Surface Transportation Innovations #101

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation Innovations #101

Crunch time for Interstate tolling, Transit advocates shoot themselves in the foot, Congestionâ??s impact on urban economies

In this issue:

Crunch Time for Interstate Tolling

On Tuesday, March 13, the Senate will resume voting on a long list of amendments to S.1813, its surface transportation reauthorization bill. Two of them directly affect the future of Interstate tolling in America. Number 25, by Sens. Carper, Kirk, and Warner (two Democrats and one Republican), would increase the number of slots in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Toll Pilot Program from three to ten. It would also remove the limits on how many states can participate in the Value Pricing Pilot Program and the Express Lanes Demonstration Program. This amendment has the support of the Tolling Coalition, ARTBA, and a number of state DOTs. Amendment number 26, by Sen. Hutchison (R, TX) would further restrict tolling on Interstates by preventing the use of toll financing to reconstruct currently non-tolled lanes-and would also cut the number of slots in the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program from three to two. This measure is backed by the American Trucking Associations and all of its state affiliates, plus the AAA.

Long-time readers of this newsletter will understand that I support Amendment 25 and oppose Amendment 26. Should the latter be approved and make it into the final legislation, it’s not clear what would happen to the three states already occupying all three slots in the pilot program: Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia. Missouri is planning a $4 billion reconstruction of I-70, including the addition of two dedicated truck lanes in each direction along its 252 miles. North Carolina plans to widen the entire 182 miles of I-95 within its borders, with the 50 most congested miles going from four lanes to eight, and the rest going to six lanes. Virginia’s program is similar for its 179 miles of I-95 from the NC border to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Then there are all the states with needed modernization projects that will be out in the cold if there are no more slots. Missouri is one of four states in a Corridors-of-the- Future project that would rebuild and modernize I-70 from Kansas City to eastern Ohio. Like Missouri, the other three-Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio-could not afford to do their portions without toll finance. Likewise, Virginia and North Carolina are part of a similar coalition for I-95 that includes South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And when FHWA allocated the third slot in the program to North Carolina last month, that left applicants Arizona and Rhode Island without any good funding alternative. Add them up and you have eight states that are good candidates for reconstructing and modernizing Interstates using toll finance, in addition to the three already in the program. So even the proposed expansion to 10 slots is not sufficient. But if the eventual bill is only for two years (as S.1813 currently provides), 10 slots would still be significant progress.

This whole battle over Interstate tolling rests on a misconception by opponents that using tolls to finance major reconstruction and widening is “tolling existing lanes.” On the contrary, it is replacing existing lanes with state-of-the art lanes, with proper overhead clearance of 17.5 feet (compared with 15 feet on some of I-95 in North Carolina), applying current design and safety standards to the spacing of on and off-ramps, replacing less-safe left exits, reconstructing bottleneck interchanges (as in Rhode Island), and on and on. It also means replacing worn-out pavement-I-70 in Missouri is nearly 60 years old.

The opponents’ canard of “erecting toll booths on the Interstate” is wrong for two reasons. First, it implies simply charging more to use the same worn-out, inadequate lanes (which is forbidden under the terms of the Pilot Program). Second, it calls to mind obsolete 20th-century toll booths, when what these innovative states are proposing is 21st-century all-electronic tolling.

Congress will not increase federal fuel taxes-and even if they did, a lot of the new revenue would be spent on low-priority things rather than on Interstate reconstruction. So the least they can do is to give states more flexibility in using toll finance to get on with the job of modernizing America’s most important highway infrastructure.

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Transit Advocates Shoot Themselves in the Foot

A wide array of transit and smart-growth advocates have cheered the Federal Transit Administration’s proposed changes in evaluation criteria for its capital grant programs-New Starts and Small Starts, under which rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) projects are funded. At the same time, these groups are conducting an all-out assault on the House proposal to shift transit funding out of the Highway Trust Fund (paid for by highway users’ gasoline and diesel taxes) and into a new Alternative Transportation Account (to be funded either out of general revenues or from energy tax revenues). These two positions are directly contradictory.

