A “War on Cars”? Let There be Peace!

Some people complain that new transportation planning practices, such as bike- and bus-lanes, complete streets, traffic speed reductions, and new parking fees, are a “war on cars.” Driving instructor Steven Wallace recently made such a claim, and his readers piled on.

Framing this as a “war” implies that motorists are victims of violent threats. Should drivers really fear ferocious pedestrians and armed bicyclists? Of course not. Such claims are particularly cruel because pedestrians and bicyclists really do face violence from motor vehicle traffic. Much of what critics call a “war on cars” consists of efforts to improve other modes’ safety and convenience.

A War on Cars? Let There be Peace!

Let’s be clear: there is no war on cars. During the last century, transportation planning was automobile-oriented: the majority of planning resources (money, road space, and design priorities) were devoted to improving automobile travel, often to the detriment of other travel modes. Wider roads and higher traffic speeds create barriers and risks to pedestrians and bicyclists, and minimum parking requirements subsidize car travel and encourage sprawled development, creating sprawled communities where it is difficult to reach destinations without a car. The result is automobile dependency and sprawl (see figure), which increases economic, social and environmental costs.

Cycle of Automobile Dependence

In response, many communities are starting to implement more multi-modal transportation planning that improves travel options, encourages more efficient travel, and creates more compact communities. However, this is no more a “war on cars” than a healthy diet is a “war on food.” Multi-modal planning allows travellers to choose the most efficient mode for each trip: walking and bicycling for local trips, public transit on busy urban corridors, and driving when it is truly optimal, considering all impacts. Motorists benefit from reduced traffic and parking congestion, reduced risk of being the victim of other drivers’ errors, and reduced chauffeuring burdens.

Multi-modal transportation planning neither requires nor prohibits driving. This offers something for everybody, including people who cannot, should not or prefer not to drive, and benefits motorists by reducing their traffic and parking congestion, accident risk and chauffeuring burdens.

Auto-Dependent, Multi-Modal and Car-Free Planning

Multi-modal transportation planning neither requires nor prohibits driving. This offers something for everybody, including people who cannot, should not or prefer not to drive, and benefits motorists by reducing their traffic and parking congestion, accident risk and chauffeuring burdens.

Some motorists argue that driving is more important than other travel modes. They say things like, “You can’t deliver furniture by bicycle” or “I shouldn’t be forced to walk ten kilometres to work.” This misses the point: each mode has a role to play in an efficient and equitable transport system. It would be inefficient to deliver heavy freight by bicycle or walk ten kilometres to work, but it is also inefficient if parents must drive children to school due to a lack of sidewalks or crosswalks, or if people who want to bicycle commute cannot do so due to unsafe riding conditions.

Multi-modal planning requires motorists to share roads with other modes, drive slower and pay for parking in some areas, but seldom prevents people from driving when and where they want. Even ambitious goals, such as CRD targets to double walking, bicycling and transit travel, cars will continue to be the most common travel option.

Why Here? Why Now?

Current demographic and economic trends justify more multi-modal planning:

  • Aging population is increasing the number of adults who cannot or should not drive, and so require other travel options.
  • Changing consumer preferences. Surveys indicate that many people want to drive less and living in a walkable urban neighbourhood. Multi-modal planning responds to these preferences.
  • Affordability and social justice. Housing and transportation are most household’s two largest household spending categories; multi-modal planning increases affordable travel options and reduces parking costs that must be incorporated into rents and mortgages. It also ensures that people who cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive for some trips receive a fair share of public resources.
  • Increasing urbanization. Urban land is scarce and valuable, and expanding urban roads and parking facilities is costly. As a result, Improving and encouraging use of space-efficient modes is often the most cost effective and beneficial solution to urban traffic problems.
  • Increasing health and environmental Multi-modal planning allows people to walk and bicycle for fitness and health, and reduces per capita pollution emissions and pavement area.
  • Local economic development. Multi-modal transportation helps support economic development by increasing affordability and community livability and supporting local industries.

Do Motorists Pay for Roads? Is it Unfair to Spend Tax Dollars on Pedestrians and Bicyclists?

