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A Brief Reply to Heritage’s Ronald Utt, PhD

10:08 AM EDT on July 20, 2009

Readers, Ronald Utt has written a memo for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, on Barack Obama's transportation policy.

Typically, when presented with an article from a group not known for its progressive views on urban issues, I'll read through the piece at least twice to make sure I've gotten the argument. I'll have a think on what's being said and the evidence offered in support of the positions taken. And then, satisfied with my conclusions, I'll write a response.

47605788.gifRonald Utt

I'm not going to do that this time. Honestly, I glanced at the first paragraph and chuckled. I'd prefer to ignore the piece entirely, but Utt is the kind of guy who keeps showing up in the darndest places -- he helped Ronald Reagan push privatization of government assets, made himself available to Phillip Morris to refute "the issue of the social costs of tobacco" and has published for junk science purveyors the Heartland Institute -- so let's quickly move through this line by line, and then move on.

So here we are with paragraph one:

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood remarked in May that his livability initiative "is a way to coerce people out of their cars." When asked if this was government intrusion into people's lives, LaHoodresponded that "about everything we do around here is governmentintrusion in people's lives," a sentiment that would have certainlysurprised the authors of the United States Constitution, a documentwhose major purpose was to restrain government.

When you think about it, this is pretty fascinating, no? Utt doesn't dispute the point that "about everything we do around here is government
intrusion in people's lives." He's just pointing out that, hey, government these days would really blow the founders' minds. They were trying to restrain government -- to keep those Washington fat cats off a man's plantation and leave him in peace to farm, using the human labor he'd duly bought and paid for, on the free market.

LaHood's endorsement of governmentcoercion comes as no surprise to those who have been tracking the ObamaAdministration's incremental endorsements of the environmentalists'smart growth strategies to slow growth, crowd development, and deterautomobile use. And with LaHood's most recent presentation, theAdministration has formally embarked on an unprecedented and costlyexercise in social engineering to alter the way Americans live and travel.

This is interesting. Utt says the administration has formally embarked on an unprecedented exercise in social engineering.

Now, if Utt is still talking about Ray LaHood's off-the-cuff statement, then he and I have different definitions of formal -- mine being the one in the dictionary. If we agree that formal is something officially sanctioned or codified, then it would seem that Utt is, you know, saying something which isn't true.

Also, since Utt brought up the effort to deter automobile use, here's a pop quiz. Over the last 40 years, which president has presided over the largest single 12-month decline in driving? (Hint.)

Utt continues:

In justifying the necessity of coercingAmericans out of their cars, LaHood added that "people don't likespending an hour and a half getting to work. And people don't likespending an hour going to the grocery store." For LaHood, theseexaggerations justify a new federal transportation policy in which "wehave to create opportunities for people that do want to use a bicycleor want to walk or want to get on a street car or want to ride lightrail." Yet as the record reveals, LaHood's statement is replete witherrors and inaccuracies.

These are exaggerations? People do like spending an hour and a half getting to work?

For starters, how is it that gettingpeople to walk or bicycle to work or to the grocery store will get themthere faster? Other than infrequent situations in the center of ahandful of dense urban areas in the middle of rush hour, this proposalto reduce travel time is naïve and inconsistent with common sense.

If you read this paragraph closely, you will see that Utt has answered his own question. Obviously he has a difficult time imagining a world in which all new residential developments aren't at least 20 miles from the nearest commercial center. Pay attention, Mr. Utt, PhD!

LaHood's implication that people in theWashington area spend one and a half hours getting to work and an hourgetting to the grocery store is simply not true. According to the U.S.Census Bureau, the average commute in America is 25 minutes, and inVirginia, where many of Washington's workers live, the average commuteis 27 minutes. In Fairfax County, Washington's largest suburb, thecommute time is 31 minutes, while in the major exurb of Prince WilliamCounty (30 miles south of D.C.), the commute time is 37 minutes.As for the alleged hour-long trip to a Washington-area grocery store,an hour would be enough time for LaHood to travel from his office inWashington to a grocery store in Baltimore.

Listen, the latest three-year data from the Census pegs the commute for someone from Prince William County at 39 minutes, and the Washington Post cited 2006 Census data putting the number at 41 minutes, but let's not quibble.

And I'll bet Utt $500 -- and people, you can hold me to this -- that he can't get from the Department of Transportation to a grocery store in the city of Baltimore in under an hour during daylight. If he had ten tries, he couldn't do it. Google maps says you can make the 40 mile trip in around 55 minutes in the absence of traffic, but the sprawl that has grown up between the cities ensures that there is always traffic. Exaggeration.

