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Posts from the "Car Culture" Category

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Dealbreaker: Senate Rejects House Budget Due to Lack of Car Subsidies

What’s keeping Congress from passing an extension to the federal budget? Democratic protection of automobile subsidies.

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid vows to keep an clean-car subsidy in the budget, come hell or high water. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

After midnight last night, the House finally managed to narrowly pass a budget extension bill, but Senate leaders have already rejected it out of hand, since it includes about half the disaster relief they’d like and cuts $1.5 billion from a clean-fuel technology manufacturing program for the auto industry.

The disagreement is strong enough that it threatens to keep Congress in session longer than intended — likely through the weekend, and possibly even into next week’s scheduled recess.

That gives them a week, if necessary, to avert a government shutdown — the potential consequence of inaction on a bill to extend federal government spending past September 30.

Clean vehicles are great, but if Democrats really want to meet important environmental goals, just imagine how much good they could do by spending that $1.5 billion to implement better bus systems or provide emergency assistance to transit agencies struggling to keep up with higher ridership.

In addition to highlighting how Senate Democrats highly prize car subsidies, this situation also puts in perspective the brewing fight over the FY2012 budget. If Congress can’t even pass a simple extension to keep government operations for a few months, with just a few billion dollars’ difference, how will they ever agree to bridge the enormous gap between their visions for FY2012?

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The Stranger: If Safer Streets Mean War, We’re Ready for Combat

Image: James Yamasaki / The Stranger

Under the headline, “Okay, Fine, It’s War,” Seattle’s The Stranger blog this week published a manifesto “of and by the nondrivers themselves.” They’re sick of being called “militants” for caring about pedestrian safety, and they’re tired of the specter of a “war on cars.”

We heartily recommend that you read the whole thing, but here are some of our favorite parts. Like this, from the first plank of the manifesto: “The car-driving class must pay its own way!”

For cars we have paved our forests, spanned our lakes, and burrowed under our cities. Yet drivers throw tantrums at the painting of a mere bicycle lane on the street. They balk at the mere suggestion of hiking a car-tab fee, raising the gas tax, or tolling to help pay for their insatiable demands, even as downtrodden transit riders have seen fares rise 80 percent over four years.

No more! We demand that car drivers pay their own way, bearing the full cost of the automobile-petroleum-industrial complex that has depleted our environment, strangled our cities, and drawn our nation into foreign wars. Reinstate the progressive motor vehicle excise tax, hike the gas tax, and toll every freeway, bridge, and neighborhood street until the true cost of driving lies as heavy and noxious as our smog-laden air. Our present system of hidden subsidies is the opiate of the car-driving masses; only when it is totally withdrawn will our road-building addiction finally be broken.

They go on to demand better, more expansive transit, safer streets and sidewalks, and traffic calming. And this:

This antagonism [between car driver and nondriver] traces directly to the creation of the modern car driver, a privileged individual who, as noted, is the beneficiary of a long course of subsidies, tax incentives, and wars for cheap oil. But the same subsidies that created this creature (who now rages about the roads while simultaneously screaming of being a victim in some war) can—and must, beginning now—be used to build bike lanes, sidewalks, light rail, and other benefits to the nondriving classes.

That’s the kind of manifesto we can get on board with.

After the manifesto, The Stranger goes on to report on the rising numbers of crashes between cars and cyclists, the violent anti-bike rhetoric being spewed by car drivers that are the “victims” of some imagined war on cars, the massive disparity between funding for car infrastructure and everything else, and the heroes of the non-driver, beloved both for their advocacy and their tight asses. Read it, read it all.

The Nowtopian 12 Comments

Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Dangerous Rincon Hill Intersection Finally Getting the City’s Attention

Drivers ignore the signs and routinely block the crosswalk and speed at the intersection of Harrison and Main streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

On December 10, 2004, Katy Liddell had just stepped off the N-Judah with a sack of cleaning supplies and was walking to her Portside apartment at Harrison and Main in Rincon Hill, when she noticed a cadre of emergency vehicles surrounding the intersection. As Liddell drew closer, she saw something that horrified her.

“I saw a tarp covering a body in the middle of the street,” Liddell recalled. “I found out that one of my neighbors had been hit and killed.”

The violent force of a big rig truck had thrown 63-year-old Beverly Kees out of the crosswalk, killing her. Kees, a popular SF State journalism professor who had recently retired, lived across the street from Liddell in the BayCrest Towers. The dog she had been walking was also hit and injured.

