Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

A response to the pro-car perspective

Posted by on November 26th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

“Cars — in whatever their future form may be — are here to stay. But so are bikes, transit and walking.”
— Op-ed in The Oregonian

A strange thing happened after Metro released a major new household travel survey last month. Despite the survey showing big increases in the rate of bicycle and transit use for central city residents since the last time the survey was done in 1994, The Oregonian seemed to frame it as proof that cars are still king in our region. The O’s Commuting reporter Joseph Rose also accused Metro of trying to spin the story to further their, “smart-growth battle against the unhealthy, polluting, life-sucking automobile.”

And then, right on cue, The Oregonian Editorial Board weighed in with this headline, People like their cars, a fact that Portland planners must take into account.

To counter that framing of the issue, local transportation expert Chris Smith and real estate developer Randy Miller penned an op-ed of their own. It’s now several weeks later, but it was finally published in the opinion section of Sunday’s paper.

Smith and Miller wrote that Portland’s approach to transportation not only takes cars into account already (by spending billions on car-friendly projects since 1995), but that the approach is working. They outlined four reasons why our planners must stay the course and even expand their efforts — not just in the central city but in the entire region. Here’s an excerpt:

“First, this is an issue of equity… Cars are expensive to own, insure, maintain and drive. Not all Portlanders can afford to own, much less drive, a car.

Second, our multimodal strategy provides economic benefits… declining VMT results in a “green dividend” for the city and the region; money that would otherwise be sent out of state and overseas to oil companies stays in the local economy…

Third, it’s more cost-effective. Portland’s bicycle transportation investments have allowed the key bridges into the city’s downtown to operate as well for automobiles today as they did 20 years ago, despite an increase in population and economic activity…

Fourth, the future vibrancy of our central city depends on it… We cannot afford to expand our freeways, streets and parking garages to accommodate future growth in the heart of Portland.”

Read the entire op-ed here. They make some very good points that we should all keep in mind for future discussions.

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  • Chris Smith November 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    I should point out that there were two other response op-eds: one by Metro President Tom Hughes that the Oregonian published (http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/11/metro_transportation_figuring.html) and another by 1000 Friends of Oregon and BTA that did not get published but is on the BTA blog (http://btaoregon.org/2012/11/planning-and-transportation/).

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  • Duncan Idaho-Stop November 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    I second Chris’ recommendation of Tom Hughes’ article, which was excellent. Also, last week Steve Duin wrote a very sensible rebuttal of the idiotic white paper on the Sellwood Bridge project put out by the so-called Cascade Policy Institute. He starts off by decrying the “staged antagonism between cars and bicycles”, which we all know is something the Oregonian stokes with all its dwindling might.

    Nice to see a few glimmers of logic and arithmetic in the local paper for a change.

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  • Art Fuldodger November 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    good op-ed, Randy & Chris. It seemed that once upon a time the Big O had a clue on transport/land use issues [sigh].

    The decline in Portland VMT is even more stunning in the national context, where it’s gone UP +30% since 1992.

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    • 9watts November 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      I think it is noteworthy how the Oregonian editors chose to end their piece: The automobile is here to stay.
      The fact that they feel it is important to say & say so defiantly, suggests to me that they are in fact on the losing side of history. Some things only get verbalized when the basis for the assertion is in doubt.

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  • Craig Harlow November 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Interesting comparative graph:

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    • john November 27, 2012 at 12:49 am

      The correct comparison is to other urban areas, not to the whole US. Do you think it’s correct to compare NYC to rural Kansas for instance? Jeez talk about a misleading graphic.

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  • Hart Noecker November 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Predictably, the vast majority of the comments on the O’s article are from people completely ignorant of the financial and ecological cost of auto-only roads, and attack a multi-modal approach to mobility that they can’t understand. Likely many of these comments are from people from outside the city, but this is alarming.

    As Mark Gorton has often said, we can’t change things unless we educate people as to why the change is needed. It isn’t enough to fix the problems that high volume roads in Portland have caused, we have to fix them everywhere, and that includes the suburbs.

    How to educate the entire public on these issues I have no idea.

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    • 9watts November 26, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      If all else fails, history will be a good teacher. Those horse rings are still in our curbs.

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  • Andrew K November 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you to those who took the time to write this article. You made some great points.

    Someone on the comments board on O-Live made a rare and very valid argument. I will cut and paste the response here:

    “my grandfather spent most of his life working in the logging industry. Then he retired along the coast near the fishing holes he loved so much. Then his eyesight worsened. He was no longer able to drive himself, and there was no transit and few walkable destinations, so he had to be driven by others. It hurt his pride and his sense of freedom, which was painful to witness such a resourceful, independent man experience. I think there is a way to both support car-based needs today and build choice-rich places where people can age in place.”

