Friday, September 6, 2013

Car dependence is overdetermined

I came across a word that I think helped me to put my finger on something that’s been unclear: "overdetermined." It's a Freudian term (he first used it for the content of dreams) that means that an effect has a number of causes, and you don’t need them all to get it. I realized that we've been having so much trouble ending car dependence because it is overdetermined.

If everyone purely voted their interests regarding transportation, and transportation spending were proportional to population, we’d have no drivers in a few generations, because transit is so much cheaper than car infrastructure and subsidies. But car dependence persists, because there are a number of factors that skew the politics, and even if you can knock out one factor, the others often are strong enough to keep things skewed.

The current New York City mayoral campaign is an example of this. In a city where a majority of residents live without cars, and a vast majority commute by transit, even the most progressive candidate, Sal Albanese, finds it necessary to pander to drivers occasionally, and the other candidates go even further. Here are some of the factors that I’ve identified.
  1. Non-drivers identify with drivers. Driving is often the only reasonable way to increase the comfort of your commute, and it’s associated around the world with higher social status. Most Americans want to increase their social status, and as a result most non-drivers spend a significant amount of time imagining themselves as drivers. Part-time drivers imagine themselves as full-time drivers. The result is that congestion pricing, which would have made things more difficult for a small minority of drivers, attracted widespread condemnation from people who imagined themselves driving to work in Manhattan any day now.

  2. Key segments of the population drive at higher rates. Because the government controls the curb, parking has been used as a perk for politicians and bureaucrats to reward their allies. The result is that teachers, clergy, doctors and journalists get free parking, as do leaders of influential businesses and nonprofits, and the politicians themselves. These “thought leaders” paint the world in their own image, so that when we go to church or turn on the television, or when our kids are in the classroom, the picture is one of driving. People who drive get lots of respect and understanding from civil servants, police officers, firefighters and even transit operators, and people who don’t get lots of disrespect.

  3. NIMBY arguments favor drivers. Ian Rasmussen has observed that "development" used to be seen as a good thing, but in the past sixty years or so has become a negative. A large part of that is that most people think of development as bringing lots of new cars. One fear is that these cars will clog the streets, but Paul Barter has also talked about the parking spillover bogeyman, where people fear that new residents, commuters and shoppers will take up all the parking and leave older residents, commuters and shoppers to fight for the existing spaces.

  4. Corruption favors road capacity. When transit projects are corrupt, we get big ornamental stations that offer limited improvements in capacity or travel time and fail to attract more riders. When road projects are corrupt, we get roads that are too wide, inviting more people to drive. When transit run out of funding they get cut back or even abandoned. When road projects run out of funding the politicians scramble to take money from other projects, including transit projects.

  5. The "two New Yorks" narrative favors drivers. Lots of people are getting screwed in New York: poor people, nonwhite people, disabled people, people who don’t speak English well, people who aren’t US citizens, people who don’t live in fancy neighborhoods, and people who don’t drive. Frank Macchiarola’s odious "two New Yorks" concept, which has recently been reanimated by Bill de Blasio, simplifies all that multidimensional, intersectional oppression into a single dimension: Manhattan versus the Outer Boroughs. The politicians of the Outer Boroughs, painted as the virtuous fighters for justice, tend to be wealthy white able-bodied English-speaking US citizens who live in fancy neighborhoods like Forest Hills, Riverdale and Midwood, or at least five out of those six criteria, and they almost all drive.

  6. Drivers have more political power. In New York the situation is not quite as extreme as in the rest of the United States, but drivers still tend to be wealthier and better-connected, with more free time and a stronger belief in their own power. That means they tend to vote more and pay more campaign contributions, so a candidate may well win an election on pro-car votes in a district where drivers are a minority. This means that even if politicians, journalists and bureaucrats aren’t drivers, they have an incentive to pay attention to drivers. That attention often goes beyond simple respect to outright pandering.

  7. Rural bias favors driving. Low population density doesn't cause driving, but they're correlated, and if a politician can pander to drivers in a district where 77% of households are car-free, a politician who represents a district with less than 10% car-free households can feel free to completely ignore non-drivers. That's exactly what happens with the New York State Senate majority, and of course the majority of the US senate. There are thousands of transit users living north of Bear Mountain, but whenever people talk about "fairness for Upstate" somehow it always winds up meaning more money for roads.

    The "Senate problem" of disproportionate power given to rural voters is not confined to elected bodies. It's also present in nonprofit associations of bureaucrats, like AASHTO and GHSA, that have a one-state-one-vote policy, and organizations like the New York State Association of Counties, whose mission is to disenfranchise New York City Democrats (and combat complete streets). (Added September 12.)

So we’ve got at least six factors that skew the political system towards car dependence: identification, leadership, NIMBYism, corruption, the “Two New Yorks” lie, and the power of drivers. If we take out one of them, the others will keep money flowing to wasteful roads like the Kosciuszko Bridge. Any good campaign to reduce driving has to tackle at least two of them, and the more the better.

Or we can look for people fighting each of those factors and try to make sure that more than one of them succeeds at the same time. I know some good people. What about you?


Shaun said...

#1 really resonates with me. It is nearly the same argument as one that states many Americans don't support social safety nets that may benefit them since many of us see ourselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

Also, I feel like many people, and not just Americans, don't understand that "alternative transport" options, like walking, riding a bike, or taking the train, are so disproportionately underfunded and under-cared for simply because it isn't an issue, and this is "always how it's been."

A commenter on one of my posts about a freeway basically purported that traffic is inherent and will always exist, no matter what anyone does or if the freeway is built or not. It's that kind of thinking that perpetuates this reliance on the car. Most people just don't see the other options as anything to worry about – they, too, someday will have a car, and if they won't, they're just too powerless to do anything about it.

Unknown said...

Really great post. #1 is kind of a corollary of lower- and middle-income people opposing a progressive tax structure because they might be rich themselves, one day. I'd never thought about the impact of corruption on transit vs road projects, but your point is intriguing and makes a lot of sense.

Alon said...

Outside New York you don't need to posit that non-drivers identify with drivers; drivers are a very large majority. Even in environments with large non-driver populations, like Boston, a lot of regionwide activities cater to drivers.

Anonymous said...

#1, I remember, back during a brief time when I was a modest man living in a glitzy part of the UWS, observing all the town cars waiting early in the morning to take well to do folks to their offices day after day. While I was walking to the subway, these individuals had obtained a certain status that afforded them the ability to do this on a regular basis I guess. Perhaps this was also after years of those same folks using taxis for their commute. So even in a neighborhood full of transit options, these folks were still choosing to use cars.

Contrary; you say "we’d have no drivers in a few generations". Well, lots of things are possible in a few generations, but why wait that long? I think autonomous vehicles are likely to be one of the things that enter the everyday lives of drivers across America in the next ten years, a single generation or two ( I've read your case against EVs as a solution to the concerns that you raise. I would like to also read your opinions on safe, efficient, and accessible self driving cars moving us over roads.

Adirondacker12800 said...

I think autonomous vehicles are likely to be one of the things that enter the everyday lives of drivers across America in the next ten years

They have been predicting that self driving cars are just around the corner for as long as they have been predicting that monorails would be whisking us from suburbia into the city, maglev will be whoosing between the cities and it would all be powered by fusion reactors.
My bet is on perfecting Heisenberg Compensators making all of the above obsolete.