“Beverly saved his life. She saw the truck coming and she picked him up,” said Debi Gould, Kees’ friend and neighbor and owner of the dog who was with her when she died, a rat terrier mix named Harp. As Gould tells it, Kees, who lived two doors down, had been told by her doctor that she needed to walk more. She asked Gould if she could walk Harp one day, and the two formed a close bond.

“She started walking him to the point where he loved being with her, and instead of a couple of times a week, it ended up being every day that I went to work,” said Gould, a retired flight attendant who also walks a lot and feels like pedestrians in San Francisco “are considered an inconvenience.”

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Five Media Myths That Perpetuate Car Culture

Another day, another news story, another media outlet wielding an old saw like this one: High gas prices are a political problem for the president because Americans “love their cars.” American car culture, fed by everything from our sprawled-out landscape to a daily bombardment of car ads, is also kept alive by journalists’ use of a set of hackneyed narratives. Beyond clichés, these storylines represent a collection of myths that shore up an unhealthy, unequal, and ultimately unsustainable car system.

"Americans Love Their Cars" -- and that's why we pollute our air, destroy our cities, and make ourselves fat? Image: Smashing Magazine

Americans love their cars. A Google search for this statement returns 2.8 times as many hits as “Americans love their pets” and 6.3 times as many as “Americans love their guns”. Yes, there will always be automotive enthusiasts and drivers fond of their cars. But our car culture is both shifting and conflicted: The last time they were surveyed by Pew, Americans saying they saw their cars as “something special”, more than just a means of transportation, had dropped from 43 to 23 percent. Americans may need their cars in our transit-starved and poorly planned landscape, but with mind-numbing traffic and volatile gas prices, the luster is off the chrome.

Teens can’t wait to grab the car keys. The press persists in romanticizing a teen’s first trip to the DMV as the ultimate coming of age ritual. But it’s their middle-aged parents who are more likely to be champing at the bit, fed up with schlepping their kids and steeped in nostalgia about the freedom they felt when they first drove. But this generation is different. Already connected by smartphones and computers, and graduating into a terrible job market, young people are less car-happy than their parents were at the same age. Today’s teens are delaying getting their licenses and purchasing vehicles, and college students are more interested in living in urban centers where they can be less car-dependent.

The economy depends on the auto industry. The popular, business, and political media alike echo the fallacy that a healthy US economy depends on a healthy auto industry. This chorus helped justify the 2009 bailouts of GM and Chrysler. But the auto industry knows that the dependency is reversed: it needs economic growth, tax breaks and subsidies, and vibrant credit markets to sell cars. A nation more reliant on transit and active transportation would be one in which households had lower debt and more discretionary income to spend on housing, leisure, and other products, enriching a wide swath of industries. It would also be a nation, in the next downturn, less hostage to how a single industry’s fate might affect entire communities and supply chains.

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Kia Car Ad Touts Bike-Friendly Attitude

A new Canadian television ad for the Kia Sportage, filmed in San Francisco’s Financial District, markets an attitude of acceptance about the responsibility of sharing the road with bicycles. It’s quite a contrast from the conventional image of cars as an embodiment of power and dominance.

While the ad encourages drivers to share the road, it still reassures them that the car is “perfectly capable of ‘owning’” it, and its slogan suggesting that driving is a part of any real change does sound a lot like greenwashing.

It is refreshing, however, to see a car manufacturer’s marketing strategy that acknowledges the impacts of automobiles on the safety of cycling and prominently features San Francisco’s sharrow markings.

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California’s Pay as You Drive Insurance Program Could Reduce Driving

The California Department of Insurance has approved a pay-as-you-drive insurance program encouraged by environmental advocates and transportation planners because it provides an incentive to drive less by reducing premiums for low-mileage drivers. Widespread adoption of similar insurance policies could reduce driving in the U.S. by as much as eight percent, according to a Brookings Institution study.

“The voluntary pay-as-you-drive initiative is an innovative program that will allow insurers to offer plans based on more accurate mileage, so that people who choose to drive less will pay less for auto insurance,” California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said recently when he announced the program with the participation of State Farm Insurance and the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Though other insurance companies, notably Progressive Insurance, have experimented with pay-as-you-drive policies, because of the large number of drivers in California and the scale of the program, it could have national significance.

