The Congestion Coalition?
There are plenty of myths circulating in American society these days and nobody understands the dangers of such misinformation as well as the libertarian, pro-privatization mob known as the Reason Institute. While you’re busy wasting your life away on mind numbing entertainment, junk food, and pornography, the good people at the Reason Institute are busy debunking myths. And thank God, because there are loads of myths that need to be debunked. It’s a full time job! Throughout the last two hundred or so years of our country’s existence, we’ve developed a lot of crazy ideas about democratic accountability, civic responsibility, and publicly funded institutions like schools…not to mention our insane misperceptions about civil rights, labor unions and environmental justice. Through this dense fog, the Reason Institute has emerged like a red laser beam from the scope of a polished assault rifle: a beacon in the night that guides us towards the promised land of “free minds and free markets.”
In a recent article published in the Washington Post, two of the Reason Institute’s hired research monkeys tried to debunk some of the so-called myths we associate with suburbia, automobiles and car culture. Ted Balaker and Sam Staley’s quasi-journalistic piece begins with the assumption that anti-car and anti-sprawl (suburban) sentiments are so widespread that they have produced an entire set of misconceptions about the relationships between mobility, housing, the environment and economics. Their article attempts to address five so-called ‘myths’ that are apparently widely embraced by the American public. They are as follows:
1. Americans are addicted to driving
2. Public transit can reduce traffic congestion
3. We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving
4. We’re paving over America
5. We can’t deal with global warming unless we stop driving
Like most conservatives, these authors engage in the classic form of right-wing argumentation that begins with a set of erroneous assumptions about the current state of affairs in our country, then proceeds to make use of either/or binaries, and generally ignores both the substance or merit of the ‘myths’ they refute. From the context of their argument, one would assume that United States is being over-run by anti-suburban, anti-automobile advocates and that this wave of resentment is threatening our intrinsic rights to mobility and freedom. The authors begin with the amazingly inflammatory presumption that both the suburbs and automobiles are being demonized as social scourges that are, or might become, as loathed as cancer or al-Qaeda. I’m not kidding you…they literally referenced al-Qaeda in the first sentence! Even our incoherent, patriotism-exploiting turd of a president manages to get through the first sentence of his painful diatribes without invoking 9-11. From there, the authors spend the rest of the article attempting to pull slight-of-hand rhetorical tricks on par with the efforts of an alcoholic magician at a pre-teen birthday party. For example, the authors state that population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes and/or attitudes about driving do not affect driving habits. Wealth, they say, is the reason why people drive cars, but they obviously don’t explain how that works. Next, the authors use some de-contextualized statistics to make the case that public transit use has declined while public spending on transit has increased. These statistics are vague and they don’t address the differences in public expenditures on transportation in any terms that account for inflation, overall increases in government spending in the last four decades, or the percentage of public dollars spent on transit in the 1960s versus today. Without fail, the authors also give the all-too-familiar schtick about transit being too expensive and used by only a small amount of the population, including the poor and disabled—two groups that are clearly of the utmost concern to capitalist think tank pundits. In their discussion of transit, we never hear a word about the rates of use in the few American cities that actually have substantial transit infrastructures…nor do the author’s explain whether public opinion favors better public transportation. The authors go on to make several wildly fallacious arguments to prove several points. Here’s their logic at work:
1. Air pollution has actually decreased in recent decades, hence driving can’t be a bad for the environment.
2. Most of the country hasn’t been totally developed or covered in concrete, therefore we’re not ‘paving over America.’
3. Global warming critics demand an end to our driving habits and this is too expensive and unrealistic. Hence, we should leave the driving issue alone in order to focus on the ‘real’ problems of climate change.
