Illogical arguments won’t win the war on cars

Society at large subsidizes both cars, used by the many, and transit, used by the few. What makes more sense?

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destination vacationTORONTO, Ont. May 22, 2016/ Troy Media/ – There is a war on cars, especially in cities. There probably should be.

Cars chew up prime real estate in parking and roads. They have changed the housing form so that the major feature of suburban homes is a garage thrust at your face or a carport attached at a jaunty angle to the side of the tract home. In more fashionable neighbourhoods, in Edmonton for example, double garages abut the back laneway, which also houses the garbage bins and RVs – all of which take up half the backyard.

So fight on.

But what we don’t need in this war is blank cartridges, faulty intelligence or illogic. Take a construction by Brian D. Taylor, published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Taylor has discovered that most people drive and really love driving. Let me count the ways. About 86 per cent of all urban trips in the U.S. are in private cars. Eighty-six per cent of low-income households own at least one car. Even poor urban workers are more likely to get to work by car than by public transit.

Even though commute distances by transit and car are about the same, the trip takes twice as long on transit. Cars seem to be a logical choice for convenience and time-saving.

Even public policy makers seem to agree. Car drivers are provided with lots of free parking. In fact, 99 per cent of all car trips in the U.S. end in free parking. Public spending on roads is a kind of subsidy, too.

Public policy subsidizes transit to compete with subsidized automobile uses. Transit is underpriced to compete with underpriced car use. Everybody’s racing to the bottom and there’s no hope of proper budgeting with funny money. A buck isn’t a buck.

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But here’s where the logic ceases or at least diminishes. Taylor notes twice that these policies of subsidizing cars, roads and parking spots shifts costs “away from drivers and onto society at large.”

Yet he just showed that society at large drives – and loves to do it. So it’s society at large that’s subsidizing society at large (for the most part).

There is a solution.

When I got my first job, I bought a second-hand car for about 15 per cent of my gross income. Shortly after, I heard the statistic that maintaining a car costs about $5,000 per year. I hadn’t thought of gas, oil, maintenance, tires and trading in every few years. I just had to have a car.

My two sons don’t drive. Some days they regret this. I point out they are probably saving about $7,000 a year. With interest, they’ll be millionaires when they retire if they invest the money.

Both individuals and cities have to look at all the economic factors, not just the out of pocket costs or time taken in one commute. Do we want a city that you can’t walk around safely because of the width of roads and volume of traffic? Do we want a home that costs $10,000 more because of a double garage? Do we want to heat and light that garage and install a security system? How many hours of our lives do we want to be driving around looking for a parking spot or walking from that spot to our destination?

Here’s another approach. Pretend you’re a New Yorker. Take transit when convenient – perhaps to work or only in off hours to social events. Call or hail a cab when it’s raining or late. Hire a limo for special occasions. Really. If you spend an average of $20 per day on transit, cabs and limos, you’ll be way ahead of the cost of owning a car.

You may have to use transit for a few days to save up for a limo, but you can stay ahead if you plan. In fact, if any of these trips are a tax deduction or reimbursable by an employer, even better – bring on the limos.

And keep waging the war on personal car ownership.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safe Cities. Allan is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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