State Farm — the state’s largest automobile insurance company with 3.3 million policy holders and premiums of $2.5 billion — had previously required mileage to be self-reported by customers, who then got a small discount if they drove less than 7,500 miles in a year. Starting in late February, State Farm will offer an initial 5 percent discount for the first policy term to drivers who opt-in to the Drive Safe and Save program and agree to self-report their odometer readings at the beginning and end of each policy period. Policy holders with an active On Star system, which comes with many vehicles made by General Motors, can agree to allow State Farm to access their mileage data automatically.

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Ad Nauseam 2010: The Year in Car Commercials

Car sales are up, auto shows are packing them in, and the GM IPO was oversubscribed, but there may be no surer indicator of the auto industry’s recovery than the renewed avalanche of car ads rumbling across every medium. And there’s no better way to get a glimpse of what a born-again car culture might look like than to stay on the couch for a spell, un-mute the TV, and watch—that’s right, on purpose—a sample of 2010’s ads selling us our car-centric way of life. Here are some of the year’s most egregious attempts to get us into the dealership by conflating car ownership with American values.

Dodge Charger: “Man’s Last Stand”

Chrysler stokes the gender wars with this ad suggesting that the American male may seem to have been tamed by the boss and neutered by the wife, but all that the rebel within needs to bust out is a $38K fully loaded Dodge Charger. The road is his last refuge, the one place where he can still be a manly man. He’ll “eat fruit” at home, but he won’t be a fruit in control of the kind of growling, ferocious muscle car that had its heyday back when men last really had it good. (For a rejoinder, click here.)

Toyota Sienna: “Mommy Like”

How does a mom, stressed from commuting to work and shuttling the kids to soccer practice day in and day out, get away from it all? Why, of course, by spending more time in her vehicle! In this commercial for the Sienna minivan, Mommy steals some quality time alone—in the backseat where the kids usually get to have all the fun. The message? Auto dependence’s problems are solved not by driving less but by buying more, including a new car chock-a-block with luxury options to distract us from the aggravation and tedium of the average 18 ½ hours Americans sit in a car each week.

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Car-Free Households in San Francisco Above 30 Percent

According to the new San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2010 Transportation Fact Sheet, the number of car-free households increased. Last year [pdf], data show that 29.8 percent of households had no car, a number than climbed to 30.3 percent this year [pdf]. Oddly, it seems the shift came mostly from households with one car, as some migrated to car-lessness, while others increased the numbers of cars in their households. In real numbers, there was only a slight uptick in households with no cars, or nearly 2,000. About 1,000 more households had two cars or more, while 4,000 more had at least three cars.

What factors do you think led to these numbers? Was it car-share, more biking, more walking, more telecommuting, higher unemployment? Remember to take into account that these numbers are from the 2008 and 2009 census data, respectively.

Tell me what you think in the comments. How do you think this will change next year?

H/T Jason Henderson, SF State Geography Professor

Streetsblog NYC 35 Comments

Fred Barnes: Americans Mainly Want to Stay in Their Cars

Wider

Adding a few more lanes should do the trick. Photo of the 405: Atwater Village Newbie

After yesterday’s electoral drubbing, the Obama administration will have to deal with a starkly different Congress when they make their expected push for a multi-year transportation bill early next year. We know that some influential House Republicans, like John Mica, don’t necessarily believe that bigger highways will solve America’s transportation problems. And we know that some pro-transit voices in Washington originate from the right. But no one expects the GOP ascendancy to make transportation reform any easier.

For a taste of the right-wing line against transportation reform, check out the election week issue of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. Inside, editor Fred Barnes (under fire recently for accepting speaking fees from the GOP) mounts an attack on just about every federal transportation policy other than highway spending. There’s nothing really conservative about Barnes’s screed — it could have come straight from the pen of an asphalt industry lobbyist. Wondering what a transportation bill would look like if it were reshaped according to what highway boosters believe should be the “core program”? Read Barnes and find out.

He starts by ridiculing Ray LaHood’s speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit, where the transportation secretary said that Americans “want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods and livable communities.” Barnes disagrees:

LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.

Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation. Always has been.

This is, basically, his entire argument: People just want to “stay in their cars.” We have zero interest in getting around any other way. According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving. If you believe that, then his cheerleading for highway construction makes a lot of sense.

If being inside our cars is what we’re really all about, by all means lets throw more money down the sinkhole of highway expansion. That will guarantee more quality time inside our cars. Then, a few years later, when we’re in our cars but not enjoying it so much because the new lanes are jammed with traffic again, we’ll repeat the whole expensive process.

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