Commentary: Cars Are the Future of Urban Transportation

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A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology.

A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. Courtesy image.

Auto critics such as Brad Meacham (see his commentary, “Changing How We Get Around U.S. Cities,” here) are continually predicting the death of the automobile and growing use of mass transit and other alternatives for urban travel. In fact, all of the reasons that have made cars the transport of choice for more than 90% of urban passenger travel remain as strong as ever today, and will be even stronger in the future as automobiles become more automated.

America and the world have been transformed by transportation improvements that have made mobility faster, less expensive, and more convenient. Streetcars were a major improvement over walking, automobiles were a major improvement over streetcars, and self-driving cars will be a major improvement over ordinary cars because they are faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

Compare auto travel with modern transit, for example. Americans spend about 25 cents per passenger mile on driving, and all federal, state, and local subsidies to driving add up to about a penny per passenger mile. Public transit fares also average about 25 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies to bus riders average 88 cents per passenger mile while subsidies to light rail averages $1.84 per passenger mile.

Meacham is correct that the fiscal reality behind transportation will soon set it. But if we end all subsidies to transportation, auto driving costs will increase by 4% while transit fares triple or quadruple. That’s not going to do much to discourage driving.

Cars are also faster than transit. The average speed of cars in cities is about 30 to 40 mph, while the average speed of transit is about 15 mph. Moreover, the door-to-door convenience of cars can be matched by transit only for people who are willing to dramatically limit their lifestyles to homes, work, and entertainment that happens to be on transit lines.

Auto speeds are impeded by congestion that has become a major urban problem partly because urban planners have deliberately failed to relieve congestion believing (as Meacham does) that building more roads merely “induces” more traffic. Their implicit assumption is that people shouldn’t be traveling.

The truth is that anything that increases the speed or reduces the cost of mobility generates huge economic benefits. Somehow, to planners, it makes more sense to spend money on transportation projects that do nothing to increase mobility than to spend on projects that “induce” large increases in travel.

Congestion as a problem, however, is going away. Automated features in cars on the market today, such as adaptive cruise control, can increase the capacity of roads by as much as 50%. Road capacities will increase further when fully self-driving cars enter the market in a few years.

Meacham stated that “people are hungry for community.” The reality is that communities are no longer geographically based; thanks to the Internet and other telecommunications, we can enjoy communities with people all over the world. When it comes time to actually meet those people, cars are one of the best ways to reach them.

The automobile made transit almost completely obsolete. Self-driving cars, combined with car sharing, will finish the job. People such as Meacham who want more transit are living in the past.

 *Featured/top image: A device using LIDAR mounts on top of a vehicle, has 64 lasers that generate millions of data points per second, and is a potential game changer in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. Courtesy image. 

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30 thoughts on “Commentary: Cars Are the Future of Urban Transportation

  1. Oh, wow, a Cato Institute quote. How nice of them to instantly flag the whole essay as ‘ignorable.’

  2. I complete disagree with this article. What about the fact that in 2005 the peak driving average was 27.6 miles per day per person and has continued to plummet every single year since then. Or the fact that 80 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. had a driver’s license in the late 1970s compared to only 67 percent today. The next generation are choosing to not drive when they can and we need to design our cities for this change. Self driving cars will not reverse this trend or fix the problem.
    https://therivardreport.com/san-antonio-green-dividend/

  3. Cato is legit though I often disagree with positions and their bias and misuse of statistics is often questioned. For that matter, statistics are easy to manipulate to make any argument. I applaud having this kind of discussion. That said, I’m not sure about the penny per mile “subsidy” for auto travel as compared to 25-88 cents per mile for public transit. First, there is an argument that corporate tax benefits specifically favoring the auto-oil industry should be calculated into the subsidy. Second, obviously the calculation does not include road/highway infrastructure necessary to enable auto transportation, and I’m curious the degree to which transit vehicles and/or infrastructure costs have been included in part or in whole in the public transit subsidy. It is important that the comparison be apples to apples, and I think this is suspect here. Lastly, and most absurdly, one cannot make an across the board statement regarding public transit economics. Unlike roads and cars which are just about the same everywhere, public transit varies widely, from small and new systems that are very economically inefficient to heavily utilized, established systems that are, in fact, very cost effective, especially in urban areas where car ownership is simply out of reach for most people. The writer presumes that everyone is in an economic position to choose between transit or auto, and that is ridiculous even in a stable, successful economy. So, starting with the deceptively broad headline, to the questionable statistics, I think this is a flawed argument.

