In a short-sighted act of populist posturing, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan recently announced that he’s lowering tolls statewide. The move will save drivers — and cost the state — $270 million over the next five years. The governor’s electoral campaign last fall centered around attacks on planned rail transit lines that would carry a projected 124,000 riders a day. The future of those lines now hangs in the balance.
Though Hogan’s toll cuts prioritize unsustainable modes of transportation that will exacerbate already congested roadways and spew more pollutants into Maryland’s air, the move will undoubtedly please many of his constituents. That’s why he did it.
In the U.S., promises to lower the already rock-bottom cost of driving are political gold. Pledges to lower gas prices are a popular electioneering slogan, despite the fact that oil prices are controlled on the world market and U.S. gas taxes are the lowest in the developed world. High-occupancy toll lanes designed to reduce congestion are derided as “Lexus lanes.” Even plans to build bike lanes drum up fears of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods.
Classist Car Culture
Any challenge to the supremacy of the automobile somehow gets spun as an affront to the poor. But the truth is that nothing harms the poor more than America’s pervasive car culture. If public officials want to make transportation better and more affordable for low-income residents, they should stop trying to make driving cheaper. That’s a far less effective strategy than improving other transportation options and making cities easier to navigate by foot, bicycle, and transit.
The Detroit man who made news last winter for his epic 21-mile walk to work every day should have led his city to address its crushing job sprawl, with just 7 percent of the area’s jobs inside the urban core and 77 percent of them in its outermost reaches. His story should have brought about urgent calls for Detroit to improve its poor and fragmented public transportation system, which has been the target of civil rights complaints.
Instead, the man’s heartrending story inspired many to donate so he could have his own car. Others who find themselves in similar situations, be damned.
“Part of the problem with subsidies for cars is that they reinforce the pattern of exclusion that results from building places around cars in the first place,” writes Angie Schmitt in Streetsblog USA. “Every additional car on the road adds to traffic congestion and slows down buses. Every additional parking space spreads destinations farther apart, making places tougher to traverse on foot. Giving a poor family a car might help that specific household, but it would harm others at the same time.”
Cities that are designed around the automobile are inherently hostile to those that don’t have or can’t afford one. The most pernicious reason for this: land and resources that could be put in the service of safe, healthy, and accessible transportation modes are disproportionately devoted to storing cars that aren’t in use.
Narrow, European-style streets lined with shops and restaurants that open onto wide sidewalks, perfect for window-shopping and strolling, are illegal in many parts of the United States. All those shops and restaurants and nowhere for their customers to park?
Developers are forced to create five parking spots per 1,000 square feet of supermarket space in Houston; one spot for every three seats in an Anaheim church.
Bad enough all this excess parking makes a person on foot feel like she’s trespassing on a landscape built entirely for the automobile. But it gets worse: These parking requirements fuel the profound housing crisis facing America’s cities.
Valuable Real Estate
Affordable housing is one of the greatest casualties of America’s obsession with the automobile. Most cities require developers to include one or two off-street parking spaces for every unit of housing they build. Parking spots measure 300 to 350 square feet each, including the drive aisles. So one and a half of these spots — the median amount of parking required by cities — is about the size of a one-bedroom apartment. For each unit of housing built, another is sacrificed to car storage.
The cost of those parking spaces is almost always baked into the cost of the housing, whether or not the occupant owns a car. As Alan Durning of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute demonstrated in his 2013 article, parking requirements can easily turn an $800 apartment into a $1,200 one. Developers either have to pay for outlandishly expensive excavation to build underground parking or fork over a huge chunk of developable land to its least efficient usage: storing cars when they’re not being used. They pass those costs along to the residents.
Cities that insist on using space and money for car storage instead of housing are making housing scarcer and more expensive for everyone.