Put In Parking Lot. Photo Attributed to: Daniel Oines. License found here

On May 7th at 7pm Ben Ross will be talking about his new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill. It should be a great event and we encourage you to attend. You can add the event to your calendar here.

Co-presented with FRIENDS OF TRANSIT. Transit advocate Ben Ross has been the leader of the largest grass roots mass transit advocacy organization in the U.S. (Maryland’s Action Committee) for fifteen years. Ross travels to Seattle today to speak about his book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press). Arguing that sprawl is much more than bad architecture and sloppy planning, he identifies smart growth, sustainability, transportation, and affordable housing as interrelated. The two keys to creating better places to live are expansion of rail transit and a more genuinely democratic oversight of land use.

Here are the details for the event:

The Elliott Bay Book Company
1521 10th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122
May 7th, 7pm
The event is free and open to the public.

To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from the book:

Smart growth threatened road builders as much as subdividers. The highway lobby had long taken a decidedly nonideological approach to politics, relying on a shower of campaign contributions that fell generously on incumbents of both parties. But as circumstances changed, the pavement people began to find right-wing religion. As early as 1977, conservative writers had complained of a war against the car. “The war against automobiles is never-ending,” the political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in 1998, and from then on the slogan repeated in a steady drumbeat.

Where the property rights movement was at first orchestrated from top down, the defense of the automobile was more spontaneous. After seven decades of suburbanization, the idea that motorists possessed an exclusive right to use streets was built into the landscape and inculcated in public consciousness. Everything in the suburban environment said that roads were made for motor vehicles alone. Drivers were quick to pick up the theme of “war on cars” and run with it whenever they felt inconvenienced….

This feeling of entitlement was on clear display in 2011 when a jury in Cobb County, Georgia, found Raquel Nelson guilty of vehicular homicide. A car struck her four-year-old son and killed him while the family was crossing a five-lane highway to get from the bus stop to their garden apartment. The mother was a criminal, according to prosecutors in the wealthy Atlanta suburb, because she did not walk, with two young children and an armful of packages, a quarter-mile to the nearest crosswalk and a quarter-mile back. None of the jurors who convicted her had ever ridden a local bus.

Right-wing publicists might ignore a Raquel Nelson and leave their followers to think of her as an aggressor in the war against the automobile. But they still face a problem of inconsistency when they hitch a ride on motorists’ belief in the divine right of cars. Their free-market theory has little in common with reality. Suburban roads, even more than suburban neighborhoods, are made by government.

And the devotion of the automobile culture to free roads and free parking poses another even greater problem for these writers. It clashes directly with the agenda of the people paying the bills.

In an era when the highway lobby’s old funding formulas have stopped working, road builders hope that toll lanes will save the day. The Reason Foundation is a center of toll road promotion; Peter Samuel, the editor of a newsletter for the toll road industry, was a signer of the Lone Mountain Compact. These and other prohighway publicists marshal economic theory to justify tolls as user fees that simply make drivers pay for the roads they drive on.

But at the grass roots, the motorist’s sense of entitlement says just the opposite. Paid parking and tolls are just as much a war on drivers as bike lanes and crosswalk signals. Careful steering is required to keep the heavy artillery of the culture war pointed away from the economic interests of the sponsors.

The congestion charge, a daily fee assessed on anyone who drives into a congested downtown, brings this contradiction into the open. The issue first flared up when London’s left-of-center Mayor Ken Livingstone imposed a $15 per day charge. American rightists seconded the criticism levied by British conservatives, with Wendell Cox weighing in loudly if inconsistently.

The Reason Foundation, as the main center of agitation for privately operated toll roads, has no choice but to endorse user fees in principle. But when a city actually tries to impose a congestion charge, the foundation joins Cox in finding reasons to say no. Excuses were not easy to find when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a fee on drivers in Manhattan. The best Sam Staley could do was to complain, under the headline “Bloomberg vs. the Car,” that enforcement by photographing license plates raised “legitimate and troubling questions about the surveillance systems needed to implement these programs.” When toll road operators three years later sought to use the same surveillance system, Staley enthused that “video license plate reader technology eliminates most of the hassle for consumers and users.”

Caught between their doctrine and motorists’ attachment to the subsidized status quo, the road warriors keep finding reasons to reject in practice what they support in principle. Randal O’Toole wants to get rid of rules that require off-street parking in new buildings—but not now, only after public parking rates go way up. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute endorses the concept of deregulating land use in Virginia—but he opposes an attempt to actually do so. The reason he gives is that streets with narrower lanes, shorter blocks, and sharp corners will somehow “force inclusion.” These writers are the St. Augustines of the free market—end government regulation and make me chaste some day, they pray, but don’t take away my subsidy just yet.

Article Author
Owen Pickford holding a beer, wearing a Sounders shirt in front of a bridge, river and large towers in Tokyo.
Owen Pickford

Owen is a solutions engineer for a software company. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.