Transportation ‘Expert’: Long Commutes Are a Status Symbol

Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski, author of the National Academies’ Commuting In America series, has advised Washington policymakers on infrastructure development for decades. And judging from the presentation
I watched him deliver at the Heritage Foundation last week, he’s
downright aghast at the prospect that the Obama administration could
begin shifting national policy away from total reliance on sprawl and
automobiles.

To be fair, Heritage is a conservative bastion that frowns at efforts to regulate climate change and cheers on the expansion of domestic oil drilling. But as Streetsblog readers enjoy a good laugh at George Will’s tirade against transit, it’s worth remembering that Will isn’t alone: Pisarski, respected as an "expert"
in the mainstream media, is even more dedicated to keeping America
yoked to highway dependence, and he has a litany of influential
supporters in his corner.

pisarski.jpgAlan Pisarski (Photo: University of Iowa)

Much
of Pisarski’s presentation centered on the contention that long
commutes are a luxury item chosen by the wealthy. In a chart titled
"Why we are a rich nation," he offered data showing that the number of
workers and vehicles in every U.S. household rise along with household
income — as does the total transportation spending and commute length
in each household.

"Americans are wealthy because they
work," Pisarski’s chart stated. "Americans have cars because they work.
Americans spend $ on transportation because they work."

Never mind that studies have also tied skin cancer and mercury-poisoning risk to income. Forget the  statistical doctrine
that correlation doesn’t prove causation. By Pisarski’s logic, the fact
that wealthier Americans have more cars and spend more time driving
means that the nation has spoken decisively in favor of low-density
suburbanism.

In fact, Pisarski mocked the notion of
planning communities that minimized travel time. When it came time for
church on Sunday, he quipped, "we could all just change our religions
and go to the one that’s closer."

The impact of automobile emissions on the environment — powerfully underscored by President Obama’s deal
to raise mileage standards — was wholly ignored in Pisarski’s
analysis. At one point, he claimed that national air-quality problems
have been "pretty much resolved" (perhaps because he plans to steer
residents of pollution-ravaged urban neighborhoods into the suburbs).

Pisarski
says he wants to give Americans the freedom to live wherever they
choose. Yet he also wants to limit any pesky governmental attempts to
offer more choices among modes of transportation, effectively locking
the nation into its existing living patterns — however
counter-productive they may be.

Another slide in his
presentation described two polarized ways of "thinking about the
world": one that’s "globally integrated," interested in longer travel
times, "market forces" and mobility; and the other that’s
neighborhood-based, interested in shorter travel times, "design" of
public spaces and accessibility.

I wanted to ask Pisarski
about his attempt to divide the country into pro-transit and
anti-transit, auto-haters and road-boosters, when the reality is far
more complicated and all-of-the-above. Riders of Bus Rapid Transit
systems rely on roads and bike commuters often own cars for weekend
trips, to name just two examples. But by the time I raised my hand for
a question, the time for his presentation had expired.

Something tells me that as the federal transportation debate heats up next month, I’ll run into him again. Any suggested questions? Let me know in the comments section.

  • Pat

    I wonder if he presented any statistics on minorities living in suburbs vs. those living in urban centers and used the correlation to claim that living in suburbs and encouraging freeway construction are acts of racism. Actually I do not wonder that, but it would have made his presentation more comprehensive and accurate if he had.

  • marcos

    In the Bay Area, precisely the opposite is true. The areas with the longest commutes are the exurbs which were only inhabitable due to the mortgage rate bubble and access to cheap credit. If this were the case, then one would actually see both inner city luxury condos and tract exurban sprawl competing for the same dollars.

    The wealthiest live in San Francisco or in a number of enclaves around the bay such as Piedmont, Palo Alto, Woodside, Atherton and the Oakland and Berkeley hills, as well as a few places like Blackhawk in Contra Costa. The exurban ring is distinctly middle class which followed in the footsteps of their parents’ who went suburban a two generations ago. As in all industrial scale fads, once the bubble bursts, housing of this sort is no longer sustainable. Unfortunately, external demand keeps prices higher in the inner city as well as first rihg suburbs, so the music has stopped for the exurbs but there are no chairs left either.

    The most expensive housing is in the urban core and the immediate first ring suburbs and the least expensive housing is in the far flung exurbs. What we’re seeing from
    Pisarski is the kind of thinking that has not held since the era of white flight in the 1960s and 70s.

    -marc

  • Zac

    Marcos makes a point about the Bay Area, but the picture is again more complicated than it first appears. The very physical limitations which have boosted real estate prices haven’t left San Francisco solely a bastion of the very wealthy, it also a city firmly engaged in cooperative and roommate situations with parallel economies. Additionally, some neighborhoods like Bayview/Hunters Point which have negative connotations to realtors also have some the highest rates of private home ownership in the city. No ideological model stands up to scrutiny when people innovate and adapt to macroscale forces.

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