Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why conservatives should want less car dependence and more mass transit in America

This whole article from Public Discourse is worth reading, but here's a sample:

A common misperception is that the current American state of auto-dependency is a result of the free market doing its work. In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation “market” is skewed towards car-ownership. These policy biases are too numerous to list exhaustively, but a few merit special recognition:

- If a state is interested in building a new highway, the only major regulatory obstacle is completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). After this, the federal government will typically pay for a large portion of the project, and leave the details of its planning and construction to the state’s Department of Transportation. If a state or municipality is interested in a transit project like a subway, a streetcar, or a bus system, however, not only must it complete an EIS, it must also clear a barrage of regulatory hurdles, including a cost-effectiveness analysis, a land-use impact analysis, and a comparison with other transit systems. None of these requirements is necessarily bad in itself (though many of these regulations were designed only to make it harder to build transit systems), but highways aren’t subject to any of them. Naturally, states therefore find it easier to channel transportation dollars into highways....

- Zoning requirements in most municipalities mandate that shops and houses must be separated. It is widely illegal to build the old small-town main street with the mix of shops, houses, and apartments that many find charming (so charming that some of these towns have been turned into tourist attractions). Furthermore, in most states it is mandatory for new schools to be built next to hundreds of acres playing fields, and thus far away from residential neighborhoods (see this report and this paper for a fuller discussion of policies that affect travel to school). These and similar regulations ensure that there are no shops or schools—that is, major household destinations—within walking distance of the average American’s home, which in turn requires the average American to own and use a car, not merely to commute to work but to perform basic tasks like picking up a gallon of milk or sending the kids off to school in the morning....

Consider how small businesses are affected by Americans’ dependency on cars. Since businesses are obliged by zoning restrictions to locate far away from residential areas, most Americans drive to every store they visit. This means that store visits are often discrete trips that must be undertaken consciously and planned out ahead of time. As a consequence, shoppers will want to visit stores that carry the most diverse inventory—Wal-Mart, Costco, et al.—and avoid shops that specialize in one particular kind of good—the local paint store or flower shop, for instance. Moreover, since small shops cannot afford to spend large sums on advertising, they can’t buy the enormous signs and billboards that direct shoppers to large retail outlets, nor gin up hype for their products with coordinated television spots. Perhaps if their potential customers could walk by their storefronts they would have a chance to notice window-displays and similar kinds of small, careful advertising....

As the market diminishes for these specialized stores, so too does opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship. If opening a small business were a viable option in more markets, more Americans would be interested in starting them. The current situation, where only very large stores can compete in most retail environments, makes starting a business impossible for the vast majority of Americans.
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