What To Do with Pro-Car Populism?

onion car cartoon

A recent political car-toon from The Onion.

I was catching up with an old friend the other day, an economic geography professor who moved away for a job at a big West Coast university. We were eating dinner and swapping stories.

“What are you working on now?” I asked. We exchanged little bits about our lives, homes, friends in common. Somehow as we ate I ended up telling him about parking policy reform. (Note: I am a complete nerd.)

I began explaining the distortions in the parking market. With his economics background, I thought he’d be interested. I did my best to describe the cumulative effects of minimum parking requirements, the perverse incentive structure of parking meters, the hidden cost of asphalt, and so on. The solution, I said, was to externalize the price of parking, raise prices in certain areas and begin acknowleging the opportunity cost of urban space. (See my explanation here.) Prices should reflect the cost of parking, I concluded.

I was surprised at his reaction. “What about poor people?” he asked me. “You’re going to make it impossible for them to drive. In my city, nobody can afford to live in the city. I’ve been to these towns and neighborhoods where the poor people live. They’re miles away from jobs. They drive everywhere. You have to think about them!” He began to get passionate, as he usually does. “If you make parking expensive, only rich people will be able to drive. Driving will only be for the wealthy.”

“But… um.” I stammered. “Yeah, that’s a thing.” I could think of nothing to say. I had forgotten about the pro-car populism.

dayton quote

Governor Dayton’s recent pro-car populist quote.

I’d encountered this argument before, every once in a while. It’s a perverse paradox where the automobile’d sprawling American landscape is justified because it helps the poor. For example, you’ll see the pro-sprawl lobby use housing costs to justify limitless development, or gentrification activists argue that transit or bicycling investements are bad because they increase property values, hurting the poor. Think of the congestion pricing debate, or the latest example: Governor Dayton’s use of pro-car populism to kill support for the state transportation bill. These arguments remind me of the famous saying that “what’s good for GM is good for America.” Cars are democratic tools of self-empowerment. Cars are freedom.

I’ve been thinking about the conversation with my friend for a few weeks now, running over it in my mind like a monster truck. I’ve a number of reactions, none of which I find completely satisfactory.


Reaction #1: Yes, that’s true. Kinda.

When faced with the pro-car populism, the first thing to do is to admit that its true. Parking (or gas, or a home in sprawlville) will be more expensive for everyone, including those who can least afford it. Driving and parking will increasingly be the purview of the wealthy. If it costs $5 a gallon plus an $8 toll plus $5 per hour to park in the city, only wealthy people will do it. You can’t deny it.


Reaction #2: The car system is regressive.

What this argument is missing is how the current system is regressive. The present structure of subsidizing driving, parking, and boundless urban development harms the ‘inner city’ through freeway and road expansions. It benefits the wealthy far more than the working or middle classes.

Next time you’re on the city bus, look around and think about who is riding with you. The vast majority of transit users are poor people. Meanwhile everyone pays for freeways and parking and the mortgage interest tax deduction, whether they use them or not. The current system of subsidies is not a progressive force of social justice. Free and easy motoring increases social and spatial inequality at the expense of more egalatarian urban fabric.


Reaction #3: Focus on the problem, not the solution.

When confronted with the pro-car social justice argument, raise the stakes. OK, you will say. Ending gas, parking, and exurban housing subsidies hurts poor people. Well, why not help poor people through a large new program of subsidized parking lots? How about cutting the gas tax in half, until you’re basically giving it away? How about doubling federal tax refunds for people buying homes in sprawling metropolitan fringes? Bulldozing more inner city property for the huge Rosa Parks Memorial Parking Garage downtown? In our city: free parking for everyone, all the time!


Motor oil is not freedom.

Obviously, those proposals aren’t be the best way to end inequality and poverty in America. The thing to realize is that we’re basically doing all of those things right now. We’ve been deeply subsidizing automobile travel for generations. Few people think we’ve created a social utopia.

In fact, I’d argue that the opposite has occurred. We’ve demolished affordable housing to make room for freeways and parking garages. We’ve eroded government services through municipal fragmentation, civic tax shelters, and fostered spatial segregation. We’ve abandoned our transit systems, relegating them to the margins. We’ve refused to accommodate transportation alternatives in ways that foster deep inequalities.

Solving the problems of poverty in the USA won’t happen behind the wheel of a car. We need to focus on the real problems faced by poor people: affordable housing, affordable transportation, access to jobs. Currently, we’re spending large amounts of political and economic capital subsidizing a car-oriented system that only makes these problems worse. Whether its the gas tax, gentrification, or sprawl lobby, when faced with pro-car populism, it’s worth remembering the real problem.

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11 Responses to What To Do with Pro-Car Populism?

  1. Alex April 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    I think you can also note the cost of gas an insurance. Gas is going to climb up and up no matter what given the current trends in China and India. No amount of subsidized parking and roads will counter that. Insurance has been climbing upward as well. Given these trends, I think it’s fair to point out that driving is becoming unaffordable for the poor regardless of what we do. We might as well ride that wave and move resources toward walkability, bike infrastructure, and transit. Really, people will demand that those things be improved as they find driving less affordable. That will also make it easier to remove subsidies for parking and other car infrastructure since people will have other options. If you try to remove them before improving talking/biking/transit, people will have more reason to revolt.