The rationale given for having highway users pay for federal transit programs has always been that shifting some trips from driving to transit reduces the number of cars on the road, thereby reducing the extent of congestion faced by the remaining drivers. There is obviously something to this, especially for commutes into a traditional central business district like Manhattan or the Chicago Loop. But it has always been questionable in most urban areas that are characterized by numerous “major activity centers” spread out across the landscape, with the predominant commuting pattern being suburb-to-suburb. Transit offers very little help for such commutes.

But the new FTA evaluation rules seriously undermine even this shaky rationale. They do so in a host of ways. First, they would eliminate the previous criterion that based a transit project’s cost-effectiveness rating largely on total travel-time savings produced by the dollars invested. Instead, the new measure would be based on the annualized operating and capital cost per trip. They would also give additional points for environmental and economic-development benefits-again, nothing there that directly benefits the motorists expected to pay for these projects. Moreover, the new rules would deliberately “value all [transit] trips equally, whether short or long.” Thus, a slow-moving downtown streetcar whose average passenger trip is a few blocks would be scored just as high as a BRT project whose average passenger trip was 15 miles, as long as they had the same cost per trip.

It’s very clear from reading through the 60-odd pages of the Federal Register notice that the intent of the new procedures is to enable FTA to expand its grant-making for streetcars and other trendy economic development projects, rather than focusing on delivering the greatest bang for the buck in terms of reduced congestion and travel-time savings. If the new rules go through, the already-weak rationale for having highway users pay for transit projects will be fatally weakened.

As I write this, the 60-day comment period is still open, and comments can be posted until March 26th. The Docket number is FTA-2010-0009, Major Capital Investment Projects. I’m in the process of finalizing my submission, which makes the above points at greater length and also discusses the FTA’s missed opportunity to reform the rules to make their evaluation process less subject to being rigged against BRT projects. All comments will be posted at

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Express Toll Lanes in High Gear

Last fall, the difficult opening weeks of the I-85 Express Lanes in Atlanta created a short-lived round of negative publicity on the idea of converting congested HOV lanes to HOT lanes (increasingly being referred to as express lanes). But the latest data from Atlanta show that the I-85 lanes are now operating pretty much like all the others-offering faster and more dependable travel time to paying customers and qualified car-pools while having minor impacts on the adjacent general-purpose lanes.

New data from Georgia DOT compare travel speeds and vehicle volume on express and general-purpose lanes before and after the transition, for six different locations along the corridor. The mini-table below is my summary of the data for the four-hour AM peak period. The “after” data are the monthly averages for November 2011 through January 2012, while the “before” data are monthly averages for two months prior to the transition. (The difficult start-up month is excluded.)

Before After
GP lanes speed (mph) 52.3 54
Express Lanes speed (mph) 58.5 61.2
GP lanes volume 26,456 26,210
Express Lanes volume 3,369 3,024
Total volume 29,825 29,234

Thus, contrary to the media image of empty express lanes and jammed GP lanes, the overall corridor was flowing better after the transition than before. And total volume was slightly less than before, suggesting that some trips shifted to other modes or other times of day. Figures for the PM peak were similar.

I don’t have the space to describe all the newer express lanes projects under way around the country, but as you can see below, the phenomenon is booming.

Austin: the local regional mobility authority is moving forward with plans for express toll lanes on MoPac (Loop 1), with construction likely to start in 2014.

Charlotte: NCDOT has an RFQ out for concession companies interested in converting the HOV lanes on I-77 north of the city to tolled express lanes.

Chicago: studies continue on possible conversion of the non-tolled express lanes on the Dan Ryan and Kennedy Expressways to variable pricing.

Dallas/Ft. Worth: Texas DOT has issued an RFQ for concession companies interested in the $4.4 billion project to add 28 miles of express toll lanes to I-35E in Dallas. Separately, transit agency DART has completed a feasibility study on converting its HOV lanes to HOT lanes.

Denver: Colorado’s HPTE toll agency has issued an RFQ for a 23-mile express toll lanes concession on US 36 between the existing I-25 HOT lanes in Denver and downtown Boulder.

Houston: Transit agency METRO has completed the first of five conversions of single-lane reversible HOV lanes to HOT lanes.

