LaHood hallucinates about getting people out of cars but he's not first to smoke that - EDITORIAL

July 27, 2009

US secretary of transportation Ray LaHood got into trouble not long ago for saying that a so-called "livability initiative" of USDOT and US Department of Housing was "a way to coerce people out of their cars."  The 'coerce' bit was inartful, impolitic language that put an unnecessarily harsh interpretation on longstanding public policy of attempting to use subsidies, taxes and landuse regulations to buy so-called 'smart growth' and to incentivize people into using 'alternative transportation' to the automobile.

The Obama administration is apparently proposing to intensify what has long been a fruitless federal policy, and in a great many places ineffectual state and local policy as well.

Talk about digging more vigorously when you're in a hole!

Already city planning and city zonings favor high density development in downtowns and transportation budgets at all levels of government subsidize transit. A Heritage estimate put the subsidy in 2006 for transit at 16.5c/passenger-mile and for passenger rail at 23.5c/passenger-mile. At the same time they estimate automobile users pay about 1c/mile in taxes over and above road costs to subsidize these alternatives. (See MotoristsShafted.pdf paper below)

Despite their best efforts governments have been failing massively to get Americans to live so-called 'smart' or to use alternatives to the car.

Truth is most Americans do like the idea of others getting off the roads and taking the train or biking, but it just doesn't work for them. They also do like the idea of other people living downtown in loft apartment complexes and walking to work so they're not on the highway, but it's not for them.  

The great majority prefer a little more separation from neighbors, a yard, a garage of their own, some lawn, and perhaps a pool or a tennis court or some fruit trees, vegetables, flowers, and somewhere for the dog to go. They also like the idea they might be able to add a room to their house.

And they prefer the car for most of their own trips.

As a result of these preferences automobiles have no serious competitors in providing our basic mobility within urban areas and they are unlikely to get any - regardless of what governments get up to.

Automobiles dominate urban travel because they are the only efficient means of providing for the vast majority of trips. For some 90 percent of urban trips people choose to use the automobile because of its superior speed, comfort, safety and general convenience. Nothing else can go door to door, conveniently carry your computer, your shopping, reading matter, sporting gear, spare clothes, drink, children or pets. Everything else is generally too slow, too uncomfortable, too much hassle, just impractical.

Other modes have small niche markets and these markets are likely to remain niches:

- rail for commuter work trips from outlying areas of large metro areas to central business districts

- buses basically for low income people who can't afford cars

- walking for the small minority of trips that are less than about a mile in distance and don't involve lugging shopping items

- biking for fit athletic people during good weather and for trips up to 3 or 4 miles

These niches (rail, bus, walking, biking) in most American metro areas are in total less than 10% of total passenger travel. 90% is by automobile.

PRT/people movers

For several years I was intrigued by "PRT" - Personal Rapid Transit - a concept involving automobile sized or smaller vehicles running on light elevated guideway, electrically powered, automatically switched and routed, organized as a grid dense enough to make all origins and destinations within a couple of hundred meters/yards of a PRT stop.

The Personal part of PRT meant vehicles could take you non-stop to your destination on the overhead grid since every stop would be off-line and able to be bypassed by non-stopping vehicles. This would make it Rapid compared to regular transit which has to keep stopping to let people on and off.  

And it would be Transit since the users wouldn't have the burden of owning, parking, and maintaining vehicles.

Great concept.

It still has a lot of smart engineers and enthusiasts rooting for it.


a British system

and an American system

The gridded network seems to be way more suited to the evolving decentralized urban environment than the hub and spoke of rail, or the long corridors that buses run.


Raytheon, a company that deserves respect for both its technical and business savvy put a lot of money into PRT ten years ago. They built test vehicles and a test track. Smaller companies continue to tinker with PRT - all without the slightest bit of interest, let alone help from the likes of USDOT.

British engineers, among the world's best, and French and Germans and Japanese companies have tried making PRT work.

Nowhere can it be sold for large-scale urban deployment.

Maybe at some point there will be a breakthrough with PRT but it won't be thanks to any government support. Government subsidies go entirely into century old electric rail, metrostyle and so-called light rail, really just jazzed up trolleys or streetcars - both are heavy, clumsy, unreliable, slow, and very expensive both to build and operate.


In the meantime some of the aspects of PRT including its gudieway design and automated operation shows promise as a niche called 'people movers'  - within controlled environments like airports, university campuses, themeparks, maybe whole central business districts - though economies of scale have caused the vehicles to grow beyond the automobile-Personal in size.

The ones that have sold are more mini-transit than Personal transit.

Again PRT/people movers look like a niche, an interesting niche with more promise than rail, but still a niche.

Goods movement and services are road-bound

In the distribution of goods and in commercial services the road system is not just 90% of transportation but 100% within urban areas. All package and goods distribution, all food distribution, all garbage collection, all movement of plumbers, electricians, painters, telecom techs, and other service people, all emergency services (ambulance, fire, police) is by truck, or van or car or specialized vehicle on roads.

Roads are therefore the basis of our whole urban transportation infrastructure, and all others are destined by their inherent limitations to be small bit players.

The long search for "transportation alternatives" to the dominant automobile/road system is an exercise in futility. It is a search for something in the imagination, not in the real world.

The way forward is not to look for alternatives that exist only in a fantasy world, but to focus on how to improve automobiles and the roads they travel on, and the way we finance, manage and operate them.  Proper pricing of road use (tolls) will be a major component of that.

Automobile and road improvement is what real progressives work at. The rest is marginal. - editor

Useful Heritage papers on this subject:

TOLLROADSnews 2009-07-26

Further Reading

Leave a comment:

Upcoming Events