A Lesson in Heading Off Anti-Reform Rhetoric

To opponents of sustainable transportation, incremental reforms designed to level the playing field between cars and other modes of transportation can too easily be seen — or characterized — as a plot to take away their vehicles and homes in the suburbs. For a particularly apt example, look no further than Fred Barnes’ recent article in the Weekly Standard: “Coercing People Out of Their Cars.”

The Weekly Standard demonstrates how a few bike lanes can quickly come to be equated with the end of days. Photo: The Weekly Standard

There’s one word in particular reformers should avoid, says Jarrett Walker at Network blog Human Transit, so as not to stoke irrational fears. That word, once regrettably employed by U.S. Transpo Secretary Ray LaHood, is “coerce.” Translated literally, to coerce is to force one to do something against his or her will with the threat of violence or intimidation — a far cry from the measures reformers recommend to give people alternatives to driving.

In the new year, let us all resolve not to be coerced by the rhetoric of coercion, and never to use the term, even in jest, to describe our own project. In its impact on motorists, sustainable urbanism is all about accurate pricing. We care about pricing in two separate and non-convertible currencies: money, and the limited road space of our cities.

We experience urban congestion, and parking shortages, when road-space is inaccurately priced. As I explored here, it’s as though we were giving out free tickets to a concert; when you do that, you get lots of people waiting in line, spending time to save money. Today’s approach to pricing forces everyone to act like those frugal concertgoers, when in fact many could easily afford to spend some money to save time, and would prefer to do so if asked. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are one experiment in that direction, while the downtown congestion charges of London, Stockholm, and Singapore are another. On the pricing front, San Francisco’s free-market approach, which may finally liberate motorists from endlessly circling the block seeking a space, is another breakthrough.

Reduction of government subsidies is not coercion. Fred Barnes is the socialist in this debate, demanding government subsidy for his own chosen lifestyle but not for that of others. As for those of us who support more accurate pricing — of road space, parking, and all the other incremental costs of transport, including transit fares — we are the libertarians!

Elsewhere on the Network today: Commute by Bike explores the country of Bhutan’s cultivation of a cycling culture as part of its quest to improve “gross national happiness.” Livin in the Bike Lane asks whether rising gas prices and the aging of the Baby Boomer generation will prompt communities to get serious about smart growth. And Urban Cincy reflects on Cincinnati’s progress from riots to urban revitalization.