Los Angeles: in addition to the two HOV to HOT conversions under way by LA Metro, Orange County is studying a comparable conversion plus lane-addition on I-405 between the John Wayne Airport and the LA County line. Riverside County is extending the Express Lanes on SR 91 in Orange County eastward to I-15. And San Bernardino County is seriously studying adding express toll lanes to I-10 and I-15.

Miami: FDOT has begun construction of Phase 2 of the I-95 Express Lanes, extending them northward to Ft. Lauderdale, as construction continues on new reversible express lanes on I-595. FDOT has also applied for a TIFIA loan for express lanes to be added to I-75 in Broward County.

Minneapolis/St. Paul: the third MnPASS lanes project will be on I-35E in St. Paul, planning for which has begun.

Orlando: FDOT’s long-planned project to add express toll lanes to I-4 through much of Orlando is likely to proceed once Congress enacts the surface transportation reauthorization bill.

San Diego: the expansion of the I-15 express lanes to 20 miles and four lanes (with a movable barrier) was completed in January. And SANDAG has decided that the best option for I-5 in the northern part of the county is the addition of two tolled express lanes in each direction.

Seattle: Two possible express toll lane projects are under study by WSDOT; one would convert the non-tolled reversible express lanes on I-5 to express toll lanes. The other project would add express toll lanes to I-405.

Tampa: FDOT is studying express toll lanes for portions of I-4 and I-275.

Virginia: VDOT has reached an agreement with the consortium developing the I-495 (Beltway) express lanes to convert and extend the HOV lanes on I-95 to express toll lanes.

The only example I’m aware of where such priced lanes have been considered and rejected is Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. After a traffic and revenue study concluded that converting the HOV lanes on US 101 to HOT lanes would only make sense if the HOV occupancy level was increased from HOV-2 to HOV-3, the Transportation Authority of Marin rejected the idea, at least for the time being. This is despite the fact that US 101 is part of the planned Bay Area network of express toll lanes.

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Congestion’s Impact on Urban Economies

Several years ago in this newsletter I reported on the work of economists Remy Prud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee. Using data on travel times and labor productivity from cities in France and South Korea, they found a robust relationship. The effective size of an urban region’s labor market is bounded by how long it takes to make a typical journey to work. When shorter travel times increase the size of the labor market by 10%, the productivity of the metro area increased by1.3%. In the United States, Robert Cervero of UC Berkeley found that a 10% increase in commuting speed in the San Francisco Bay Area increased economic output by 1%. And more recent studies by David Hartgen and Gregory Fields, using data for eight U.S. metro areas, found similar effects-specifically, that the ability to go 10% farther in a commuting time of 25 minutes would lead to a 1% increase in regional economic productivity.

I recently came across another study addressing basically the same question, using a different methodological approach. The paper is “Does Traffic Congestion Reduce Employment Growth?” by Kent Hymel, then at UC Irvine and now at Cal State University Northridge. It appeared in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Urban Economics. Hymel employs an econometric approach drawn from the city growth literature, which focuses on the economics of agglomeration. He sets out to assess whether there is empirical evidence for the hypothesis that congestion reduces employment growth in a metro area. This turns out to be more complicated than it sounds because, as he notes in the introduction to the paper, the two variables interact: employment growth leads to more workers, who generate congestion, and congestion then “discourages [further] employment growth by raising workers’ reservation wages and increasing shipping costs for goods.” So he comes up with a number of clever methodological approaches to deal with this problem. Since I am not an econometrician, I will not attempt to summarize them for you, but will skip to his conclusions.

The last table in the paper provides results for the 10 most-congested metro areas in 1990 (based on data from the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Reports. For each of them, he provides an elasticity of congestion with respect to freeway capacity and an elasticity of employment growth with respect to congestion. This allows him to compare actual employment growth from 1990 to 2003 with two counter-factuals-a 10% increase in freeway capacity and a set of congestion tolls that would reduce congestion by 50%. For Los Angeles-then as now the most congested metro area-estimated employment growth would have been 8% greater if there had been a 10% increase in freeway capacity. Even more impressive, if congestion pricing reduced congestion by 50%, employment growth would have been 23% greater.