Many people assume that by paying fuel taxes motorists finance roads, making pedestrians and bicyclists freeloaders. This is not true. Although fuel taxes approximately cover provincial highway spending, they contribute little to the local roads where most walking and bicycling occurs. For example, in British Columbia, provincial and regional fuel taxes generate $1.9 billion, which is similar to the $1.9 billion spent on provincial highways, but do not support municipal roads, which have similar costs to provincial highways but are funded by local taxes that residents pay regardless of how they travel.

In addition, in a typical city there are 2-6 government-mandated off-street parking spaces per vehicle each with $500-3,000 annualized value, considering land, construction and operating costs. These costs incorporated into mortgages, rents and the price of other goods. When you purchase a restaurant meal or shop for groceries, you pay extra to subsidize the parking for customers who drive.

A major Transport Canada study, The Full Cost Investigation of Transportation in Canada, estimated that in 2000, provincial and municipal governments spent $35 billion on roadways (Table 6-3), which averages 12¢ for each of the 300 billion vehicle-kilometres driven, equivalent to 17¢ per kilometre in current dollars.

Walking and bicycling have much lower facility costs, probably about 1¢ per kilometre, plus $50-300 per year for bicycle parking. Because motor vehicles require more costly infrastructure than other modes, and motorists travel more than other mode users, motorists impose far greater road and parking facility costs. Much of these costs are borne by general taxes, and incorporated into mortgages, rents and prices of other goods that people pay regardless of how they travel. As a result, people who drive less than average tend to overpay their share of infrastructure costs, subsidizing road and parking costs for their neighbours who drive a lot.

For example, a typical motorist who drives 20,000 annual kilometres and consumes 2,000 litres, receives $2,000 in parking subsidies (parking costs not paid directly by users), and imposes at least $1,400 in total roadway costs, but pays only about $600 annually road user taxes; their remaining facility costs are paid through general taxes and the prices of other goods. Somebody who walks and bikes 10 kilometres a day imposes about $150 annually in facility costs.

Costs Versus Payments

A major portion of parking and roadway costs are paid by general taxes or incorporated into the prices of goods that consumers pay regardless of how they travel. As a result, motorists tend to underpay and non-drivers tend to overpay their share of facility costs.

Do We Spend Too Much on Non-Auto Modes?

Critics sometimes claim that few people walk, bicycle or use public transit, so investing in these modes is wasteful and unfair. Let’s look at the numbers. In our region, a quarter of total trips are made by non-auto modes, and this increases during peak periods and in central areas, when and where traffic problems are most severe. More than half of downtown trips are made by non-auto modes.

CRD Mode Shares (2017 CRD Origin-Destination Study)

A quarter of regional trips and more than half of downtown trips are made by non-auto modes.

This suggests that it would be efficient and fair to devote 25-50% of transport investments to walking, bicycling and public transit. Even more could be justified for the following reasons:

  1. To make up for past underinvestment. During the last century most communities invested little in non-auto modes, so additional investments are justified for several years to catch up.
  2. To serve latent demand. Consumer surveys indicate that many people want to drive less, rely more on other travel options, and live in more compact, walkable neighborhoods, provided they are convenient and affordable. Additional investments are justified to satisfy these demands.
  3. To efficiently solve traffic problems. Expanding roads and parking facilities is very costly. Improving alternative modes is often the most cost-efficient way to reduce traffic problems. Even people who always drive benefit from improvements to other modes that reduce their traffic and parking congestion, accident risk and chauffeuring burdens.
  4. To achieve planning goals. The CRD and Victoria have targets to approximately double walking, bicycling and public transit travel by 2030.

Currently, most road funding and space is dedicated to motor vehicle traffic, leaving other modes with less than their fair share. Victoria has 278 kilometres of roadway and 48 kilometres of bike lanes, which means that just 12% of Victoria roadways have bike lanes, and since most streets have four or more lanes (including parking lanes), for every kilometre of bike-lane there are about twenty lane-kilometres devoted to general traffic or parking.

In 2019, Victoria will spend $5.8 million on walking and bicycling facilities, approximately $65 annually per resident, and $9.2 million on roads and bridges, approximately $100 per resident. The Provincial Government spends $526 million on highway operations, about $100 per capita, plus approximately $200 million on regional highway projects (McKenzie Interchange expansion, Highway 14 improvements, etc.), about $500 per capita. This indicates that in our region walking and bicycling receive less than 10% of transportation infrastructure spending. This is higher than normal, with much more bicycle spending and less roadway spending than in most times and jurisdictions.

