CQ: Driving Debate

Kathryn A. Wolfe

June 21, 2010

CQ's Kathryn A. Wolfe looks at the Obama administration's plan to adopt alternatives to gasoline-powered tranportation and to promote "livable communities."

When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last year that the Obama administration wanted to “coerce people out of their cars,” he was being a bit blunter than he apparently intended to be — “coerce” has been softened to “lure” or “coax” in his subsequent talks on the subject — but the message came across clearly. President Obama thinks it is so important for Americans to reduce their dependence on oil, clear the air and relieve highway congestion that he is willing to go head to head with the nation's car culture.

Just last week, Obama seized on the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to condemn “America's centurylong addiction to fossil fuels.”

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast,” he said in an Oval Office address, “is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”

What Obama and his Cabinet have embraced so far is a series of proposals — some new, some recycled — designed to provide alternatives to gasoline-powered transportation. Above all, the administration says it wants to foster “livable communities” where people can walk, bicycle, or take a bus or a train to work just as conveniently as they can get to their jobs in their cars. LaHood recently issued a policy declaration that bikes should have equal standing with cars in transportation policy decisions — a breathtaking departure that pleased cyclists but mystified highway planners.

Indeed, Obama has ordered LaHood's Transportation Department to work closely with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency to promote livable communities — so they don't, for instance, subsidize a new housing complex on one side of a city while laying track for transit service on the other.

Sometime this summer, the White House is expected to lay out its plan in more detail, just as Congress is promising to start working in earnest on a surface transportation reauthorization bill that's a year overdue. In fact, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Minnesota Democrat James L. Oberstar, has incorporated some “livability” programs in his version of the legislation.

To this point, though, Obama's transportation program has been long on rhetoric but short on resources. The president and senior administration officials have talked about better coordination and leveraging money and they have persuaded Congress to spend a few million here and a few million there on new programs. But the president himself has not made the political and financial commitment that would be necessary to actually change the direction of something as large as transportation policy. And given the financial pressures on the government and the economy, it's not at all clear that he'll be able to do so this year — or even next year, after the midterm election.

The reason Obama's transportation plan is so modest is simply that he has neither the fiscal nor political capital to launch a serious assault on the automobile and its attendant industry, which have dominated American culture and transportation policy for most of a century.

Americans just love their automobiles. It's a visceral, all-encompassing, sometimes destructive sort of relationship that touches on almost every facet of American life. In researching her book “Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives,” Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz found that cars are the country's favorite commodity. Three-quarters of us think an automobile is our most important possession — for some, more important than children. Of the 138 million Americans who commute to work, eight out of 10 get there, alone, in a car.

“Most people,” Lutz wrote, “are distinctly uninterested in leaving their cars for the thin public transit system we now have.”

Obama's critics, mainly Republicans, know this and label his proposals as attempts at “behavior modification,” out of touch with their image of America, where the dream of homeownership involves a comfortable house in the suburbs with a couple of cars in the garage — not a condominium in a mixed-use neighborhood with a bicycle chained to a rack.

Mary Peters, when she was President George W. Bush's Transportation secretary, said bike paths and walking trails “really are not transportation, directly transportation-related.” She put them in the same funding priority category as construction money for museums or for repairing lighthouses.

Obama's proposals do seem to pale alongside the highway network and its tens of millions of vehicles thundering across the land. Last year, for instance, Congress actually doubled the money the government had been spending on bike paths and walking trails in one year, to about $1.2 billion.

But that amount would barely cover the cost of building two miles of some urban expressways.

Indeed, the highway lobby — mainly the roadbuilders, auto manufacturers and developers of suburban sprawl — seems content to tolerate the administration's interest in getting people to spend less time behind the wheel, as long as it doesn't threaten to reduce spending on roads or divert money from the Highway Trust Fund. If roadbuilders are uneasy at all, it is more for what the policy shift could represent down the road than what it is at the moment.

The complete story originally appeared in the Congressional Quarterly on June 21, 2010 and is available here:  Full Text of Document