Why Won’t the Feds Encourage People to Go Car-Free?

We always like to hear about people jettisoning their cars for other modes of transportation, and there are several blogs on the Streetsblog Network that chronicle efforts to give up the personal automobile. They include Carless Parenting, based in Salt Lake City; The MinusCar Project, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Car Free with Kids, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All are filled with inspiration and strategies for those who would like to go the same route.

Today we’re featuring a post from Car Free Days, a Seattle blog that chronicles the mobility adventures of a family that has gone from three cars to one, and is looking for ways to give up that last link to auto dependency. Today, they examine the money people could save if they didn’t drive, and marvel at federal policy designed to prop up the auto industry:

2611810942_75ca5747cd_m.jpgAs good as money in the bank. Photo by Car Free Days.

[T]he American Public Transportation Association’s Transit Savings Report…looked at what a car costs to own and run (the whole deal from buying it, maintaining it, parking, registration, insurance and more) and then compared that with what transit use would cost the same family.

The PI says in Seattle such a comparison nets a $10,483 savings for those chucking their car keys. And that’s for transit use. A bicycle switchover would probably fare even better. …

While news like this could entice many to bail on car ownership, it seems like government is trying to keep us chained to the auto industry, using promises of a $4500 stipend for turning in a gas guzzler and replacing it with a newer, slightly more economical model. Cutely titled “Cash for Clunkers” the plan appeared under the banner of climate change but doesn’t strike me as anything other than a politically beige way send additional cash to the auto industry.

As I tweeted yesterday, how come only new car buyers are getting the bonus? If this is about fixing the climate, then shouldn’t non-drivers be eligible for the same (more!)? Isn’t going from 18mpg to unlimted mpg better than the 28mpg called for by the trade-in proposal?

More on the costs of driving — including thoughts from Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic on the subject! — at Seattle Transit Blog. Plus, The Infrastructurist takes an early look at Rep. Jim Oberstar’s plans to change the way American transportation is funded, and The Bellows links to a proposal for vehicle-miles-traveled taxation.

12 thoughts on Why Won’t the Feds Encourage People to Go Car-Free?

  1. Too often elected leaders go after the “softer-sympathetic” supporters so that those who refuse to change are spared. In this case, government is rewarding the wrong group and yes it is unfair for those who have already changed are left out. Perhaps negative reinforcement (not just rewards) should be considered for those who don’t want to change voluntarily. It’s hard to believe that we’ve backed ourselves into this corner but auto-centrism is a difficult addiction to kick.

  2. It’s SO transparently part of the plan to save union jobs (i.e. Obama voters), that it’s ridiculous. (The other part is throwing billions of dollars directly at the car companies.) I don’t know who they think they’re fooling.

  3. Sarah As I understand the program ‘cash for clunkers’ aims to stimulate vehicle sales in an industry that has fallen flat on its face because of the recession. In Germany this has been a great success. They are essentially trying to emulate those results. It should keep people employed other than if everything was just left to fizzle away. Its a here and now solution essentially, not the best, but one in the right direction. I can certainly see some people going to trade in their car and keep the cash to pay debts or just merely survive. The problem the government faces is a severe lack of public transport systems (bike lanes, bike paths, bus service, tram/street car etc.) that have been neglected for way too long because of backward thinking along with the stigma that has been created around those systems, cars are safer, kids will get abducted if they walk/bike/bus to school (they’ll also be less obese). The people need to see the light. The government can only push in a certain direction then they have to let the people have to take over and run with it. This a dual effort both us and them for once need to go in the same and right direction. I think were getting there… Hang in there its only gonna get better.

  4. “Why Won’t the Feds Encourage People to Go Car-Free?”

    A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage
    – Herbert Hoover

  5. Have you noticed that a typical parking space is larger than a typical office cubicle? That leads to the question of who pays for the maintenance costs and property taxes on that parking space? Shouldn’t those costs be recovered? Should the “free” parking space at suburban office complexes be a taxable benefit, so that income taxes be recovered.

  6. Why? Start with lobbying and public relations influence.

    Per Advertising Age Magazine’s yearly review of ad expenditures, in 2006 the automobile industry spent US$19.8 billions on advertising; that went down to “only” US$18.5 billions in 2007. (2008 figures pending).

    Now consider that virtually all of that advertising eschewed the realities of automobile ownership and operation in favor of a fantasy involving single cars “flying” down roads “uncluttered” with other cars, red lights, or pedestrians. In other words, those whose extensive research makes them most familiar with the issues — the automobile industry itself — has led them to conclude that the realities of automobile ownership and operation are, at best, unsaleable.

    Stated another way, what might our world look like if the automobile industry and the public transit sector were compelled to switch advertising budgets for, say, five years?

    Next, consider the lobbying influence of the automobile industry and its siblings, the road building lobby and the real estate lobby. Want jobs? Well, building cars, and roads, and single-family tract houses all promise jobs; especially after WWII, the longer-term social impacts of the automobile-centric way of life have been to abstract and distant to figure into any calculations.

    For better or worse, cars and the way of life they mandate are big business; for better or worse, public transit and happy pedestrians are not.

    Given that, how can anyone be surprised that the U.S. government isn’t encouraging people to sell their cars and get on the bus or start riding bicycles?

  7. Kind of surprising, given the effort the government puts into “suggesting” what to eat, what not to smoke, etc.

    But I think Herbert Hoover articulated it the most accurately. We had the space, we had the wealth, we esp. after WWII we were the biggest superpower on earth (the USSR was always largely overestimated). We were hardly the only country to go car crazy–we just took it farther than any other because we could.

  8. Thanks for featuring my post.

    I realize the answer to _why_ the feds don’t want get people out cars is both very easy and very complex. But I still had to ask.

    It gets a bit tiresome when people fuss about how subsidized mass transit is, and then get all excited about this new “upgrade benefit.” I heard one person say something along the lines of “it levels the subsidy playing field.”

    Uh, right… and who’s subsidizing the roads trashed by their Yukon, covering the cost of their on-street parking, AND paying the health and social costs of their destructive four-wheel lifestyle?

    Oh, that’s right… it’s me. and you.

    And I love the comment about the parking spot v.cubicle size. In Seattle we have on-street parking _everywhere_. As I cruise along just out of the door zone, I’m struck by how the drivers — either squeezing by me, or backed up behind — feel rage toward me, and not toward the huge cars always parked in non-metered spots to my right. “Free” parking drives me nuts. My office covers monthly parking, but I can’t even get HR to respond to my emails about the new bike commute benefit.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing the message. Keep it up Streetsblog and Streetsblog readers!

  9. Very well posted. The answer is that bicycles and mass-transit are both political suicide (except in rare instances like New York City). Congressman Earl Blumenhauer attempted to get a federal tax break for bicycle commuters and was nearly laughed out of the room.
    There are dozens of lobbying groups the largest of course being the oil industry which in addition to fighting legislation favoring public transit also pushed hard to confuse the climate change issue. With a former president and vice-president who were both receiving vast revenue from the oil industry, progress was impossible.
    Now with the recession, people are looking for ways to save money, but unfortunately the infrastructure is already built, so there’s little capital for transit or traffic calming. The bicycle, however, can easy function on existing streets.

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