
They are at least the heirs of Le Corbusier, the architect who dreamed of cramming millions of urbanites into an array of huge towers in a meticulously planned community he called the Radiant City. His particular designs are now out of fashion, but not his propensity for master planning. The enthusiasts for smart growth want regional or statewide authorities to regulate land use. Their goal of restoring old-fashioned city neighborhoods sounds noble, but those old neighborhoods and their transit systems were not built by planners at regional authorities imposing their visions of how people should live and travel. They were built by housing developers and private streetcar and subway companies responding to their customers' desires in an era when politicians were content to guide development with fairly simple zoning codes. It was only later, in the middle of the 20th century, that urban planning became a bureaucratized profession with sweeping ambitions, like the ''urban renewal'' projects of the 1960's and 70's that mostly served to hasten the urbanites' flight to suburbs. Now that the planners have followed them to suburban counties, Americans are heading to smaller communities in the exurbs. Their idea of the Radiant City is one that radiates beyond the reach of the master planners.
Many of those who fled, like me, did so reluctantly. They understand the appeal of stoops and corner stores and running into neighbors on the walk home from dinner. Some of them, especially the young and the childless, are moving back to cities, and once again there are private developers ready to meet their desires, which now run toward lofts and historic town houses with modern kitchens. But for most middle-class families, the ideal of city life conflicts with the reality of their own lives. Even if they're willing to do without a yard, how can they afford to live in a decent neighborhood within easy commute of their jobs? How will they go shopping on a rainy day with a child in tow? Where will the children go to school?
If they have enough determination or money, or grandparents willing to
spring for private-school tuition, they may stay in the city. But
otherwise they will head to the 'burbs or beyond. Once they get their
home, they will probably sign petitions to stop sprawl, but they will shop
at Target. As they're stuck in traffic, reclined on leather seats
listening to a Lou Reed riff or a passage from ''Bergdorf Blondes,'' they
may get nostalgic for city life. Idling behind a Chevy Suburban, they may
forget the crush of the subway at rush hour and feel trapped in that
national automobile slum. But if someone would just give them an open
highway, they could crank up ''Thunder Road'' and realize, once again,
that it was the car that set them free.
John Tierney is a correspondent in The Times's Washington bureau.