The Transportation Status Quo Is More Fragile than it Looks

With transportation policy at every level increasingly out of step with 21st century conditions and priorities and ripe for fundamental reform, now is the time to articulate a sustainable policy vision to guide the transition.

Last week, President Trump unveiled his fiscal year 2018 budget, which proposed a sea change in how the United States funds transportation.

The budget proposes slashing federal spending on transit upgrades and eliminating operating support for Amtrak. It cuts the discretionary TIGER funding program and ends general fund bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund after 2020, leaving highway (and transit) projects reliant on shrinking federal gas tax revenue thereafter. Most notably, it envisions a far greater role for the private sector and tolling in financing highways.

Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine such a proposal getting a respectful hearing on Capitol Hill. Trump’s budget may not get a respectful hearing either, but the fact that we are talking about it at all underscores the many ways in which our conception of “normal” in public policy debates has changed dramatically – especially in the last year.

The transportation policy status quo has been ripe for upheaval – “disruption,” if you want to get all Silicon Valley about it – for years. The traditional sources of funding for transportation infrastructure are failing. The strategic purpose of our current transportation policy – especially at the federal level – is unclear. The pressures created by the introduction of new transportation services and technologies are growing. The pace of change in the world of transportation is accelerating – it has become almost cliché to say that the automobile industry will change more in the next decade than in the last half-century.

There will be major changes, sooner or later, in U.S. transportation policy, and in the ways in which Americans access transportation. It is just a matter of when those changes occur, and what they will look like when they do.

For those looking to rebuild U.S. transportation policy along sustainable lines – particularly in an era of rapid change – this seems a good time to lay out an agenda for the future. If disruption is inevitable, why not make the case for guiding it toward healthier and more productive ends?

A new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the University of California-Davis – entitled Three Revolutions in Urban Transportationlays out a vision for a reimagined transportation system built around shared, autonomous, electric vehicles and a policy roadmap for bringing it into being.

Is such an ambitious policy agenda achievable? Writing in Vox, David Roberts is skeptical. He writes of the “Three Revolutions” vision:

It’s a nice vision. But to be realized it must overcome two barriers. One is US aversion to active government. The other is an enormous amount of accrued habit and behavior on the part of affluent Westerners, particularly in the US, who are attached to the current system of private ownership and low occupancy.

Last week, we took issue with Roberts’ contention that urbanization is incidental to, and not a central component of, a decarbonized transportation system. In this post, I want to discuss Roberts’ two barriers to forward-thinking policy and action on transportation and ask whether they are really all they are cracked up to be.

Activist Government Is the Rule in Transportation, Not the Exception

The United States has a long history of “active government” when it comes to transportation – specifically, building highways and enshrining car-dependent development patterns through planning and zoning. Economist Joe Cortright coined the term “asphalt socialism” to describe the willingness of some small-government conservatives to look the other way at the big-government task of funding and building boondoggle highway projects. Unlike nasty things like trains, highways and cars have been seen by some (but certainly not all) [1] self-described conservatives as conducive to cultivating an appropriate love of liberty among the citizenry (while also keeping exurban residents, construction firms and other constituents happy).

Governmental activism is also the norm in land-use policy. As libertarian urbanists have pointed out for years, what is zoning if not “active government” determining the types of activities and building types that can exist in particular locations within a community? Whatever one thinks about zoning in theory or in application, it is certainly true that our most walkable, compact urban forms – designs that even today allow many people to live without a car – would be illegal to recreate in much of America, even though they are often among the most desirable places in our cities to live.

As we argued in our report, 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation, one of the most important steps government can take is to adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and “first, do no harm.” Stop throwing general tax dollars at sprawl-inducing highway expansions. Stop zoning compact housing out of existence. Stop subsidizing commuter parking. Stop giving lucrative tax incentives to encourage new development on the urban fringe. And so on.

Eliminating the many ways in which “active government” currently encourages and subsidizes personal car ownership and use would, on its own, help to fuel the kind of shared mobility solutions the Three Revolutions report highlights. There are, of course, many other affirmative policies that can and should be adopted to guide that transition. It is unlikely, however, that those policies will be any more “active” or intrusive than the policies we’ve already accepted for decades in the service of automobile dependence.

Are Americans Attached to their Cars or Stuck to Them?