  2. Colin April 24, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    Reaction No. 2 is the big one. The current system is worse for the poor, as they are less likely to own cars, and when they do they drive fewer miles than wealthy people.

    If people are genuinely concerned with transport justice for the poor they’ll be on your side, not against you.

  3. helsinki April 24, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    These arguments were disingenuously made during the successful campaign against congestion pricing in New York City. “It will hurt the poor people who live in the suburbs and commute into the city.” Whether or not this is true, my response to the pro-car populist might be:

    (1) The transportation system – regardless of mode – is largely designed and funded by the government so the choice is one that society is constantly making (ie, the status quo is not a “given” that we necessarily need to accomodate ourselves to),
    (2) automobile infrastructure and public transportation infrastructure can be complementary, but are usually in competition,
    (3) creating a market for parking would reduce the competitive advantage given to the automotive mode, and
    (4) transit is less expensive to use than an automobile, so
    (5) why don’t we help poor people out by removing the unfair competitive advantage given to cars and allow for a built environment that accomodates cheaper transportation options (ie, walking, biking, public transportation).

    • Phil April 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

      Public transportation isn’t as cheap as cars. It appears to be only because it’s heavily subsidized. Look at the DC Metro operating budget. They recover 79% of operating costs for the subway, 27% for buses, and 7% for shuttles. Overall cost recovery is 55% (expenses of $1.576 billion, revenue of $874 million). This isn’t even counting the cost of building the system!

      • Nate April 24, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

        This is way off. The multitude of costs associate with automobile driving cost us tons of money- far more than public transportation. Building and maintaining roads, mandated parking requirements and the financial costs they impose, externalities regarding obesity and pollution, the list goes on.

        One thing no one ever mentions: we massively subsidize gas, which if it were actually priced to reflect its cost to society, would be far higher. To quote the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel on why gas prices are too low:

        “The result is that people here and abroad use more energy than they would otherwise. So the IMF says that subsidizing energy or mispricing it aggravates budget deficits, crowds out spending on health and education, discourages investment in energy, encourages excessive energy use, artificially promotes capital-intensive industries, accelerates the depletion of natural resources…”


  4. Aaron April 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    I wouldn’t agree that the vast majority of transit users are poor people. That’s not the case where I live. It would be fair to say poor transit is used by only poor people and good transit is used by all kinds of people. When thinking of transportation costs for poeple, we must consider the cost in proportion to personal income. For poor people, the costs of maintaining a car when they have no alternative eats a huge pecentage of their budget. So much that people sometimes have to choose between having a home or a car (and sometimes end up using their car as their home) For others the cost is not much different but a much smaller piece of their income. I also wouldn’t agree that the poorer travel less miles than the wealthier. The descision makers of businesses tend to relocate workplaces closer to themselves instead of closer to thier workers.

  5. Phil April 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    I don’t see any difference between subsidizing cars with underpriced parking, and subsidizing mass transit because the poor can’t afford to pay what they cost to run. (Per door-to-door mile, mass transit is usually much more expensive than single-passenger cars.) If we follow your logic, and remove both subsidies, the poor will have no transportation method at all.

    If you want to remove car subsidies but keep mass transit subsides — why?

  6. Joe April 25, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Good points about subsidizing, Phil.

    Our entire transportation system is subsidized in favor of personal automobile use.

    Public transit should be even more heavily subsidized to the point that it’s no cost within 5 miles of a city center.

    It’s amazing to me that I pay the same amount for a monthly pass 3 miles away as does a person in the exurbs 20 miles away.

  7. Frederick April 28, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    There is a vicious cycle of poverty (the state of being poor, not being below the poverty line) due to location and transport. When there is insufficient housing supply in the inner city, the poor are pushed to the outskirts. To get to jobs in the centre, they must drive long distances, whereas the rich city residents have very short commutes, by walking, cycling or public transport.
    For 12 hours away from home, the people who can afford to live in the inner city can work nearly 12 hours, since their commutes take up time, and on public transport they can be productive, or by walking or cycling they get exercise which is proven to increase productivity.
    On the other hand, a poor outer suburbanite may have to drive 2 hours to downtown due to congestion. They only work 8 hours, and due to having to operate their own vehicle they may be more stressed.
    So basically the rich become more productive, and the poor become less productive. In addition, the poor have to bear the cost of maintaining a car, and buying large amounts of fuel for long distance travel, whereas the wealthy have free (walking), or cheaper (cycling and transit) transport.
    Hence the rich get richer and the poor get poorer due to suburbanism. The solution is to build cheap and plentiful inner city housing to allow anyone to live in the inner city, and allow everyone to be productive and hence well-paid.

  8. Jessica Schoner April 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Poor people are not a single entity with the same needs and interests, and these “But what about poor people” arguments are so disingenuous (which is probably why I almost exclusively hear them coming from people who are comfortably middle class and higher). Charging for parking may be a hardship for some poor people, but it may be a benefit to others if they’re no longer paying higher prices to subsidize that free parking space. People who make this argument should just admit to not wanting their own free parking taken away and stop trying to sound “charitable”. It’s not actually making them look good.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 28, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Great points Jessica and Frederick. (Of course, its easy to say that because you’re agreeing with me.) But still… well put!

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