I get frustrated when elected officials tout infrastructure projects because of “jobs, jobs, jobs”-by which they generally mean short-term construction jobs (which could also be generated by building pyramids or by digging holes and filling them in again). By contrast, productive infrastructure investments are those which make an economy more productive, generating an increased gross regional product. Hymel’s findings join those discussed above in bolstering the case for investing wisely to reduce commuting time in urban regions.

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Do We Need a National Freight Program?

Thanks to several years of lobbying by various port, waterways, and other freight organizations, both the House and Senate reauthorization bills contain what some have called an “unprecedented” federal emphasis on freight. The Senate bill includes both the requirement for a freight office at DOT to create a “national freight strategic plan” and a new freight grants program. A House bill from Rep. Adam Smith, which he hopes to have added to the main bill (HR 7), would create a national freight fund financed by a new freight fee-a percentage of the value of the goods being transported-and used to make grants for freight projects for all modes.

Before assessing these specific proposals, it might be worthwhile to step back and look at the existing tax-and-grant programs. For highways, of course, we have the Highway Trust Fund, fed by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, neither of which has kept pace with inflation over the past two decades and much of whose revenue has been diverted to non-highway modes. Not much help for freight there. For ports, we have the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, fed by a tax on the value of imported cargo at all US ports and made available via earmarked projects done by the Army Corps of Engineers. Its primary purpose is to dredge harbors and channels, but (a) some ports (especially on the west coast) are naturally deep and don’t need dredging, and (b) in recent years Congress has authorized spending of only about half as much as the harbor maintenance tax brings in each year. That doesn’t sound like a big success, either. And then we have the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, fed by a tax on fuel used in hauling barges on those waterways. The main need here is to maintain and replace the numerous locks and dams along the inland waterways, but the revenue from the fuel tax covers only about 8% of the Corps of Engineers spending on waterways. This situation has gotten so bad that the waterways trade group itself is calling for an increase in the tax of about 45%–but that would still leave general taxpayers covering most of the costs.

So what do advocates of a national freight program really have in mind? I’m sure many of them sincerely believe that more investment is needed-and in some cases, I’m sure they are right. But why should general taxpayers pay for any of this? And even within supposedly user-funded programs (like the harbor maintenance tax), why should ports with naturally deep harbors have their cargo taxed to pay for the dredging of other ports that, to some degree, are their competitors? Even worse is the National Freight Program in the Senate bill which would divert up to 10% of each state’s allocation of federal highway funds to freight rail and maritime projects.

I hate to sound cynical, but when I hear “national freight program,” what comes to mind is segments of the goods movement community seeking either cross-subsidies from other portions of that community or increased subsidies from general taxpayers. Doing either of these things distorts resource allocation, so that the cost to use one mode is artificially lowered for its users, rather than those modes competing on the basis of covering all their costs via the prices they charge their freight customers. And counting on federal general fund monies for infrastructure is hardly a sustainable proposition, given the coming fiscal retrenchment of the federal government.

For over a hundred years, the railroads have done a pretty good job of paying for their own infrastructure, and recovering the costs from their customers. The rest of the goods-movement sector needs to start doing likewise.

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Upcoming Conferences

Note: I don’t have space to list all the transportation conferences going on; below are those that I am (or a Reason colleague is) participating in.

Future Transportation Funding Options and Strategies, April 14, Institute for Transportation Research and Education, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC (Bob Poole speaking). Details available from Christie Vann at ITRE:

2012 Design-Build in Transportation Conference, April 25-27, 2012, Renaissance Glendale Hotel, Phoenix, AZ. (Bob Poole speaking) Details at:

2012 Symposium on Mileage-Based User Fees, April 29-May 1, 2012, Hyatt Regency on the Hudson, Jersey City, NJ. (Adrian Moore speaking) Details at:

14th International HOV, HOT, and Managed Lanes Conference, May 22-24, Marriott Hotel, Oakland, CA. (Bob Poole presenting) Details at:

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News Notes

Excellent Article on Fixing U.S. Infrastructure. Several weeks ago Bloomberg featured an article by Harvard economist and urban expert Edward Glaeser, called “Spending Won’t Fix What Ails U.S. Infrastructure.” It’s one of the best articles on the subject that I’ve read in many years. Glaeser begins with an appreciation for the Interstate Highway System, and goes on to recommend seven key principles:

