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Transportation ‘Expert’: Long Commutes Are a Status Symbol

9:17 AM PDT on May 20, 2009

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

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)

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

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).

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.

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