  4. Streetcars replaced horses and wagons, not walking. Streetcars were actively killed off by the auto industry. Private auto may travel faster than public transit, but by the time you factor in parking, the time savings is minimal. The private automobile is all great until the owner has to pay market rates to park. Parking on streets and in City lots is highly subsidized.

  5. Actually, the “Americans spend about 25 cents per passenger mile on driving” is not accurate. An annual study (for the IRS) of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile, including depreciation, insurance, repairs, tires, maintenance, gas and oil yields a total cost of 57.5 cents. Depreciation alone is 24 cents per mile. http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-14-79.pdf

    • That document is for the purpose of tax deductions, not actual average cost of travel. You are quoting the business rate, which assumes new vehicles which are traded in every few years where depreciation is a huge chunk of the cost. Most people keep their cars for longer than that and many people buy used cars, which have even less depreciation.

      Note how the rates for Medical transportation and care is 23 cents per mile and for charitable organisations it is 14 cents per mile.

      You are cherrypicking statistics and you know it.

      • Depreciation in the fair value of assets (motor vehicles in this case) occurs whether the vehicle is used in business or for personal use. Most folks are aware that their vehicle will be worth less after using their vehicle for another year than it is today.

        The amount of depreciation varies with a variety of factors, one of the most important is the value of the asset at the start of the depreciation period. Used cars have a lower initial value but there still is considerable depreciation. Looking at the Consumer Reports 2015 annual guide’s used vehicle section, 5 year old vehicles are worth 15-25k in the truck and large SUV category and 10-15 in small-medium cars. For older vehicles depreciation would be less (but still considerable), but repairs would be more compared to newer vehicles.

        However, there are a lot of new vehicles sold in the US. For new vehicle sales in 2014, there were 7.9 M cars and 8.6 M light-duty trucks.

        Consumer Reports (Feb 15) estimates the cost per mile that “factors in all major expenses incurred in a car’s first five years, a common period of ownership.” Compact cars cost per mile is about 55 cents, midsize cars about 60 cents, large cars and minivans about 75 cents, pickup trucks about 80 cents, and large SUVs about 90 cents.

        So, I agree that the IRS figure is not representative of the cost mile for many drivers…it’s too low. The IRS figure is for business use of a personal car and for many drivers doesn’t fully reimburse the owner of a personal car for total costs, including depreciation.

  6. This person’s argument is so deceptive and fallacious that it is obvious propaganda. Here is one problem I have with his argument that isn’t about the dubious statistics he uses without citation: he frames the situation as a binary paradigm, where either we have cars the way they are now, totally dominating our transit options and physical landscape, or we don’t have cars at all. There is another way.

  7. Climate change? Does anyone in this city acknowledge and discuss climate change and what needs to be done to prepare?

  8. Dude, Randal O’Toole, really??? The Rivard Report has sunk to a new low. O’Toole has been sitting up there in the Portland suburbs spouting his ideology for the past two decades…and what does the Scoreboard say? Has Portland failed like he has been predicting for the past two decades? SURVEY SAYS: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX…No!
    .
    If you’re going to have reactionary tools and sock puppets like O’Toole occupying space on this website, you might as well get Terri Hall and just start the crazy parade.

    • We knew there would be some, um, negative reaction to the posting, but wanted to demonstrate that we are open to alternative viewpoints on this issue and others. Do people at mysa.com use cutout emails instead of their real names –RR

    • I couldn’t agree more about O’Toole, though I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Rivard either.

      In my humble opinion, it would be great to hear a local perspective, which would likely come from Jeff Judson, or perhaps have whomever paid Mr. O’Toole (assumption) to submit this article should be encouraged to step forward and present it themselves instead of a “cutout” “expert”.

      End of the day, the crazy parade gets to say their piece. You should retort instead of dog the Report (trademark).

    • Don’t hide behind Guest 2. Come on out here with the rest of us and let us know who you are. I for one side with the market and reject (ideologically) the idea that we need public subsidies that tend to make local rich people richer and come at more of a cost to tax payers than their worth.