    I feel this is an argument that really needs to be made more often. My Grandfather experienced this very thing. He lived in a small community and when he was finally unable to drive be became EXTREMELY depressed. I’d say it shaved a lot of years from the end of his life. It wasn’t the lack of a car that brought him down, but rather the loss of freedom. Essentially he was stuck at home if nobody was willing are able to drive him. If there was a bus, or a train, or even decent side walks so he could just go to the store or to the movies I don’t think it would have hit him nearly as hard. He hated asking his kids and grand kids to give him rides. In his mind it was better to just spring for a taxi because then at least he was being resourceful on his own.

    As the baby boomers age this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue. I’m wondering how many people who bitch about the money we spend on transit are going to complain there aren’t enough options when their ability to drive gets taken away. We are going to be looking at a massive increase in the number of people on the older end of the spectrum in the coming decades and I really don’t think we are prepared.

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    • A.K. November 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      This is such a good point. I spend a lot of time in Astoria and SW Washington, and the simple lack of a sidewalk across the Astoria-Megler bridge just kills me in it’s short-shortsightedness. Not there are a lot of walk-able destinations on the Washington side from Astoria, but it’s easily bike-able, and while I consider myself “strong and fearless” in most conditions I haven’t gotten the nerve up yet to ride across that bridge.

      I know that’s a very specific example and not related to the story you posted, but it’s just one small example of someone (or a group of people) making the choice that “the automobile” would basically be the de-facto option for getting across that span of water.

      Now multiply that x1000 for all the other “little things” and it really adds up.

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    • Mabsf November 27, 2012 at 9:04 am

      I think this is an issue we need to work at: we need to educate our seniors that there are service they can use that they founded for most of their working lives. As younger people we need to give them the feeling that they are not a burden and that it is no problem to drive them.
      It is upon us to create a community were everybody can live comfortable if they are 20 or 80.

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  • 9watts November 26, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    $433M per year(!) [($4.1B+$2.3B)/15 yrs] on transportation projects for the region over that 15 year period? Wow. Isn’t that >$200 for every man, woman, and child, every year?

    Maybe we really should retire the car? That’s a crazy amount of money. What did we get for all those taxes? And what was the percentage of those funds that went toward bikes (defensive expenditures to keep the overwhelming car-presence from endangering people biking quite as much)?

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  • Zach November 26, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Anti-bike op-eds and anti-bike people are stupid, but one can be pro-bike without being anti-car. The automobile _is_ here to stay, even if its share of the pie declines.

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    • Zach November 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Whenever bike advocates operate from the standpoint that cars will or should disappear, their credibility plummets.

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      • 9watts November 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm

        “… their credibility plummets”
        With whom? With those who are committed to sticking with the car, come hell or high water?

        I see the opposite. All these editorials (pro and con) share one trait. The authors all genuflect to the almighty car, note how much we still spend on maintaining car-infrastructure, are careful not to say anything that could be construed as suggesting the car is not here to stay. This is familiar but also very troubling.

        What if they’re all wrong? What makes you, Zach, feel so strongly that the end of the automobile is the one thing we can’t discuss, contemplate, allow? You are not coming at this from a position of strength if you specify what we can’t talk about. What is the risk of putting it all on the table?

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        • Hugh Johnson November 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm

          That’s right everyone no matter their age or physical condition can just throw a leg over a bike and ride. Wow do you ever see beyond your own bike-centric view?

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          • Tony November 27, 2012 at 9:23 am

            You’re reducing the argument in order to make it seem impossible. Not everyone needs to ride bikes for cars to be a minority mode of transportation.

            Not everyone can get behind the wheel of a car and drive it either. In fact, I’d like to see zero tolerance laws for driving while taking painkillers and psychoactive pharmaceuticals… that would cut down tremendously on either consumption of those things or (more likely) driving.

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          • Help December 1, 2012 at 9:36 am

            No, he/she never does.

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      • cold worker November 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm

        Seriously. It kinda kills me too when people act like cars are just gonna up and disappear. Would I like a hell of a lot less of them on the road? Absolutely. No question. But christ, the personal automobile will be always be around. (it also always seems to be the rabid new converts to cycling that talk about this, as it is with anyone new to thing X)

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        • 9watts November 27, 2012 at 7:32 am

          No one said ‘up and disappear’ or ‘everyone can just throw a leg over a bicycle’. The vehemence of your reactions to what I said speaks volumes.

