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Three Cheers for the Automobile

John Tierney, reporter extraordinaire for the New York Times, has this insightful essay in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. It’s first rate from beginning to end. (How often in the NY Times are the likes of Loren Lomasky, CEI’s Sam Kazman, and Reason’s Bob Poole, among others, all cited favorably?!)

This essay celebrates the automobile’s liberation of ordinary men and women from their immediate confines. It is also a brilliant put-down of the sneeringly arrogant urban “planners” who want to legislate their preferences – their likes and dislikes – into public policy for all.

One interesting highlight is his description of the high-tech pricing already successfully at work on I-15 in San Diego:

The morning I watched, the computer set a price of $1.25 at 7:10, raised it to $1.50 six minutes later, then jacked it up to $2.25 at 7:22 and added another quarter at 7:28. The $2.50 toll apparently scared off drivers, and the computer reacted by dropping the toll to $1.75, at which point traffic increased and the toll went back up to $2. As rush-hour traffic waned, the toll fell quickly, and by 8:20 the computer was willing to let drivers into the lanes for a dollar. Those who paid could drive into San Diego without slowing down even to pay the toll. It was collected by radio transmitters overhead that could read each car’s FasTrak transponder (California’s version of E-Z Pass) at speeds up to 120 miles per hour.

When this experiment began in 1996, some critics said it was unfair to create these ”Lexus lanes.” But by now, even drivers who won’t pay the toll have come to appreciate the lanes because they divert traffic from the regular highway.

And Tierney douses many myths with facts.

For example, consider the myth that sprawl causes traffic congestion. Not so, says Tierney. “It’s true that highways have gotten much more congested, but the worst traffic tends to be in densely populated urban areas that haven’t been building new roads, like New York and Chicago — the kind of places hailed by smart-growth planners but now avoided by companies looking for convenient offices.”

Or the myth that sprawl is ruining the landscape. Not so, says Tierney: “if you look at the big picture, America is not paving paradise. More than 90 percent of the continental United States is still open space and farmland. The major change in land use in recent decades has been the gain of 70 million acres of wilderness — more than all the land currently occupied by cities, suburbs and exurbs, according to Peter Huber, author of ”Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists.” Because agriculture has become so efficient, farmers have abandoned vast tracts of land that have reverted to nature, and rural areas have lost population as young people migrate to cities. You may not like the new homes being built for them at the edge of your town, but if preserving large ecosystems and wildlife habitat is your priority, better to concentrate people in the suburbs and exurbs rather than scatter them in the remote countryside.”

Read the entire article. It’s outstanding.

Thanks to my student Lowell Jacobson for drawing my attention to this article