LaHood cites Portland, Oregon, as anexample of what can be achieved with a retro transportation policy andcostly investment in light rail. But, sadly, his assertion reveals apredilection for urban legends over information produced by hisemployer, the federal government. As Wendell Cox pointed out usingfederal government data, "In 1985, approximately 2.1 percent ofmotorized travel in the Portland urban area was on transit and it remained 2.1 percent in 2007,the latest year for which data is available." Moreover, only 1.7percent of Portland commuters to downtown use bicycles, an amount lessthan the share of Americans who walk to work.

It's relevant that transit maintained its share in 2007 despite two decades of incredibly low real oil prices and two terms of a president who only cared for transportation subsidies for pavement. And then, of course, from 2007 to 2008 real gas prices spiked, and everyone in Portland was extremely glad that they had transit.

And what does Utt's last sentence there even mean? Don't normal people compare apples to apples? Like, say, share of Portlanders who walk to work compared to the share of Americans who walk to work? Anyway, I'm lazy, so I just decided to use the Google:

Portland, Oregon, was found to have the highest percentage of bicyclecommuters among large cities with about 3.5 percent of its workerspedaling to work. This is about eight times the national average of 0.4percent.

Also according to the Census, 4.7 percent of Portlanders walk to work, twice the national average. It's not clear how many are coerced, however.

Given the important position that LaHoodholds in this Administration, and given the federal government'scentral role in the nation's transportation system, his statements arecause for worry. Even more worrisome -- given his admission that we "haveto think outside the box"-- is his seeming admiration of an early20th-century lifestyle and his attraction to the kind of travelarrangements common to America before automobiles became the preferred(and most affordable) choice of travel.

Wait, it gets better:

More to the point, as LaHood uses hisposition of influence to recreate the "old paradigm," the real concernis just how far back into the past he wants to drag us. Cynical readerswill note that this nostalgic transportation system was heavilydependent upon horses and oxen. While this prospect may seemfar-fetched, six months ago it would have seemed far-fetched that asenior Administration official would endorse coercion to alter ourlifestyles.

Now, no intelligent person would have thought it far-fetched that a senior administration official would endorse coercion to alter our lifestyles, six months ago or at any time, because most intelligent people have heard of things like taxation, and law enforcement, and various safety regulations backed by the authority of local, state, and federal governments.

But then it also seems that Utt is worried about the president forcing him to use an ox to get to work. Which, frankly, I kind of wish he would, but as best I can tell, there are no livestock-oriented transportation plans in the works.

Folks, I don't know if I can continue with this. He keeps talking about the oxen:

Yet as the remainder of this paperwill suggest, a full-throated, back-to-the-past policy could offercertain unique benefits to those who yearn for yesteryear.

Specifically,this retro approach to transportation would mean restoringanimals--notably horses and oxen--to a central role in America'stransportation system. In turn, this would create a significant numberof "green" jobs to offset those lost in the outsourcing-dependentbailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

And on like that for seven paragraphs. The man mentions flatulence. I'm being serious, people.

Ah, but clever Utt gives the game away with his closing paragraph. It's satire!

While some may see the above prospects aspreposterous, do note that many of the Administration's policies dependupon a reversion to archaic practices abandoned centuries and decadesago as new technologies allowed for better service at lower costs. Ifthis Administration is prepared to bet our future on the technologiesand lifestyles of the past -- electric cars, passenger rail, trolleys,small houses, bicycles, and nationalized industries -- then a greaterdependence upon eco-friendly animals would be a nice fit for afashionably primitive America.

You all remember, in sepia-shaded dreams, the long-past days of the electric car, do you not? And many of you have no doubt visited those quaint French villages where vehicles of a bygone age cross the countryside at a stately 250 miles per hour?

This is quite obviously ridiculous, and Utt, had he the capacity for shame, should be feeling it. The automobile is no modern technology; it dates from the late 1800s. And the policies designed to push middle class Americans into the suburbs and beyond were put into place over half a century ago.

Utt thinks there's something grand about the fact that Americans lose over $80 billion per year to congestion costs and 40,000 lives annually to automobile accidents. He thinks it's funny that Americans use a quarter of global oil production, and have per-capita carbon emissions twice those of most developed nations, a third of which come from transportation.

And so he pretends that offering Americans an alternative to the approach that has dominated government funding and policy-making for 60 years is coercion, and makes a lame joke about how the latest transit vehicles, marvels of engineering and efficiency, are no better than a team of oxen.

As the president once said, it's like they take pride in being ignorant. Or at least take solace in the checks they get to cash.

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