The Provincial government spends less on walking and bicycling than their mode shares. The 2016 Census indicates that 11% of commuters walk or bike to work, but the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s BikeBC program only spends about $8 million annually, about 0.5% of the Ministry’s total budget. Walking and bicycling facilities are included in many highway projects, such as Galloping Goose Trail improvements incorporated into the McKenzie Interchange project, but even including these expenditures, the Ministry spends much less on active modes than their share of total trips.

Victoria is spending about $20 million over five years to improve downtown bicycling conditions, which averages about $4,700 for each of the 4,240 commuters (CRD, p. 90, AM Peak bike trips). Although this project helps achieve strategic planning objectives to support efficient transport and compact development, it has been heavily criticized. The provincial government is spending $85 million to improve Highway 14 driving conditions, which averages about $54,000 for each of the 1,580 car commuters (CRD p. 120, AM Peak auto trips). Although this project contradicts strategic goals to reduce sprawl, it has not been criticized. This illustrates a double standard: roadway projects receive more funding and less criticism than bike projects.

Highway 14 improvements cost about $54,000 per auto commuter, compared with just $4,700 per bike commuter to build Victoria’s bicycle network.

It’s Only Fair, Motorists Should Pay Their Share

Most parking is subsidized, so plans to expand when and where parking is prices are often criticized as unfair to motorists and part of “war on cars.” But there are good reasons to charge for parking: it is fairer than subsidizing parking facilities and helps reduce traffic problems.

There is a specific reason that municipal governments should charge for parking: that helps ensure that out-of-town motorists pay their share of local roadway costs. In most central cities, a major portion of motorists are not residents and so do not pay property taxes that fund local infrastructure. You could argue that out-of-town visitors pay these costs indirectly by supporting local businesses, but a major portion of central city customers and workers travel without a car and so have much lower infrastructure costs. Charging for parking collects extra money from motorists to help offset the extra roadway costs they impose. It’s only fair.

Do Bicycle Improvements Increase Bicycling and Traffic Safety?

Some people, including some experienced bicyclists, question whether protected bike paths increase ridership and safety. Protected bike lanes are intended to attract less experienced bicyclists. They are not ideal for all cyclists, particularly experienced bicyclists who want to ride fast. Numerous academic studies indicate that they generally do increase bicycle travel, and safety for all road users. One major study found that segregated bike paths are both safer and tend to increase cycling by travellers who want to bicycle but feel unsafe riding on roadways. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Safer Cycling through Improved Infrastructure,” found that cities that invest most in protected bikeways achieve the largest increases in ridership and safety.

An extensive body of research indicates that total traffic casualty rates, including risk to motorists, tend to decline as walking and bicycling mode share increases, an effect called “safety in numbers.” Canadian research also found that cycling injury rates tend to increase as bicycle mode share increases. Several factors probably contribute to these benefits: many strategies for improving pedestrian and bicycle safety, such as lower traffic speeds, also increase motor vehicle safety, and as walking and bicycling increase, driving declines, particularly by higher risk groups such as youths, seniors and people impairments, reducing motorists’ risk of being the victim of other drivers’ errors.

Do Bicycle Improvements Force People to Bicycle?

One senior argues, “the idea of being pressured into riding a bike again, against my wishes or physical capability, is akin to being encouraged to move back into a cave like our far-distant forefathers.” That is silly, nobody is forced to use bicycle facilities, and motorists benefit when other travellers shift to bicycling. Perhaps the best response was this letter by another senior, Gail Meston:

“Ice cream and the ‘War’ on Cars”
I am delighted with the city’s determination to create viable transportation alternatives, including the network of separated bike lanes that make it safe to ride downtown. Recent letter writers creaming Victoria city council for just that, might want to chew on this:

When new flavours of ice cream were introduced, it wasn’t deemed to be a “war” on chocolate. It was simply about providing new and exciting alternatives to those inclined to venture beyond familiar tastes and habits. As alternative flavours became increasingly popular, smart vendors added the new items to their confectionary menus. It was good for business and the bottom line to add a variety of choices.

Chocolate hasn’t disappeared. It remains popular and is still widely available for committed chocolate lovers. Who knows — as word spreads about how yummy some of the new flavours are, even some of the chocolaters may be tempted to try a taste of something new. It seems like a win-win-win situation to me. Those who insist that because they love driving so much, everyone else must drive too, may want to check out the local ice cream shop!

