Defending the drive to drive: Planners shouldn’t dictate lifestyle, readers say

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 17, 2013

Here are two letters in support of maintaining the transit parking system that has evolved over the past few decades.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

This letter is in response to the question you posed toward the end of the June 20 column in Local Living, “Is it indeed worthwhile for the region to devote so much prime space to warehousing cars?

I should preface this by saying that I walk to the bus every day to get to work in Silver Spring, so I am not defending any personal interest. However, there are some peculiar circumstances that make this mode of commuting favorable: (a) I happen to live a short walk from a bus line that terminates another short walk from my office; (b) I am single, so I don’t have a spouse or any children whose agendas I must plan around; and (c) my office subsidizes transit such that the entire cost of my commute is covered. Were any of these circumstances to change, I could easily see that calculus being altered sufficiently for me to prefer driving.

People who live in the suburbs do so because they don’t want the hassles and stresses of urban life, and a big part of those hassles and stresses is parking. Suburbanites tend to have families, and time and convenience are at a premium.

They may have errands to do before or after work, and they probably have children to take to one place or another, and so being constrained by bus routes and schedules, not to mention subject to the whim of delays, is not conducive to their lifestyles.

They might be willing to take a train downtown, but adding a walk and a bus ride and all the additional time and rigidity this entails is a bridge too far.

And this is simply not going to change.

It is the job of government to meet the needs of its citizens, not to dictate what lifestyle they should lead and use the levers of public policy to coerce them into a lifestyle that does not suit them.

Many elites today seem to believe that their self-evident virtue gives them the right to impose their values on others in the name of health and the environment. This is profoundly undemocratic.

Right-thinking people have been demonizing the automobile since at least the 1950s, but that has not diminished Americans’ desire for the convenience and autonomy they can get only with a car.

That they should now be arm-twisted into having to take buses or ride bicycles because some bunch of urban planners has decided that’s better and will now deny them sufficient parking is wrong.

It is time to apply the lessons of tolerance we’ve learned so well in other areas to urban planning: People should have the choice of what kind of life they want to lead, and the necessary services for all lifestyles should be provided. Public policy should not be used to effectively convert suburbs into urban areas against the will of their inhabitants.

Jim Cohen, Bethesda

DG: I begin my defense by noting that the sentence before the one Cohen quoted was, “But this is the long-term issue.”

Cohen’s letter offers excellent insights into why things are the way they are, and he rightly bristles at the sort of social engineering that would punish travelers for taking advantage of the options that government and private industry made available.

I don’t want to arm-twist any of today’s travelers into some less convenient form of commuting. But I’d like to help the travelers of today and tomorrow save time and money.

They could save time with shorter commutes — ones that didn’t include getting stuck in heavy traffic. And they could save money if they didn’t have to budget for the parking, gas and auto maintenance involved in driving to transit stations.

The Washington region is an expensive place to live. If we could find more ways to cut people’s transportation costs — including the daily warehousing of cars at Metro stations — we would leave them with more to spend on the pleasures of life.

The lots are full

Another correspondent had thoughts similar to Cohen’s.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I must disagree with your view that Metro should not focus on lots and garages. Parking is everything.

We all love Portland, Ore., because of the easy light-rail and bus options. What I also saw was parking garages, all over the place. What people here would love, and use, is a short drive to assured, reasonable parking at an efficient Metro. That’s why the lots are all full first thing every business morning.

If only Metro wouldn’t collapse if three more customers stepped onto a Blue Line train at 8:17 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday.

Warren Emerson,

Arlington County

DG: Transportation planners talk about the concept of “induced demand,” usually applying it to explain what happens when lanes are added to highways. At first, traffic flows smoothly. Then lots of people decide this highway is great, so they change their travel habits. Before long, the highway is jammed, despite the extra lanes.

Metro and local governments induce demand when they build parking garages at train stations. Emerson and thousands of other travelers know they need to reach the outer stations early on a weekday so they can snag a parking space.

Another phrase we usually apply to highway construction: “You can’t build your way out of congestion,” because adding lanes will eventually draw more cars. We can’t build our way out of congestion with new parking space, either. We’ve already got some of the outer stations surrounded.

The solution isn’t for planners to make it more difficult to park at stations. The solution is to make the alternatives to driving more available and convenient.

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