“Take back our streets!” is a common refrain among urban activists.
No, they’re not talking about reducing violent crime, as many of them reside in affluent neighborhoods.
What they want to take city streets back from is cars, which they see as a scourge that lowers their quality of life. But the alternatives they propose are much more costly and provide far fewer benefits.
When mass transit use plummeted in the 1970s, anti-car activists succeeded in distorting government transportation funding to greatly advantage transit systems over highways.
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Today, even though more than 90 percent of households have cars, governments spend 28 percent of the nation’s collective transportation funds on transit, with most of that money coming from state and federal fuel taxes as well as local property taxes.
Yet, despite this government gravy train, transit’s market share is lower than it was in 1980, at less than 2 percent of trips made nationwide.
Even when looking only at commuting trips, where trains and buses do best, transit accounts for less than 5 percent of the market share — one-fifth of its share of funding.
The myth that mass transit can serve most people does more than just waste taxpayer funds. Reducing access to cars contributes to unemployment and poverty.
In the New York City metropolitan area, where 40 percent of all U.S. transit trips occur and where one-third of the residents take transit to work, only 15 percent of jobs are accessible by transit in less than an hour.
In contrast, New Yorkers with cars can access more than five times as many jobs in 60 minutes.
New Yorkers dependent on transit suffer from the longest commutes in America — even longer than New York drivers.
Closing some streets to auto traffic can occasionally makes sense.
New York’s Times Square pedestrian plaza is often touted as a successful example. But most cities are not New York, and the nation’s experiments with converting streets to pedestrian malls have mostly ended in failure.
When cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento tried this in the 1960s and ’70s in an attempt to revive their downtowns, customers stopped coming and businesses closed.
By the 2000s, nearly all these cities had reopened their streets to auto traffic. These cities attempted to create small car-free zones, not the car-free cities envisioned by activists. Following these activists’ advice and closing off most urban streets to auto traffic would be a disaster.
Environmental activists claim automobiles should be banned to curb air pollution, but that’s not quite right. Yes, cars pollute, but they have become far cleaner over the past few decades and will be even cleaner still in the near future as cars achieve greater fuel efficiency.
And environmentalists don’t mention the polluting effect of traffic congestion. Instead, they often promote congestion and the resulting driver misery as a way to deter driving.
Then there is the issue of traffic safety. The traffic congestion and low speeds in America’s downtowns help keep serious car accidents rare relative to the rest of the country.
The majority of road fatalities occur in rural areas, where fewer than 20 percent of Americans live. The rest largely occur in the auto-oriented suburbs where most Americans reside, not urban cores.
Attempting to seriously reduce auto injuries and fatalities by banning cars in the dense cities where crashes pose the lowest risk is both an overreaction and a misapprehension of the problem.
None of this means that there aren’t problems with cars in our major cities, many arising from poor highway planning in the 1950s and ’60s. Introducing congestion tolls and market-rate parking are the places to start.
But 21st century problems will not be solved by trying to return our cities to the auto-free 19th century. We should work to improve technology, not outlaw it.
Marc Scribner is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. Readers may write him at CEI, 2, 1899 L St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.