Is Reducing Car Travel a Wise Policy for Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals?
California is one of a handful of states that have set targets for reducing the amount of driving, as measured by vehicle miles of travel (VMT). An Aug. 18 Streetsblog article headline put it this way, “Caltrans Carbon Reduction Strategy: We Must Drive Less.”
According to the California Transportation Carbon Reduction Strategy, the three “pillars” of this strategy are the shift to electric vehicles, encouraging “active” transportation (walking and biking), and investing more in mass transit. Widening highways is forbidden, even to add high-occupancy toll lanes or express toll lanes. The only way new HOT or express toll lanes will be allowed is if they convert existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes or general purpose lanes.
While California aims to cut vehicle miles traveled by 20% between now and 2030, several other states have adopted similar but less drastic goals: Washington state is aiming to reduce VMT by 16%, Colorado by 8%, Minnesota by 7%, and Massachusetts by 3%.
What is left out of these plans is how much bang for the buck VMT reduction would bring about and what kind of collateral damage these plans will bring about…
And who are the forgotten losers from VMT reduction policies? A new study by three urban planning professors makes the case that low-income urban residents without cars would suffer from these policies. A summary of their paper from the Journal of Planning Education and Research appears in the latest issue of Transfers magazine, edited by one of the co-authors, UCLA’s Michael Manville. “The Necessity of Cars,” co-authored with Michael Smart of Rutgers and David A. King of Arizona State University, is based on the premise that “America is built for driving. We should change that [in the long term], but in the meantime we should help low-income people drive.”
In the article and the journal article, they present detailed data showing that while the number of carless households has declined over time, those who live in such households have lower real incomes today than carless households on 1969. Less than 5% of all U.S. households don’t have a car but account for 41% of total Americans with no cars. (A large group of carless households are upper-income people living in dense downtowns like Manhattan.) They also present data showing that, in real terms, today’s cars cost little more than those of cars decades ago, despite being safer and having far more features.
As urban planning professionals, the authors acknowledge that we “have created a world that often demands a car, and that even as automobiles have become more necessary, they have not become less expensive. There are different ways to address this problem. In the long term, we should want a world more hospitable to other ways of moving around. In the short term, however, we should strive for universal auto access: helping low-income people get and keep cars.”
They note that “one obvious solution is to create more places like New York, where automobiles aren’t essential for economic success. This goal is undeniably important, but the built environment changes slowly, so it is also indisputably long term. Pursuing changes to the built form of cities offers little help to the many low-income households suffering from restricted mobility today. In the short term, the best approach is to help low-income people get and keep cars.”
While this approach may sound strange coming from urban planners, they are quick to point out a precedent. Reminding us that automobiles came on the scene around the same time as indoor plumbing, electrification, refrigeration, etc., these innovations typically began with the financially well-off and gradually became basically universal. The authors also note that these days “every state has programs to help low-income people maintain their access to these essential services.”
But not cars.
“The minority of Americans who can’t afford cars are rarely offered help getting them. Instead, they are offered public transportation, which in most places is a poor substitute for driving,” they write.
And anticipating objections from the transit community, they add, helping low-income people get cars “could further undermine transit, at a moment when transit is particularly vulnerable. But low-income people do not owe society a viable transit system. If a car is the best way for many low-income people to get around, . . . we should not begrudge low-income people the decision to drive.”