      Some good points were made here, maybe with the wrong information, but good points nonetheless. There are good national models for light rail and then there are failures. If we’re going to have to subsidize then we should make larger connections like the L-Star rather than smaller connections proposes by VIA.

      I don’t know what you have against Terri Hall but if you have a problem then use your real name. Don’t hide!

  9. San Antonio is currently a great city for driving and a bad city for getting around without a car – by recent priorities, design and management. I think there will always be a role for personal (and increasingly automated, shared, lighter and smaller) motorized vehicles in San Antonio, but we don’t have to continue the modern pattern of devoting the majority of the city or public infrastructure to serving only car maneuverability, access and storage.

    Watch a US film from the 1990s and it becomes obvious how personal vehicles including trucks have ‘bloated’ in the US in recent years – in some cases to accommodate (if not creating) larger and less nimble drivers. Compare with the Canta car or similar in the Netherlands – designed specifically with an aging or less able-bodied population (not able to ride a bicycle) in mind and to broaden urban maneuverability for these residents http://www.amsterdamlogue.com/the-worlds-smallest-car.html

    Cycling the early (1900s) electric streetcar lines of San Antonio – which served more or less the expanse of the 410 loop- makes it obvious that we are blessed with the right climate, topography and established street patterns for other forms of traversing ‘city’ distances here than driving (its only roughly 8mi from the airport to the Alamo) – although recent urban design and management has prioritized transport by cars, to the point of slowing if not making impossible other forms of movement.

    Our existing public transport system is good but there are tremendous and painfully easy opportunities for improvement – including by making currently car-only accessible sites more walking, biking and public transport accessible and pleasant (HEB, enclosed shopping centers, commercial strips, the airport, schools, parks etc.). To help ‘revitalize’ downtown, we should be retrofitting the historic city to broaden and improve our options for accessing established services and amenities without a car.

    I’ve recently witnessed the expenditure of considerable public resources to improve the parking lots at a ‘historic’ neighborhood public high school in San Antonio – one surrounded by on-street parking options (and currently meager sidewalks and public transport services and waiting facilities) and that by at least some measures lags far behind other public schools in the state academically. The City of San Antonio has a tremendous annual budget but should think carefully about continuing to prioritize spending on car infrastructure over other works and improvements needed to support a healthy and vital city.

  10. I agred with this article until I visited San Fransisco for four months. I took my car with me and don’t deny using it, but the “auto thing” was a rough lesson. I could not park the car closer than a mile away from the business I was working with (downtown), and the notion of EVER parking closer than a mile away to a destination was dashed in the first month. I was angry at this notion, but learned that I could park the car (for the day) and accomplish most errends between the car and the work place. What I discovered was that the rest of the city people had learned the same lesson, so on the way to work, I would walk by a busy coffee house, a bank, etc. A trip on the BART from Oakland proved to be pleasant, fast, and the only thing that marginalized this transit experience was parking the car at the terminal. (If you were late in the morning you would find your parking spot a few blocks away from the terminal.) Another set of weeks found three of us in the same car every morning, splitting the parking tab. By the time I left there, I was broken of my habit of parking at the destination and began walking further without any thought. In San Antonio, this new philosophy gets me cheap parking. (every time) The rest of you can pay the fifteen bucks to park across from the bar, not me. (try 4 quarters for the evening)

  11. I am pleased to learn tonight that Brad Meacham, in my high school graduating class in the Seattle area, is also interested in urban planning and light rail, and that both of us have web sites on these issues. It appears that Meacham and I take opposite approaches to these issue. I agree with Randal O’Toole.

    We need more freeway capacity to meet the demands of a growing population. But at the same time, downtown areas are becoming less important to urban commerce. Growth and job creation is moving to the distal suburbs, and also to exurban, semi-rural towns, where “tellecommuters” work for large IT companies on the coast.

    In terms of suburbs, here in the greater Los Angeles area, downtown LA is not important to the economic vitality of the region. Instead, most businesses are concentrated in the five county metro – Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties. Thousand Oaks and its neighbors in Ventura and L.A. counties are your prototypical L.A. suburbs, with large office parks for AMGEN, Baxter, Dole, and Bank of America. Indeed, as suburban sprawl expands outwards, companies move to the suburbs, employees move outwards, so commute times remain, for the most part, under 45 minutes.