Do Complete Streets Harm Businesses?

Critics sometimes argue that Complete Streets policies, such as bike lanes, wider sidewalks and traffic speed reductions, harm local business by making driving and parking less convenient, but in most situations their impacts are mixed, reducing some business activities but increasing others. Businesses that depend primarily on automobile traffic may be worse off, but these losses are generally more than offset by increased business by customers who walk, bike and use public transit, particularly if streetscaping creates nicer urban environments that attract more customers, visitors, businesses, and residents. Motorists too may benefit overall if other visitors shift from driving to other modes, freeing up downtown parking for their use.

For example, in 2016, a new bike lane on Bloor Street displaced 136 parking spaces. A detailed before-and-after study found that customer volumes and spending both increased subsequently. Similarly, a study found that New York City streets with protected bike lanes experienced significant increases in retail sales (up to 24%) compared to otherwise similar streets that lack those facilities.

People sometimes assume that motorists are better customers than those who arrive by other modes, but studies actually show that bicyclists spend more than motorists, and walkable streets are more economically productive. A comprehensive academic study titled, The Economic Benefits of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)- Reducing Placemaking: Synthesizing a New View, identified significant economic benefits of placemaking efforts that prioritize non-auto access and reduce total vehicle travel.

This makes sense, since non-auto modes are affordable, which leaves consumers with more disposable income to spend on local goods and services. Vancouver Island produces no motor vehicles or petroleum, so most of the money spent on automobile travel leaves our region, but we have many productive farms, good restaurants and breweries that provide locally produced fuel for walking and bicycling, and generate lots of local jobs.

Aren’t Bicycles Zero Emission Vehicles?

Vehicle fuels have large external costs, so many jurisdictions offer thousands of dollars in subsidies to purchase “zero emission” electric vehicles. However, this is a misnomer: because electricity generation produces pollution they should be called “elsewhere emitting vehicles.” Electric vehicles avoid most road user taxes, providing hundreds of dollars in additional annual subsidies. Walking and bicycling are true zero emission modes but receive no comparable subsidy. Because shoes and bikes are inexpensive, they don’t need subsidies, instead, we just want walking and bicycling facility improvements.

Should Governments Mandate Housing for Cars But Not People?

No law mandates that communities provide housing for people, but most jurisdictions governments require property owners to provide abundant, expensive, and generally free housing for cars, typically totaling 2-8 parking spaces with thousands of dollars in total annualized value per motor vehicle. Parking is never really free, the choice is really between paying parking costs directly, through user fees, or indirectly, through mortgages, rents and taxes which people pay regardless of how they travel. This significantly reduces affordability.

For example, one study of 23 recently completed Seattle-area multifamily housing developments revealed that parking regulations increase rents approximately $250 per month, or 15% total although that approximately 20% of occupants own no motor vehicles, and during peak periods 37% of parking spaces are unoccupied. Every time somebody purchases a car they expect governments to require other people to pay their parking costs. This is perverse: this forces poorer car-free households to subsidize the parking costs of affluent motorists, and increases and traffic problems. Parking mandates are a fertility drug for cars. Why do they exist? Because motorists demand these subsidies and efforts to change these practices are criticized as a “war on cars.”

Is Multi-modal Planning “Social Engineering”? Does it Reduce Freedom?

Some critics claim that regulations, such as fuel economy standards, and transportation management programs that encourage efficient travel, reduce people’s personal freedom and opportunity. These are distorted and incomplete claims. According to Washington State Transportation Center director Mark Hallenbeck, “All transportation planning is social engineering. We’ve spent 100 years making it easy to drive. We’ve spent 100 years making it really hard to [walk, bicycle or] take a bus. So people drive, because it makes sense.”

Automobile-oriented transport planning increases some freedoms but reduces others: it reduces urban motorists’ ability to drive fast and park for free, but increases freedom to travel by other modes, which tends to increase financial freedom, and increases freedom from traffic risks and pollution impacts, and from government-mandated parking subsidies.

Multi-modal Planning Impacts on Personal Freedom

Reduces Freedom and Opportunity Increases Freedom and Opportunity
  • Less freedom to drive fast.
  • Less freedom to park for free.
  • More freedom to walk, bicycle, and use public transit.
  • More affordable transport options increases financial freedom.
  • More freedom from traffic risk and pollution.
  • Freedom for parking subsidy costs.