Roberts’ second contention is that “affluent Westerners” are creatures of habit and are so used to the personal car ownership that they are unlikely to willingly give it up. By “Westerners,” Roberts presumably means Americans – the United States is a freakish outlier in per-capita vehicle travel. Numerous affluent Western nations have figured out how to support vibrant economies and civilizations without nearly the same degree of reliance on personal cars or transportation-related carbon pollution.

Per Capita VMT by Country (Source: Australian Department of Infrastructure and Transport)

Americans’ relationship to their personal cars has long been described as a “love affair,” and that is certainly true for some of us. One can’t look at the cultural iconography of the mid-20th century, or spend much time hanging out with a Baby Boomer, and not conclude that there wasn’t once something special about the relationship between Americans and cars.

But in the 21st century, it’s increasingly clear that, however willingly Americans entered into their love affair with the car, the relationship has become co-dependent. While many Americans do love their cars, even more of us are fully dependent on them just to hold a job and lead a complete social life. Americans need cars, and those who benefit from U.S. car culture need Americans who need cars to provide support for the kinds of policies – ample parking, wider highways – that will keep Americans needing cars for years to come.

Is that kind of co-dependency breakable – especially over a period of several decades? I think it is.

As in many bad relationships, a moment of crisis can provide the “a-ha moment” that reveals the destructive patterns that have been there all along. We’ve written for the last two years about subprime car lending and the albatross of automotive debt that now hangs around the necks of millions of Americans. The bursting of the Auto Bubble could provide a moment to reevaluate whether, as a matter of policy, it’s really a great idea to require even the poorest Americans to make a large investment in their own personal motor vehicle in order to take part in society, and whether an alternative arrangement might make more sense.

For Americans’ relationship to cars to change, however, we also need to be able to visualize and provide alternatives. We’ve written here before, and the Three Revolutions report also suggests, that a vibrant ecosystem of shared mobility services can substitute for car ownership. Will Americans eschew vehicle ownership to use those services? I’m reminded of this tweet from last year:

The recent rapid growth in shared mobility suggests that some things about U.S. transportation culture that “everybody knows” – e.g. “Americans will never share rides or cars” – have never been fully tested. Most people in cities do not crowd onto subways because they enjoy face-to-face time with their fellow humans; they do it because the subway meets their mobility needs. Will Americans alter their preference for personal cars if the alternatives become attractive enough? I’m not certain, but I think it’s at least a debatable question.

Finally, but most importantly, a large number of Americans have been indicating in big red flashing lights that they want an alternative to car-oriented lifestyles. Far more Americans desire to live in walkable neighborhoods than are currently able to do so. Polls show Americans preferring public transportation over highway expansion, and wanting to direct a far greater share of transportation investments to biking and walking than we currently do.

Ending a toxic relationship is rarely easy and often involves conflict. Indeed, the tension between new and old ideals of transportation and land-use is evident almost every day. On a recent day, I counted no fewer than five stories in the Boston Globe touching on different contentious aspects of the transportation debate in this city. You see this tension in the “bikelash” response to the growth of cycling in cities, the ferocious NIMBY/YIMBY fights in big coastal cities, the movement of rural state legislators (and the Trump administration) to choke off funding for transit expansion, and many other places.

To some, the intensity of the opposition is a sign of the strength of the forces defending the status quo, and that’s not entirely wrong. But I also see it as a sign of progress. In Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Many American cities are now moving along that continuum.

And in some places, there is actual winning going on. California is making progress in undoing many of the hidden policies – such as level of service standards – that make compact urban areas harder to build. Cities like Seattle are showing that it is possible to add jobs and residents while shifting the overall transportation mix toward more sustainable forms. My beloved city of birth, Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh! – just re-nominated, with 69 percent of the vote, Mayor Bill Peduto, a leader who talks frequently and eloquently about the need for a paradigm shift in urban transport and acts on it in his own city.

Will reforming the policy landscape in ways that reduce personal car ownership – either through urbanization or shared mobility or both – be easy? Heavens, no. Some cities or states may never move away from the current model – for them, electric vehicles and renewable energy are going to have to work if we are to thoroughly decarbonize transportation in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

But for the rest of us, the opportunities presented by urbanism and the “three revolutions” – including the emergence of new models of shared mobility – are too valuable to pass up. With transportation policy at every level increasingly out of step with 21st century conditions and priorities and ripe for fundamental reform, now is the time to articulate a sustainable policy vision to guide the transition. The recommendations in the Three Revolutions report are a good start.



[1] The emergence of a thoughtful conservative urbanist counterweight to “asphalt socialism” is one of the most promising developments in the transportation policy debate in years, in my opinion.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.