Did you ride your bike to work today? If so, you’re part of the vaunted 1 percent. If, instead, you took the trolley or the bus, you’re still among the elite — the small minority of San Diegans who eschew the car in favor of modes favored by the powers that be. But in San Diego, despite the machinations of government and strident voices of “alternative transportation” advocates, cars still rule.
I’m looking at a pattern of grids, laid out in various colors and superimposed on a map of downtown. Composed of “greenways,” “cycleways,” “transitways” and “autoways,” it’s termed a “layered mobility network,” the centerpiece of the 104-page Downtown San Diego Mobility Plan. Promulgated by a consortium calling itself Civic San Diego, the plan was approved by a unanimous San Diego City Council on June 21. Advocates believe it will usher in sweeping changes to the ways San Diegans get around, a clean, green rebuke to the automobile. The Union-Tribune and the other usual suspects in the media lauded the 30-year blueprint that purports to transform downtown to a bike-commuter’s paradise where motorists will be squeezed into fewer and narrower lanes, handing cars their long-overdue comeuppance. Throw in a prediction of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, they exult, and it’ll be eco nirvana.
But there are dissenters, those who contend that cities should be car-centric, because that’s what Americans prefer.
One such proponent of the car-centric society is Randall O’Toole of Bandon, Oregon. He’s an avid cyclist, but he’s also a think-tank guy, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, who opines that it’s time the car got its due and that — despite the hype heaped on other modes of transport — Americans appreciate the right that the automobile has wrought on the Republic.
When I spoke with O’Toole, he wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t be construed as anti-bicycle or anti-public transportation. His stance is that the best form of transit is the one that pays for itself, which leads, he says, to vital questions: Why should the government subsidize non-automotive transportation, and if said modes can’t make it on their own, why should they be preferred? O’Toole urges governmental neutrality when it comes to how Americans choose to travel, adding, “That neutrality should extend to financing. There should be no subsidies to any form of travel.”
To hear certain city-planning types talk, one might think that the bicycle is the cure-all for San Diego’s transportation woes and the key to prescient development. But not everyone is convinced that bikes are two-wheeled messiahs that will deliver the county — or any other urban conglomerate — from the ostensibly self-evident evils of the automobile. Indeed, there are many on the other side of the proverbial bike lane who contend that, in truth, there is a panoply of rational reasons to favor the much-maligned horseless carriage over not only bikes, but the less “sexy” alternatives — the trolley, the lowly bus, and the feet, as well.
If you’ve ever been downtown in your car, sitting at a light and waiting for a mostly empty, honking trolley to get out of the way as the surly conductor glares at you, it’s part of a plan, says O’Toole. He maintains that, in addition to ladling out fat subsidies, municipalities have implemented other measures to disincentivize auto travel. “Not only have cities given up trying to relieve congestion, some have gone so far as to deliberately make it worse. For example, Los Angeles has actually gone to the trouble of ‘uncoordinating’ its traffic signals. In the past, there’d been signs posted reading, “signals are set for 30 miles per hour.”
I spoke to another think-tanker, Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Institute, which, like Cato, champions the libertarian ideal of the laissez-faire economy. I asked him to comment on the Downtown Mobility Plan.
“If the streets are underused and there’s room for the bicycle lanes, I have no problem with San Diego putting them in. They’re relatively cheap to install, assuming all you’re doing is re-painting lines or painting the bicycle lane green. That’s fine. The challenge is that when you have a lot of car traffic in that area, the bike lane will make congestion worse. Since car traffic seems to be dominant in San Diego, motorists are the folks we should actually be building the infrastructure for. There is a subsidy for automobiles, but it’s typically much smaller than the ones for other forms of transportation. Cyclists don’t pay for the use of the infrastructure they’re utilizing; there’s no ‘bicycle tire tax’ or anything like that. But we should be planning for the way people actually commute, not the way we’d like them to commute. Since most San Diego residents are driving, I’m hesitant to take away lanes for cars and allocate them for bike use unless there’s excess capacity.”
Governmental disfavor for the auto is inextricably intertwined with the new urbanism movement. As city planners revisit notions of density, one sees governmental favoritism for cyclists and pedestrians over motorists. O’Toole states, “You can actually see that preference in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ‘transportation pyramid.’ It puts pedestrians and bikes on top, public transit below, multi-occupant vehicles below that, and at the very bottom, single-occupancy vehicles. They’re not neutral, in essence stating that the higher levels of the pyramid are ‘morally superior’ to the lower levels.” O’Toole believes that one’s personal transportation preferences shouldn’t guide public policy.
“I love trains, and I love cycling, but I try not to promote policies that ask other people to subsidize my hobbies.” Central to O’Toole’s thesis is that those who use a given mode of transportation (e.g., the automobile) shouldn’t be forced to pay for others’ choices, such as the trolley, bus, or bike.
“The only people who might be smugger than cyclists are vegans,” asserts O’Toole. “Planners and anti-automobile people believe that automobiles are bad because they pollute, have deadly crashes, and use energy. So they think that any alternative is better because it’s assumed that it doesn’t have those drawbacks. Actually, cycling, although it doesn’t pollute or use energy, is more dangerous than driving. Transit uses a lot more energy per passenger-mile than driving, yet they still put transit above automobiles. And light rail is actually more dangerous than automobiles per passenger-mile. So the ‘moral superiority’ argument fails when you look at the actual numbers.”