Multi-modal planning reduces some freedoms but increases others.

 

Surveys indicate that many people want to drive less and rely more on other mode, provided they are convenient, comfortable and affordable. For example, the National Association of Realtor’s National Community Preference Survey found that most respondents like walking (80%), about half like bicycling, more than a third (38%) like public transit, and nearly 60% report being forced to drive due to inadequate alternatives. Younger people are much more likely to prefer walkable neighbourhoods, bicycling, and transit, suggesting that demand for these modes will increase. To the degree that multi-modal planning responds to these demands it is not “social engineering.”

Much of the opposition to multi-modal planning reflects a general reluctance to change. Some people are so accustomed to driving that they cannot imagine taking the bus when travelling downtown, or walking and bicycling for local errands. However, after people try new transport options they often find them appropriate and useful, and their opposition declines.

Should Governments Continue to Encourage Drunk Driving and Sprawl?

A guy walks into a bar and buys a drink. Another guy drives to the bar and also buys a drink. About 50¢ of the cost of each drink goes to finance the bar’s parking. As a result, the guy who walks subsidizes the drivers’ parking of the guy who drives, thanks to local zoning laws.

This is foolish! We tell people not to drink and drive, but at the same time governments mandate that restaurants, pubs and bars provide abundant parking that encourages driving. This is particularly harmful because those parking requirements often prevent the development of neighbourhood restaurants and bars that customers could reach by walking: an old storefront or house might make a terrific restaurant or pub, but cannot meet parking requirements. Why do these foolish laws exist? Because motorists insist! Whenever reduced and more flexible parking requirements are proposed, motorists complain that they will be inconvenienced, and criticize reforms as part of the “war on cars.”

Are Signal Controls Really Set to Delay Traffic?

Wallace claims, without evidence, that Victoria’s traffic engineers intentionally adjust signals set to delay traffic. He should have talked with a traffic engineer first. Although it is sometimes possible to give traffic a continuous “green wave” on one road in one direction, this is impossible to achieve on all urban roads. For example, signals can be optimized into downtown during the morning and out of downtown during the afternoon, on north-south streets, such as Blanshard and Douglas, but that will conflict with traffic optimization on east-west streets such as Bay, Pandora and Fort. In addition, signals must accommodate Johnson Street bridge closures, bus priority, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles.

Stop blaming traffic engineers for congestion problems! If you want to know the real culprit, look in the mirror. Every time you drive during rush hour, you contribute to congestion. Shifting just 10-20% of peak-period car trips to other times, modes or destinations would significantly reduce traffic problems.

Are Most Bicyclists Irresponsible Scofflaws?

Some critics argue that bicyclists do not deserve facilities or safety programs because of their irresponsible behaviors, citing examples of bicyclists who violate traffic law or ride without proper lighting or helmets. “They must earn their right to use public roads,” they argue.

But all types of road users violate traffic laws. Field surveys find that bicyclists and motorists violate traffic laws at similar rates, but in different ways. Motorists frequently exceed posted speed limits, avoid paying required parking fees, fail to wear seatbelts, and text while driving.  Researcher Wesley Marshall found that many bicyclists violated traffic laws in ways intended to increase their safety, such as riding on sidewalks, passing on the right while vehicles are stopped at a traffic signal, and failing to make a full stop at stop signs and red lights in order to maintain momentum and balance. A Florida study found 88% law compliance rates by bicyclists, slightly higher than the 85% compliance rate for drivers.

Conclusions

Most communities are automobile dependent, making it difficult to get around without a car. This is no accident; for the last century, transportation planning emphasized automobile-oriented infrastructure design and investments to the detriment of other modes. This ultimately harms everyone, including motorists who face increased congestion, crash risk and chauffeuring burdens.

As a result, smart communities are starting to implement more multi-modal planning, with more investments in walking, bicycling and public transit, more complete streets, and reduced parking subsidies. That creates a more efficient and equitable transportation system in which travellers can choose the most appropriate mode for each trip, and people who cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive receive their fair share of public resources.

Some people only see problems and overlook the benefits of these changes. They claim there is a “war on cars,” which is inaccurate, unfair and dangerous. Many of their complaints are wrong or exaggerated, and by claiming to be victims of a “war,” they contribute to conflict and violence.

All we are saying, is give road peace a chance.

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