  1. Let users pay
  2. Implement congestion pricing
  3. De-federalize transport spending
  4. Institutionalize maintenance funding
  5. Promote public-private partnerships
  6. Cherish the bus
  7. Split up the Port Authority

You can find the article at:

Another California Pension Fund to Invest in Infrastructure. Last month California’s second-largest public pension fund, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) announced that it is allocating $500 million towards infrastructure investments. It is teaming with Australia’s Industry Funds Management, which manages investments for 32 of that country’s public pension funds, and has about one-third of its $32 billion portfolio in infrastructure. The CalSTRS money will be placed in IFM’s Global Infrastructure Fund, which invests in assets in Europe and North America.

Maglev Assets Being Auctioned Off. The assets of the bankrupt Maglev, Inc., which spent 20 years trying to develop a high-speed magnetically levitated train between Pittsburgh and its airport, were auctioned off on March 6th. Over the years, the company soaked up $23 million in federal tax money and another $7 million in state tax funds before going belly up last July. It listed assets of only $50,000 and liabilities of up to $10 million.

Washington Metro on Wrong Track?. Columnist Michael Barone devoted a recent piece to the problems plaguing the Washington, DC Metro heavy-rail system (of which I am a regular user when I’m in DC). While praising its accomplishments, he also makes some pointed critiques of its poor planning and flawed management decisions over the years. “A Failure of Imagination Put Metro on Wrong Track” appeared on Feb. 15th in the Washington Examiner,

Follow-up on CBO Report on Public-Private Partnerships. In the January issue, I criticized the generally good report on highway PPPs by the Congressional Budget Office for its mistaken treatment of the impact of such projects on federal tax revenue. Not only did the CBO analysts assume that if there were no tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds then toll mega-projects would be financed via more-costly taxable revenue bonds. They also ignored the fact that-assuming the concession company makes a profit over the duration of its 50-year term-it will be paying federal corporate income taxes. Bill Reinhardt of Public Works Financing queried Cintra about the two toll mega-projects it is building in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area. They told him that the net present value of what they expect to pay in corporate income taxes over the life of the concession is $2.6 billion. Needless to say, were the same toll projects to be done by traditional public-sector toll authorities, federal income tax revenue would be zero.

Inter-City Bus Service Expanding in Florida. Responding to the growth of relative newcomer Red Coach, which now provides premium bus service connecting most major cities in Florida, as well as Atlanta, Greyhound in January announced the introduction of its own premium service, Greyhound Express, in the Sunshine State. The one-year old division of Greyhound will link its Atlanta hub to Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Greyhound Express began in December 2010 with service linking New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. It now serves the entire east coast, from Boston to Miami.

Private-Sector Interest in Pure Toll Concessions. The last few years have seen a trend, in both Europe and the United States, toward greater use of availability payments for long-term concessions. Some of these are projects where tolls are not desired for policy reasons, but others use a hybrid model under which motorists pay their tolls to the state, and the state compensates the concessionaire using availability payments. This, of course, shifts the traffic and revenue risk from the concessionaire to the state, which is why some concession companies prefer it. Some observers have begun to question whether, in today’s financial climate, it is still possible to find companies willing to do “pure” toll concession projects. A partial answer to that question comes from Texas. In its RFQ for the Grand Parkway project in Houston, TxDOT allowed the companies to state whether they were interested in doing the project as design-build or as a pure toll concession. Of eleven responses, five opted for pure toll concessions. The five teams were Odebrecht/Zachry/Vinci, Macquarie/FCC/Shikun & Binui, Cintra/SDC, ACS/Hochtief, and OHL/Acciona-all major players.

3-D Laser Scanning for Incident Clearance. The U.K. Department for Transport is making grants to police departments to enable them to purchase 3-D laser scanners that can record an accident scene in a matter of minutes, producing highly accurate 3-D positional information. The idea is to reduce the time needed for clearing up accidents and getting the roadway back in service. In tests by the Humberside Police, the system saved an average of 39 minutes per incident. An article on this development appears in the Feb. 22nd issue of The Urban Transportation Monitor.

