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The Libertarian Traffic Plan and the Suburban Invasion

Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, the co-authors of The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It, make a case for cars that would do Robert Moses proud, pointing out that as early as 1930, three of four American households already had cars, thus cutting against the oft-told tale of how the then still decades off highway system created a car culture. They go on to point out that "though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide."

Mostly, though, they're concerned with reducing traffic, and offer a mostly technocratic ten point plan for doing so, calling for toll lanes, leasing of public roads to for-profit corporations and for adding more lanes to existing roads. They point out that for all the talk of how roads generate more cars and traffic that "over the last 30 years, vehicle lane miles traveled have increased by over 143 percent, but we’ve added just 5 percent in new capacity."

I'm not sure their suggestions would make as much of an impact on traffic as they think (and several of them, like better coordinated signals and better accident clear-up are already happening), but when compared to the now 50-year-old anti-car cliches that continue to defy any evidence to the contrary, their ideas are at the least a breath of fresh air.

Consider The City That Never Walks, a Times OpEd by Vogue contributing editor Robert Sullivan. The core of his complaint is that "Yes, New York had a lot of crime, but somehow it also still had neighborhoods, and a core that had never been completely abandoned to the car. Lately, though, as far as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of America." And this, to be sure, is a bad thing.

He sighs that Gotham risks falling behind "Detroit, where a new pedestrian plaza anchors downtown." Presumably, he means to suggest that cars are killing off New York City's neighborhoods, leaving us trailing not just Detroit, but also Grand Rapids, Mich.'s new walkable downtown and limited parking, and Indianapolis's urban walking and biking trial. He also compares the Big Apple unfavorably to its long-time competitor, Albuquerque.

Mostly, his complaint is inspired by the rash of new big roads he hallucinates plaguing New York: "We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic."

The "fact" is not backed by anecdote, let alone evidence, and the article seems to suggest that more roads will mean less traffic, which even granting his contention hardly follows. Speaking of facts, these freeways he claims are still the talk of the town aren't so much as a twinkle in a planner's eye. Perhaps he's referring to the Inter-Imagational Expressway, the new traffic it generates made up entirely of suburbanites infiltrating his city and laying claim to it like so many zombies from a '50s zombie flick:

"One reason New York is losing its New York edge may be that the city’s revival is partly based on a strange reversal: the city is the new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned years ago for lawns and better public schools."

What? Is this the same as "white is the new black"? What evidence is there to show families returning? And if the suburbs have infected them with car culture, as he seems to suggest, wouldn't the city then cure them?

Reading between the lines, Sullivan's point is that all of the tacky new people who come to live in New York can't help but bring their bourgeois lifestyle with them. And by New York, he clearly means Manhattan, as his proposals touch only on hip Manhattan neighborhoods—turning SoHo into a car-free pedestrian mall, Italian style plazas in the Meatpacking District, which suffice has become the coke capital of the city.

How businesses would feel about these change is not a concern he wastes words on. Outer borough residents don't warrant any real mention either.

Though he goes after Mayor Bloomberg for not being bike-friendly enough (a point I agree with him on), Sullivan's case is built around the Bloombergian idea that cars are a secret drain on our souls, and a hidden tax on our pocketbooks—"Though we think of it as a luxury, the car taxes us, and with it we tax others… There are even such things as secondhand driving effects: studies show that people who live on high-traffic streets tend to stay inside." The idea that cars might generate any positive economic effects doesn't seem to occur to him.

What Sullivan's dispatch brings to mind, though, is a a former Flatbush resident, who'd moved out of a famous and high-end Manhattan reidential hotel into my neck of Brooklyn, which the Census has as the most diverse place in America —a mix of renters, coop owners and home owners, races, classes, religions, cultures and types just a few blocks off of Prospect Park. This woman was dismayed by what she saw as the petty bourgeois values of the outer boroughs, and quickly returned to the city, having had her fill of our rustic charm, as it were. This, for the record, was a woman who bought a VW Microbus, had it driven to New York from California, where it then sat unused in her driveway.

I won't name names, but she works for the same magazine as Sullivan, and the two seem to share a contempt for America that excludes only certain privileged precincts of Manhattan, and (so long as they don't have to spend too much time there) Albuquerque.