The holes in these arguments are about as big as the profit oriented loopholes that think tanks like the Reason Institute build into their ill-founded policy recommendations. However, I’m not sure which scenario is more amazing: the willingness of the Washington Post to publish such faux news or the American public’s willingness to consistently believe that pro-automobile, pro-sprawl policies—like the one’s advocated by free market capitalists—are actually beneficial to their budgets, lifestyles or political dispositions. I certainly don’t’ fault people for using cars or supporting their right to drive, because like every other critic of automobility, I recognize that there are few options for people to do otherwise. But that’s exactly the point that automobile critics are trying to make: people are significantly limited in their ability to choose between different forms of mobility. Pro-automobile advocates love to talk about the ‘right to drive’ or the ‘freedom’ to travel, but they never talk about the freedom to choose any other mode of transportation—particularly ones that don’t pollute the Earth or require an infrastructure that engulfs most usable public space in our cities. Pro-automobile advocates don’t like to talk about how automobile accidents are the #1 cause of death for people between the ages of 4-34, killing approximately 43,000 people a year. Nor do they address the fact that the 2.9 million annual injuries caused by auto accidents costs our society roughly $230 billion a year. Even when people aren’t getting maimed or killed, the financial costs of automobility are staggering. According the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic congestion collectively costs an average of $168 billion a year and the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that the 75 largest metropolitan areas experienced 3.6 billion vehicle-hours of delay, resulting in 5.7 billion US gallons (21.6 billion liters) in wasted fuel and $67.5 billion in lost productivity, or about 0.7% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. One would think that this raw financial data alone would surely convince people that there are better ways to simply get from point A to point B. However, it’s hard to make informed decisions about transportation when groups like the Reason Institute can utilize major news outlets to push their agenda.
Guided by Thatcherite leader Robert Poole—the literal originator of the term privatization—the corporate lapdogs at the Reason Institute churn out an incredible amount of disinformation disguised as transportation policy, including a recent book about the problem of traffic congestion. The book, authored by the same duo that wrote the article in the Washington Post, makes the argument that traffic congestion, automobile inefficiency and clogged roads can be solved…by more roads! Flaunting even the most basic logic about the transportation engineering principles of ‘induced traffic’, the authors claim that we can build our way out of the problem. Furthermore, they completely downplay the negative effects of automobility, as if the statistics I mentioned about lives, time and money wasted are simply the fabricated musings of some Leftist conspiracy cult. Interestingly, the dynamic duo does create a term to describe people who want to critically discuss transportation alternatives: the Congestion Coalition. The so-called Congestion Coalition have an agenda to force people out of their cars, out of the suburbs and into congested, cramped high-rise cities. The Congestion Coalition hates freedom! I have to hand it to the authors…this is a catchy term to throw around, if only it wasn’t a complete distortion of truth. But as I said earlier, these authors excel at creating either/or binaries that make people believe you can either live in the burbs’ and drive a car, or you can give up the American dream—as well as your personal mobility and freedom—to live in a cramped city with expensive rent and smelly hoboes…not to mention brown people. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating; there’s probably nothing classist and racist about condemning urban life whilst championing highway construction…the infamous ‘white flight’ to the American suburbs is a reference to the heavy snowfall in the 1950s, right?
The transportation solutions posed by the Reason Institute, as evident in the Post article, are myopic at best and maniacal at worst. What’s hidden behind their quasi-patriotic posturing is an agenda that seeks to literally dismantle all forms of democratic accountably implicit to well-functioning transportation infrastructures. What is more, the ‘privatize or bust’ strategy of the Reason Institute is not simply an alleged solution to our transportation problems, it’s also the guiding principle of their approach to all institutions in this country. Education? Privatize it! Water supplies? Privatize them! Air? Privatize it! Private companies? Privatize them some more!
People that are insane enough to support a fully privatized, corporate owned planet are the only ones around who can un-ironically propose a solution to traffic congestion that simply involves bigger investments in the root of the problem. It’s only through systematic, well-funded campaigns of disinformation that a Bullshit Coalition like the Reason Institute can mask the true costs of automobility and simultaneously argue against sustainable, affordable, safe alternatives for our future.
Zack Furness is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective and the author of the forthcoming book One Less Car: Bike Culture and the Politics of Cycling.