The C is for Crank

Fact-Checking the Car Warriors

By Erica C. Barnett February 2, 2011

At last night's packed (and sweaty!) "War on Cars" event at Liberty, I was given the role of "host"---Josh's polite way of saying I'm way too biased to moderate a panel on the issue. I jumped in every now and then with questions [Editor's note: Erica jumped in at one point, calling Forward Seattle's Joe Quintana's argument against spending money on pedestrians "specious" because he ignored the fact that drivers become pedestrians too, the minute they step out of their cars]. But mostly I stayed out of even-keeled (and pro) moderator C.R. Douglas' way.

Fortunately, The C Is For Crank has no such constraints. So I'd like to fact check a few things the pro-car side had to say last night, and offer a few thoughts on the whole "War on Cars" meme.

Fact Check #1: The Washington Policy Center's Michael Ennis claimed that "60 percent of local transportation spending" goes to transit. That number (here's his data) is faulty, because it only includes the state gas and motor vehicle excise taxes, plus regional permits and fees---ignoring dedicated local levies like Bridging the Gap, federal and state grant funding, local general funds like the city of Seattle's, which helps fund the Seattle Department of Transportation, property taxes (which largely fund local and regional roads and highways), tolls, and federal gas taxes, to name just a few.

Indeed, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, "Over a period of nearly 20 years the central Puget Sound region has dedicated approximately 2 percent of its personal income to outlays on public sector transportation, and considerably more on private investments in personal and freight mobility."

Fact Check #2: Quintana asserted that "in the evolution of things, I think [the climate problem] will be solved with things like electric cars. The automobile, frankly, is one of the relatively more minor challenges that lie ahead."

Josh, who wrote this morning's recap of the event, used that quote (from my notes!), but ignored the note I sent him about it: "Most spurious statement of the night."

While Quintana may well be right that electric cars are the future of the automobile, the ultimate problem isn't cars themselves---it's the consequences of a car-centric culture.

Those consequences include, but aren't limited to: Sprawling development patterns (which are massively energy-inefficient, destroy farmland and rural lifestyles, contribute to the concentration of the food system, and require massive amounts of infrastructure---electrical, sewer, and roadway---to exist), impervious surfaces that increase roadway runoff into streams and soil, car crashes (which kill 40,000 people a year and create a huge cost to public health institutions) the consequences of sedentary, car-based lifestyles (obesity, shorter life spans), and the weakening of ties to friends, family, and community, to name a few.

And if Quintana's wrong and cars don't become massively more efficient, it's worth remembering that in the Northwest, 50 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions come directly from our car-centric transportation system.

Fact Check #3: Both Ennis and Quintana claimed that roads like Nickerson---which was reduced from four lanes to three, with new bike lanes on each side---are unsuitable and unsafe for bikes.

Wrong. In fact, the presence of cyclists make roads safer for everyone. Just last year, a new study showed that as the number of cyclists in New York went up, the number of bike-related fatalities went down. It makes sense: If you know that bikes are likely to be around, you're more likely to be aware of them.

Moreover, a huge number of pedestrian fatalities happen when a driver in the right lane stops to let a pedestrian cross and the next driver swerves around the first driver to the left to avoid stopping, hitting the pedestrian in the crosswalk. (Sixty-eight percent of all car-pedestrian collisions in Seattle last year occurred in crosswalks). Adding a turn lane eliminates those conflicts.

Finally, cars move just as fast on three-lane roads with turn lanes as they do on four-lane roads, because they don't have to stop and wait for people in front of them to turn. A four-lane road will carry about 24,000 cars an hour---the same as a three-lane road.

Fact Check #4: Quintana dismissed concerns that cars are partly to blame for things like obesity, poor health, and unhappiness. "I'm sure diet has nothing to do with it," Quintana quipped.

Sure, diet is a factor in health. But so is car culture. As I noted above, sedentary lifestyles---the kind where people get in their car, drive to work, sit all day, then drive home---correlate directly with obesity and overall poor health, whose consequences cost Washington State alone at least $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, cancer risks skyrocket within 200 feet of highways. And isolation from other people---the kind of isolation encouraged by sprawling suburban developments and solo car commuting---has been linked to depression, violent crime, and suicide.

Fact Check #5: Michael Ennis said he believed the 2007 roads and transit projects would have passed if they hadn't been linked to light rail. His point: The package should have focused on roads, and not included funding for Sound Transit.

Polling data show the opposite to be the case. In a poll taken after the package failed, 53 percent of voters said they'd support a transit-only package, compared to just 50 percent who'd support a roads-only proposal. Light rail came back without roads the next year and passed with 54 percent of the vote. (Take note, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen)

Fact Check #6: Quintana claimed that the appeal of biking in Seattle has reached its ceiling at 2 to 3 percent of trips.

As Hiller pointed out, in Portland---where cycling has been "normalized" through transportation policy that actually encourages cycling---between 8 and 9 percent of all trips are made by bike. And that's hardly the highest "ceiling" out there: In Copenhagen, which undertook a massive expansion of its bike infrastructure 10 years ago, fully 37 percent of people commute to work by bike, and biking among city residents is even higher. In fact, there is no known limit to how many people will choose to bike; in Hanover and in some Dutch cities between the two world wars, 80 percent of all trips were made by bike.
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