Morning Fizz

The War on Density

By Morning Fizz February 2, 2011

PubliCola hosted a nerdfest last night, inviting policy wonks from the the left and right to debate the so-called "War on Cars." Here's our recap, in which the warring panelists did find common ground.

More than 50 people jammed into Liberty Bar on Capitol Hill last night for PubliCola's standing-room-only debate on whether or not Seattle is actually waging a policy war on cars.

Seattle Channel's even-keeled C.R. Douglas moderated the discussion, which starred Sightline's Eric de Place and Cascade Bicycle Club's David Hiller, greens who argued that policies to rein in driving and promote alternative transit are overdue and necessary, vs. Washington Policy Center's Michael Ennis and Forward Seattle's Joe Quintana, conservatives who argued that promoting cars and road capacity are must haves for a vibrant economy.

Last night's panel (l-r): Erica C. Barnett, David Hiller, Eric de Place, C.R. Douglas, Michael Ennis, Joe Quintana

Lots of competing numbers were thrown around—de Place pointed out that our region "hemorrhages $16 billion a year" to import fossil fuels which "is more than we spend on sales, property, and [business and occupation] taxes combined" while Ennis said 60 percent of local spending is on transit funding, "which is disproportionate to the demand [which is] two to three percent of actual trips"; Hiller pointed out that the average cost to maintain a car is $10,000 a year, "which can be the difference between making your mortgage payment and poverty," while Quintana noted the $18 billion regional investment in light rail.

In the end, though, we gave the statistic of the night to Hiller, who pointed out that traffic volumes in the region reached a high water mark in 1966. His larger point being that there is clearly a demand for transit alternatives.

Indeed, attached to the barrage of numbers, the most compelling points last night were the bigger philosophical ones.

Here are some highlights.

1. Best Rejoinder

After Quintana argued that the region's investment in transit was out of whack with the kind of density that's needed to make the investment pencil out, de Place said the reason we don't have the right density is because our land-use codes make those densities illegal.

"You have to have parking, you have to have setbacks. If there's a systematic, massive governmental bias, it's against density."

His point re-framed the discussion and provided the sparring factions with the big agreement of the night. Forget the war on cars; as Quintana agreed: "We've got a war on density."

2. Funniest one-liner

In another (kinda profound) instance of re-framing the debate to highlight societal biases, Hiller joked that when a biker gets into an elevator and they're carrying their helmet and they're sweating, people say, "Oh my god! You biked? Aren't you scared you're going to get hurt?"—noting, conversely, that when someone gets onto an elevator with their car keys jangling people don't say, "You drive? Oh my god!" and then point out the 40,000 drivers killed every year.

3. Nice try of the night

Quintana made his own play at re-framing the discussion. "In the evolution of things," he said, "I think it [the problem with auto emissions] will be resolved with things like electric cars. The automobile, frankly, is one of the relatively more minor challenges that lie ahead. Overpopulation, loss of forest cover---those are well ahead of it. The solutions to the effects of the automobile are the easiest part."

Ennis seconded: "Automobiles aren't the problem; automobiles are the solution. Oil is the problem. And I don't see the benefit in restricting auto use because technology will solve the emissions issue.  I do agree that we need a plan [to deal with global warming], but it's not a transportation plan."

Editorializing here: Car emissions aren't the fundamental problem. The problem (as everyone seemed to agree) is lacking density. And ultimately, designing societies around cars is about sprawl and inefficient land use. And to second Hiller's point—it's also incredibly expensive for average people.

4. Surprise of the Night

In response to Ennis' point that cars were the most efficient mode of transportation (as opposed to light rail), Sightline's de Place was a bit chilly to light rail himself:

"I'm not defending light rail," the green think tank all-star said. "I think we should have a values-based conversation about transportation … which is why you won't see us support huge, expensive infrastructure projects unless they honor our economic values."

5. Rejoinder of the Night. Not. (Or Nice Try Pt. 2)

Implying that Hiller and his Cascade Bicycle Club (which wants the city to fund a $250 million master bike plane) are just an elitist minority, Quintana issued a challenge: "Why don't bike folks just go to the ballot?"

The implication of Quintana's dare, of course, is that they'd lose.

Hiller responded: "We did. It's called Bridging the Gap," he said, referring to the $365 million transportation infrastructure measure voters approved in 2006 that repaired bridges and streets and built bike paths and sidewalks. "And it won overwhelmingly."

Hiller was spinning the bike agenda as part of a larger solution for a comprehensive transportation infrastructure. "My organization put $45,000 into that campaign," he boasted.

But Hiller's response didn't really address the substance of Quintana's question. Up or down, would voters go for a funding a master bike plan?

6. Best Exchange (Wherein C.R. Douglas gets the last brilliant word)

C.R. got the evening going with the basic question: "Is there a war on cars?"

After Ennis said, "Yes, I've heard the mayor himself say his goal is to get people to drive less," his comrade on the panel, Quintana, ran with it:

"People forget that in the last election we funded $18 billion for Sound Transit," he began. "They forget that the city is out there re-striping roads in the dead of night. There is an alternative transportation Taliban that takes it as a holy war to perpetuate the myth that cars are evil ... The transportation jihadists want everyone to live in condos in a dense urban environment. Which may be good for some, but it's not for everyone."

A bit stunned, Douglas, pressed him: "It's not a jihad, is it, Joe?"

Quintana kept going: "It appears to me, yes, there's a kind of self-righteousness that accompanies the desire to change it all so we can all live this kind of Luddite existence."

De Place, who acknowledged that he was wary about participating in the night's event because of the "War on Cars" frame, responded: "I think we should make a good, solid case for the kind of rational transportation planning we'd like to see [instead of] ginned-up talking points by right-wing think tanks. The whole objective behind a phrase like 'The war on cars' is to short-circuit the debate. You might, I don't know, throw around words like 'jihadist' and 'Taliban,' to use a hypothetical example."

De Place, whose haircut looks a bit like Douglas' (and mine), concluded: "If there's a war on cars it's about as effective as my war on baldness."

Douglas flipped the issue on de Place. Noting all of Sightline's research that incriminates car culture for being too expensive and environmentally catastrophic, Douglas asked, perhaps, the sharpest question of the night:

"Why isn't there a war on cars?"
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