A Lesson in Heading Off Anti-Reform Rhetoric

To opponents of sustainable transportation, incremental reforms designed to level the playing field between cars and other modes of transportation can too easily be seen — or characterized — as a plot to take away their vehicles and homes in the suburbs. For a particularly apt example, look no further than Fred Barnes’ recent article in the Weekly Standard: “Coercing People Out of Their Cars.”

The Weekly Standard demonstrates how a few bike lanes can quickly come to be equated with the end of days. Photo: ##http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/coercing-people-out-their-cars_513335.html?page=1## The Weekly Standard##

There’s one word in particular reformers should avoid, says Jarrett Walker at Network blog Human Transit, so as not to stoke irrational fears. That word, once regrettably employed by U.S. Transpo Secretary Ray LaHood, is “coerce.” Translated literally, to coerce is to force one to do something against his or her will with the threat of violence or intimidation — a far cry from the measures reformers recommend to give people alternatives to driving.

In the new year, let us all resolve not to be coerced by the rhetoric of coercion, and never to use the term, even in jest, to describe our own project. In its impact on motorists, sustainable urbanism is all about accurate pricing. We care about pricing in two separate and non-convertible currencies: money, and the limited road space of our cities.

We experience urban congestion, and parking shortages, when road-space is inaccurately priced. As I explored here, it’s as though we were giving out free tickets to a concert; when you do that, you get lots of people waiting in line, spending time to save money. Today’s approach to pricing forces everyone to act like those frugal concertgoers, when in fact many could easily afford to spend some money to save time, and would prefer to do so if asked. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are one experiment in that direction, while the downtown congestion charges of London, Stockholm, and Singapore are another. On the pricing front, San Francisco’s free-market approach, which may finally liberate motorists from endlessly circling the block seeking a space, is another breakthrough.

Reduction of government subsidies is not coercion. Fred Barnes is the socialist in this debate, demanding government subsidy for his own chosen lifestyle but not for that of others. As for those of us who support more accurate pricing — of road space, parking, and all the other incremental costs of transport, including transit fares — we are the libertarians!

Elsewhere on the Network today: Commute by Bike explores the country of Bhutan’s cultivation of a cycling culture as part of its quest to improve “gross national happiness.” Livin in the Bike Lane asks whether rising gas prices and the aging of the Baby Boomer generation will prompt communities to get serious about smart growth. And Urban Cincy reflects on Cincinnati’s progress from riots to urban revitalization.

  • Suzanne

    Um… Maybe I’m a commie pinko UN double agent but I’d really, really like to coerce a lot of people out of their cars. Why shouldn’t I want to seriously reduce the number of multi-ton death-mobiles that slurp up Gulf destroying oil and belch out toxic particulates?

    I don’t understand how wanting to reduce one of the single greatest threats to my existence and causes of not only psychological stress but actual physical illness (not to mention the enormous damage to planet which seems to be teetering ever closer to permanent destruction) is somehow evil, wrong and bad. I understand sometimes you have to drive but have you ever looked inside those cars clogging up our streets? I’d estimate a good 70 – 80% of them are single occupancy vehicles. Most of them certainly should be coerced out of their cars. Why is it somehow ok for other people to cause so much harm, all in the name of “personal freedom”? Where’s *my* freedom from having to deal with the consequences of their exercizing their “freedoms”?

  • MinNY

    To be fair, Barnes does advocate for and challenges incoming republicans to increase the gas tax.

  • Gary Reilly

    Do you get hazard pay for reading the Weekly Standard? Arguably the worst magazine of all time: nothing but risible, contemptible, right-wing neo-con dreck.

    That said, language is important, and it is valuable to know how amoral disingenuous demagogues like Fred Barnes will exploit the use of words that trigger an emotional response. Jarrett Walker has an excellent point.

    If we are not careful to frame the debate in the right terms, we will lose. Professional charlatans like Fred Barnes and Frank Luntz will see to that, I assure you.
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Frank_Luntz

  • NattyB

    @Gary Reilly

    Re: Language and framing of issues.

    Oh man, it’s already started. Get ready to hear a lot of “job-killing regulation.” Right after, a decade, of, ya know, massive deregulation and job losses.

    http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/how-the-republicans-plan-to-govern-as-if-with-a-mandate.php?ref=fpb

  • Adam

    I second Suzanne’s sentiment

  • Suzanne. I agree completely with your sentiments. Indeed, what you’re saying is that you feel “coerced” by car dominance, as I do. But I’m suggesting that “coercion” is not an argument-winning approach, except perhaps for building emotion among the already-convinced. That’s why I talk about the urbanist project as involving a correction of pricing that continues to respect everyone’s freedom to choose, while more accurately capturing the consequences of those choices.

  • Bob Davis

    How about “coax” (which also starts with “co”) or “encourage”? “Coerce” is one of those words that raises blood pressure among freedom-loving folks, like “mandatory” or “compulsory”.

    Regarding Ms. Suzanne: Until driving cars becomes so expensive or so inconvenient that driving one’s own car ceases to be the automatic response when we want to be elsewhere for most Americans, your anti-auto point of view will be a distinctly minority opinion. I’ve seen similar diatribes on other websites (but no one has declared that “Henry Ford is the Antichrist” yet).

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