    Exurban, semi-rural towns are attracting young, 20- and 30- something telecommuters from Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. California cities such as Ojai, CA and Truckee, CA have lots of telecommuters. Durango, Colorado is also very popular. A tellecommuter, once they relocate, works at home. They generally use less fossil fuels, than someone who commutes 45 minutes each way, through gridlock, to a suburban office park each day, such as those who work in Silicon Valley, and cross the San Francisco Bay from Contra Costa County.

    In terms of the Seattle area, noted Bellevue businessman and philanthropist Kemper Freeman, hired world famous traffic engineer Dr. William Eager, to determine the best solution for Seattle area gridlock. Eager’s study found that the current Seattle area freeway plan was designed for the population that was reached by 1990. Therefore, the Seattle area has been functioning with inadequate freeway infrastructure for 25 years!

    Dr. Eager found that light rail is not the answer to this. Instead, Eager found that adding just 6% additional freeway lane miles, would reduce congestion by 36%. That is a very modest investment, compared to regional light rail that will only reduce congestion by 3%.

    One of the few places where light rail works is Manhattan, since population density is very high. Light rail does not work in most suburban, auto-oriented cities where densities are well under 2500 persons per square mile. Yes, Seattle is building dozens of “smart growth residential towers,” in order to increase density. However, transit planners for the Puget Sound Regional Council only predict that 3% of trips will be from light rail, once the regional light rail system is completed. You can read more about Dr. Eager’s study, and view his map of the new freeway lanes, at these links –
    https://smartgrowthusa.wordpress.com/dr-bill-eager-seattle-end-gridlock-now/
    and
    http://wp.me/pMHrW-17N

    In 2011, I campaigned for Initiative-1125, which would have banned light rail on Interstate 90 in Seattle, which violates the constitution, which states that gas taxes cannot be used for light rail, see: https://smartgrowthusa.wordpress.com/republicans-endorse-initiative-1125-democrats-pelz-oppos/

    Unfortunately, I-1125 lost. But one should note that Seattle-Tacoma area voters soundly rejected light rail in 2007, and it barely passed (by 51%) in 2008. Statistics – http://wp.me/pMHrW-17N

    Therefore, in terms of infrastructure, the region remains relatively conservative and status quo, and unwilling to try new ideas. Although, in terms of social issues, the Seattle area remains relatively liberal, and that is what I like about western Washington and NW Oregon, compared to much of California. I believe that Democrats should exclusively focus on social justice issues, and allow (non-partisan) transportation engineers such as Dr. Bill Eager, to determine the best transportation infrastructure.

    And, I would like to see more money for bike lanes and bike paths. In Corvallis, Oregon, 4 hours from Seattle, 20% of all trips are from cycling and walking. This is the highest in the nation. Compare that to just 3% of all trips from light rail, the goal from the Puget Sound Regional Council. Indeed, providing more bikeways and sidewalks is significantly cheaper than either light rail trains or freeways.

    On that note, the bi-partisan Mountains to Sound Greenway in the Seattle area is continuously acquiring land to provide a 100 mile east-west system of open space, bikeways, and trails, from the shores of Puget Sound to Ellensburg, Washington (in Eastern Washington). I would like to see more cities establish greenways, to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

    I’d also like to see Washington State increase its street and lane width standards, to accommodate bike lanes on all new roads. Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona all have wider street and lane widths, and in most circumstances they require bike lanes whenever a new street is built. Cities such as Phoenix, Reno, Bend, and Corvallis are very bike friendly. Many California cities pioneered wide streets with bike lanes, and bike trails through greenways, most notably, Thousand Oaks, California in Ventura County, west of Los Angeles.
    -Tom Lane

    • Tom,

      There is no light rail transit on Manhattan.

      Such an obvious flaw in your commentary makes me question all the other technical and statistical information you’ve provided.