          ‘The car is here to stay’ can be flat wrong without either of the two statements above being correct. If the car ceases to be the dominant mode of getting around, that it now is and has been for a few generations, would you agree that the thrust of the Oregonian editors’ statement is called into question? I’m not interested in speculating about whether a much diminished auto presence X years from now represents 10% or 30% or 1% of its current presence, but I do believe it will be much diminished. If you’d rather split hairs and parse phrases, fine.

          My point is that our studied avoidance of the possibility that cars will go away is ill-advised.

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          • cold worker November 27, 2012 at 11:23 am

            If you seriously think the car will no longer be the dominant mode of personal transport in the U.S., that there is a *possibility* they will go away, then good for you. You’re a much more optimistic guy than me. People are assholes and shortsighted and think of how things benefit themselves far too often. Short of telling someone that turning the ignition of their car is going to kill their mom, literally kill their own mother, I don’t see people giving up their cars in a way and volume that is meaningful to our society and how we live.

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            • 9watts November 27, 2012 at 11:48 am

              Thanks for your response, cold worker.

              I am not sure I am more optimistic; rather I see this as being not about choice but necessity, constraint, followed by declining social acceptance, etc. I’m under no illusion that if you were to ask us all who have gotten used to our cars if we would be willing to ‘give them up tomorrow,’ that the answer would overwhelmingly be ‘not on your life!’ But I don’t think that is either a helpful or accurate way of framing the problem.

              If instead we were to extrapolate the bio-physical and climatic and economic circumstances that would need to be present for autodom to continue indefinitely I think we’d find that looming constraints will overwhelm people’s private preferences for holding onto their car.

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              • Help December 1, 2012 at 9:43 am

                Humans will always want to get from point A to point B in a faster manner. I’d argue electric bikes are apt to get a lot more popular (and faster) than the gas-powered automobile is to get more unpopular.

                I don’t what you hate more–the environmental effects of the motor vehicle or the speed of the motor vehicle. The former can be fixed over time. The latter will never be.

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              • 9watts December 1, 2012 at 11:23 am

                Here in the US we’re fond of the idea that whatever consumers want or whatever they refuse to give up carries the day. That may be fairly accurate looking backward–if also a bit narrow; I’m less sure it will continue to be a good bet going forward.

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  • Al from PA November 27, 2012 at 2:03 am

    “People like their cars” as long as hidden costs (gasoline, infrastructure, parking) stay well hidden…

    Make them pay their fair share and the automobile disappears pronto…

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  • Svetlana November 27, 2012 at 11:46 am

    The historical memory of folks who think cars are here to stay is very short. Towns managed to conduct their affairs without cars not very long ago. It would be a wiser use of their energy and creativity to use the prospect of THE BIG ONE to envision a way of life without a one (or two) car for every household. I don’t want my tax dollars to go to rebuilding all the roadways that will be destroyed by the earthquake! There are many kinds of human powered vehicles now for personal use, business use, trikes, etc. There is now almost a human powered vehicle for anyone who has the physical and mental abilities to drive. For those who cannot power a bike or trike, there are also human-powered vehicles that can support a rider. Blah blah. Some people need to get a vision!

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  • Skid November 27, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    The car IS here to stay. In a place where it rains half the year people are not going to give up their rolling climate controlled living rooms. If gas ran out they would burn an alternative fuel or be electric. So why not concentrate on encouraging people to drive less and use walking, cycling, and public transit more?

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    • 9watts November 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      “If gas ran out they would burn an alternative fuel or be electric.”

      you toss that out as if switching fuels were akin to planting carrots instead of potatoes, or wearing plaid instead of corduroy. Nothing could be further from the truth, less plausibly accomplished in a short amount of time.
      What is running out is a stable climate, and the time to prevent the well-understood fallout from that.

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      • Skid November 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm

        Oh but it is. There are hybrid fuel cars available right now, and electric cars. There just needs to be more. And if they electricity that an electric cars used were generated via wind or solar power there would barely be a carbon footprint.

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        • 9watts November 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm

          hybrid cars, all the hype notwithstanding don’t represent a break with our history of automotive fuel efficiency. The same mpg of the best hybrids is achievable with the best designs that predate them (’92-’95 Honda Civic VX, some VW diesels going back to the early eighties, etc.)

          Electric cars are a distinct species and as you say offer the theoretical possibility of being charged with renewable electricity, but the practical limits of actually switching our fleet and grid over to run them is fanciful. We have utterly failed to devise a strategy and plan to retire our coal power plants right now in the absence of any additional transport related demand for kilowatt hours. Add in electric cars, and the prospect of phasing out coal in short order disappears.

          Switching our private automobile fleet over to another fuel source that is not coupled to the extraction of fossil fuels in, say, the next twenty years is impossible for a multitude of reasons. Shifting away from cars for most of our transport needs by comparison is actually conceivable.