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Quotable Quotes

“With scarce federal resources, states and localities should not be constrained in their ability to fund vital transportation improvements through reasonable user fees. For example, we can remove, or at least substantially reduce, federal barriers to tolling and pricing by states and metropolitan regions. It could be done by ending the current federal prohibition on tolling Interstate highways. This could also be attained by extending the FHWA’s tolling and highway pricing pilot programs and expanding the number of participants in these programs. A bipartisan amendment supporting this has been offered to the Senate surface transportation bill by Sens. Tom Carper (D, DE), Mark Kirk (R, IL), and Mark Warner (D, VA). We urge senators of both parties to back it. By allowing more states and regional authorities to participate, Congress could provide them with the ability to create innovative and flexible program to finance their transportation needs, though federal funding may fail.”
-Slade Gorton and Martin Sabo, “Finding Transportation Funds,” Politico, March 7, 2012

“There are three separate questions [re federal funding of transit]. First, does mass transit (inherently much more local than Interstate highways) deserve any direct federal support at all? Second, if question #1 is answered in the affirmative, does transit deserve a dedicated multi-year funding stream that allows predictable funding for long-term projects? Third, if questions #1 and #2 are answered in the affirmative, should the source of the revenue stream be the motor fuels excise tax on highway users? The Ways & Means bill answers yes on #1 and no on #2 and #3. But yes on #s 1 and 2 and no on #3 was the original transit trust fund proposal from House Democrats back in 1978, when Public Works chairman Jim Howard (D, NJ) proposed a separate transit trust fund supported by President Carter’s proposed oil windfall profits tax. The tax proposal went nowhere, and the gas tax became the default funding source in 1982, but there are plenty of other potential revenue streams in the energy sector that could conceivably be a better fit for transit funding than a gallons-used tax on drivers and truckers.”
-Jeff Davis, “House Highway Bill,” Transportation Weekly, Feb. 8, 2012, p. 6.

“It should mystify nobody that the Administration’s sense of entitlement to use Highway Trust Fund money for what are, in reality, urban transit priorities alienates politicians representing suburbs and rural areas. Combine it with another projected trillion-dollar deficit; the perception of urban transit as a money pipeline for public-sector unions; and loud commitments to a national high-speed rail program even as the estimated cost of California’s project goes through the roof-and you get the House transportation bill. Transit advocates have to realize that their federal funding sources are irrevocably waning. Yes, the Senate transportation bill is less draconian and more cognizant of the urban/highway divide, but its future is iffy, at best. The problem is that all the reasons the Administration and transit advocates give for transit’s importance to cities and cities’ importance to the economy-86% of the nation’s gross domestic product is created in them-are the same reasons their opponents think cities and urban residents can afford to pay for their own downtown trolleys, sidewalks, and bike lanes.”
-Lisa Schweitzer, University of Southern California, “Obama Clueless on Transit Funding,” Politico, Feb. 16, 2012

“The only way U.S. companies have been able to keep their products competitive in the face of increasing traffic congestion and rising transportation costs is to squeeze every ounce of efficiency they can out of their supply chain. But there is a limit to efficiency, and without additional transportation capacity, transportation costs will increase significantly. The result will be higher prices and lost jobs.”
-David Ellis, Texas Transportation Institute, “Mobility Study,” Texas Transportation Researcher, January 2012

“[E]ven if we do all the things that can be done to limit the social costs of cars, the campaign against them will not stop. It will not stop because so many of the critics dislike everything the car stands for and everything that society constructs to serve the needs of its occupants. Cars are about privacy; critics say privacy is bad and prefer group effort. . . . Cars are about autonomy; critics say the pursuit of autonomy destroys community. . . . Cars are about speed; critics abhor the fatalities they think speed causes. . . . Cars are about the joyous sensation of driving on beautiful country roads; critics take their joy from politics. . . . Cars make possible Wal-Mart, Home Depot, the Price Club, and other ways of allowing people to shop for rock-bottom prices; critics want people to spend their time gathering food at downtown shops. . . . Cars make California possible; critics loathe California.”
-The late James Q. Wilson, “Cars and Their Enemies,” Commentary, July 1997. (

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