      Garl B. Latham

      • Re: Mr. Latham. I am sorry but Manhattan has rail transit of some sort. I don’t know how it is defined in NYC. Light rail works in Manhattan because of the high population density. We don’t have this in Portland and Seattle and it will never be acheived. The very best estimates show that up to 3% of all trips could be by light rail once it’s completed in the Seattle area. Because I did not describe the nature of rail transit in Manhattan correctly should not cause someone such as yourself to question the other material my posts on this forum, which are all facts, backed up with links to my web site, which in turn, have links to dozens of other web sites from traffic engineers. I am sorry that you wish to denigrate another poster on this forum. So moving to a more positive note, may I ask you, what are your opinions about light rail, for Texas cities?

        • Mr. Lane,

          Over the past six days, I have reviewed some of the information found on your “smartgrowthusa” web site. Regrettably, many of your viewpoints are in almost diametric opposition to mine. This seems to indicate the possibility of true consensus – at least here and now – is practically nonexistent.

          Still, I’d also “like to see more cities…accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.” Perhaps agreement on this issue would be a way for us to begin future discussions on a more amiable note, presuming our paths cross again.

          Regarding my opinion of rail-based transit in Texas, it is probably typified by an op-ed piece I wrote for the San Antonio Express-News (in response to one of Randal O’Toole’s typical anti-train essays):

          http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/commentary/article/Streetcars-will-please-San-Antonians-once-they-4100453.php

          This, in turn, caused O’Toole to question my sanity:

          http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=7285

          Good-bye.

          Garl Boyd Latham

  12. Re: Cato Foundation … Randal O’Toole is also a self-published author (see http://ti.org and http://ti.org/antiplanner) and runs his own foundation called “The American Dream Foundation.” (see http://americandreamcoalition.org/) Here on the west coast we really appreciate his work, since our cities have failed to invest in enough freeways. On the west coast we have dozens of professors, and traffic engineers in private consulting firms, who are not paid by Cato, who have come to similar conclusions as Randal O’Toole and his associates.

    I was in San Antonio in about 3rd grade and remember the very nice historic downtown. It would seem that you would have perfect year round weather for cycling and walking. Whereas in Oregon and Washington, it rains 9 months of the year, just about every single day, so freeways the preferred method of transportation in Seattle and Portland, except in downtown areas and small college towns with cycling enthusiasts such as Corvallis, Oregon. In urban planning, every city is different, and the people are different, so things that work in one place may not be appropriate for elsewhere. People in LA and Seattle love driving long distances at 70mph on freeways, but this is not the preferred method of transportation everywhere in the US.

  13. Garl,
    Light rail will never take more than 3% of all trips in the Seattle area, according to the regional planning agency called the “Puget Sound Regional Council.” The best solutions for the Seattle area are 1) more freeway lanes; 2) loop freeways on the east side; 3) bus rapid transit; 4) more bike lanes and bike trails in areas with a younger demographic, and where some individuals have shorter commutes, i.e. near the University of Washington, Lake Union, and Capitol Hill.

    The transportation web pages that you read from me were written around 2009-2011. Since then I have not addressed Democrat Governor Jay Inslee’s Gateway Project, to finish highways 167, 509, and widen I-5 to 12 lanes, see – http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/gateway/
    Nationally, for the latest information on light rail and freeways, refer to Randal O’Toole’s web site, http://ti.org/antiplanner or Dr. Peter Gordon’s blog, http://www.petergordonsblog.com/

    Since 2011, I’ve seen lots of smaller towns in warmer climates, such as college towns in California, that have huge potential to reduce vehicle congestion with bike lanes and bike paths. I have photos of bike paths in college towns such as Chico, California, Thousand Oaks, California, and others but have not yet posted them.

    Seattle’s freeway system could be upgraded in a manner suggested by world renowned traffic engineer Dr. Bill Eager, who was hired by developer Kemper Freeman to conduct a study. Dr. Eager – http://www.tdanet.com/tda_inc_staff_page.htm
    Dr. Eager’s plan – https://smartgrowthusa.wordpress.com/dr-bill-eager-seattle-end-gridlock-now/

    Some elements of Dr. Eager’s plan were proposed in the Gateway Plan by the current Democrat Washington Governor Jay Inslee when he took office. Unfortunately, the Republicans defeated the Democrats in 2012 in the Democrat’s effort to widen I-5 to 12 lanes, and finish highways 167 and 509. While both parties in Washington State, for decades, have failed to fix the congestion problem, the Democrats got it right with their new Gateway Project plan.

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