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          • Skid November 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm

            I still can’t see the point of poo-pooing the idea, and saying that it can’t be done, or not fast enough or whatever. They are all good ideas and they will all make a difference. The infrastructure does exist, they all called gas stations. It would not be much of a stretch to add different types of fuels including electricity. You never used to be able to get propane everywhere and now you can, because it is at most gas stations.

            Even (some) big oil companies are starting to realize the benefits of a power source where you don’t have to pay for the fuel. Chevron has solar powered gas stations to reduce their electricity dependency.


            How hard would it be to store extra electricity on site (instead of excess going back to the grid) and then use it to fuel electric cars? I really think this is the next logical step.

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            • 9watts November 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm

              “I still can’t see the point of poo-pooing the idea, and saying that it can’t be done, or not fast enough or whatever. They are all good ideas and they will all make a difference.”

              The reason is that some of them are in fact not good ideas but anachronistic fantasies that distract from the real (i.e. feasible, prudent) work of scaling back our expectations about what sorts of amenities we can collectively sustain when it comes to personal transportation options.

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              • Skid November 28, 2012 at 6:31 pm

                They are not anachronistic, because all these ideas could be applied right now. And they would all make an immediate measurable impact.

                What is a fantasy is that people will give up their cars. I don’t even see the point of it. In many cases, a car truck, or van make the most logical tool for the job.

                As long as this line of thinking is employed you will encounter nothing but resistance from the general population. If a more positive message about reducing individual dependence on cars were embraced, it would reach more people, have a bigger impact, and a bigger benefit.

                You can continue on your anti-car tirade. I will continue to encourage people to walk and bike more, and drive less.

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              • 9watts November 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm

                “I will continue to encourage people to walk and bike more, and drive less.”

                Good for you. You’ll find no argument from me.

                As for tirade, remember how this all started. The Oregonian editors, stomping their feet, impatiently asserted that the car is here to stay. Disagreeing with that foolishness is no tirade.

                Finally you doubt that people will give up their cars. Some have (you and me and Svetlana) and some are as we speak. More will soon.

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  • Svetlana November 27, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Skid, are you one of those “people” who would not give up your car? Or, do you see yourself being able to transition from a car to a bike for the majority of your transportation? After 2 years of contemplation, I gave up my car in 2003 and made that transition. Yes, it changed my lifestyle, but I have enjoyed the changes much more than I would have guessed. I actually feel freer now. Anyway, if you can imagine your life without your car, so can others.

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    • Skid November 28, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      I haven’t owned a car since the 90’s. I commute by bike, and I ride recreationally. When I did own a car it was a classic (1957 VW Transporter), and it was rarely used. It came in very handy for hauling lots of stuff like groceries, laundry, building supplies, or a bunch of bikes and the people that ride them. When I needed it, it was worth having, and I would mind owning a similar vehicle again.

      I am just being realistic. Not everyone can do everything they need to do in a day by bike, especially if they have kids. Not everyone wants to. I understand the concept of making a sacrifice of comfort and leaving the car in driveway and walking/biking to the corner store, or walking/biking to public transit for a commute, and I think the average auto owner can grasp this. I think it would resonate with them better than telling them they are wrong for owning a car and that they have no choice but to get around on foot, by bike, or public transit.

      There would still be a substantial reduction in pollution if people used their cars less. That is what should be advocated. That is much easier for the average person to swallow, and it is much more logical. Also I believe just as much if not more pollution is caused by industrial production of goods, and there is a substantial amount of pollution caused by making electricity with coal. These issues need to be addressed too, and they can with wind and solar power.

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  • Steve Brown November 28, 2012 at 9:18 am

    It was great to see the op-Ed piece on Sunday. One more chance to reinforce the concept that we need to build Portland and the Metro area as a place to live, not a place to optimize driving cars. Cars are convenient but expensive for the owner and the community. As a community we need to develop efficient ways to get around, not spend time on the car v bike thing. Unfortunately, the centric people, by a large majority, see the issue is car as a win losss issue and seem to ignore the bigger issue of transportation and quality of life. For me, as much as I like my expensive hunk of high performance Geman steel and plastic, my life is bettere when I can ride or walk.

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  • Svetlana December 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Skid, I appreciate your reasoned response to the conversation and I agree with Steve that industrial pollution, from what I understand, is a huge problem. As far as getting from here to there goes, I like the trend toward localization. If we pushed toward having communities within which folks could get and do everything within a 20 minute walk from home, that would take care of it all. With the recent news about methane being released in the arctic due to permafrost melting and the environmental feedback loop it’s creating, I believe it is in our interest to get to the 20 minute neighborhood fast.

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