A refreshing op/ed in today’s Seattle Times, which just came off a bruising series of election losses that showed it to be out of touch with its readership, acknowledges that the “war on cars” is a myth, that endless spending on ever-wider roads for single-occupancy drivers doesn’t work, that transportation is the primary cause of climate change in our region, and that endless highway spending is the real “social engineering.”  “The era of big highways is over,” they declare. 

Haha, just kidding! No, the Times just ran yet another in its ongoing series of increasingly unhinged editorials arguing that transit is the problem, that freeways are “freedom,” that the car is, and I quote, “an innocent and dutiful result of the basic principles of a free society,” and that limitations on parking and freeway expansion are poised to destroy Seattle’s economic competitiveness.

Instead of investing in “politically correct” transit, the author, guest op/ed writer Bruce L. Nurse, argues, the region should widen I-405 (“to accommodate the growth of the suburban cities”—how’s that for a chicken-and-egg problem?), eliminate voter-approved light rail from I-90 because it’s “reducing total lanes” (true if you believe lanes that are used by transit riders aren’t “real” lanes); and—this is my favorite—build a massive new “I-5 tunnel under the hills east of downtown Seattle.”

I don’t think any scoping has been done on that tunnel idea, but last I checked, building tunnels in Seattle is kind of expensive—and we can't afford to fix the roads we already have). 

 What’s more, if you spend billions on a tunnel, you take away money for other priorities, like transit—and we’re back to the chicken and the egg. Take the crowded local bus that runs every hour and is often late because of repeated budget cuts, or drive on the freeway the state just widened at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars? What would you choose?

Nurse does offer one bit of evidence for his massive freeway-expansion program: The fact that people continue to drive—proof, Nurse argues, that “freeways work very well.”  (Footnote: Actually, people, young and old, are driving less.)

But that evidence is, on inspection, mere anecdote. First, Nurse makes the classic mistake of confusing correlation with causation: Just because people drive on freeways doesn’t mean they do so because freeways are inherently the best way to get around.. 

There are lots of other reasons people drive on freeways, among them: Seemingly “cheap” housing in the suburbs (cheap only if you ignore the price of transportation); a lack of alternatives to driving alone; and a century-long commitment by public officials to invest lavishly in highways at the expense of other worthy projects.

Second, the presumption underlying this whole argument is the old “social engineering” canard: The argument that people naturally prefer to drive (because freedom), and that any effort to spend money to offer alternatives is insidious social engineering by “politically correct” governments. To the contrary. The interstate highway system is the largest social-engineering experiment the U.S. has ever undertaken, and its result—stormwater polluted with runoff, sprawling suburbs displacing farmland, deteriorating sidewalks, parks, and bus systems; and failing inner cities.

Finally, about that “freedom” claim. When I’m on a road trip, out on the open highway, driving does feel like freedom. (I prefer to drive far away from soulless 10-lane freeways and stick to the back roads, though). When I’m commuting, freedom is the ability to exercise my legs on a bike, or take a nap on a train, or catch up on my reading on the bus.

Sitting in gridlock isn’t freedom—and, no matter how many dozens of lanes we build, and no matter how neighborhoods we destroy for highways, and no matter how many farms get razed to make way for megamansions, we can't build our way out of congestion. If we don't invest in alternatives, gridlock is something we will always have with us.