Auto industry lobbyist Tim Jackson’s July 22 Colorado Politics commentary against “permanent restrictions on cars” concludes with the declaration that “common sense can prevail in these difficult times” ("Our cars are getting us through COVID. Literally"). Fine, but that may have been the only fragment of common sense in an entire piece spent railing against policies that… well… he never actually identifies a single specific policy that he is against.
Jackson starts by lamenting Farhad Manjoo’s July 9 opinion piece in the New York Times in which that author writes, “I’ve seen a future without cars, and it's amazing.” Jackson claims disingenuously that it “described the economic and public health carnage in New York City as a transportation utopia,” and he warns that, “Anti-car advocates are pursuing the same vision in Denver.” He cautions readers that construction workers cannot deliver materials to a job, and that parents cannot transport their kids to athletic events by bicycle. The absurdity of these exhortations left me with a mental image of Jackson hurrying his way down the I-25 corridor by pickup, furiously flashing a single fog light from the roof, as if to warn suburbanites that the urbanists were coming by land to confiscate the family minivan.
An honest paraphrasing of Manjoo’s piece is that a side effect of the coronavirus is that it has highlighted ways that our country has failed to efficiently utilize space and plan for transportation needs in our most dense urban environments. Manjoo articulates this by pointing to data that shows what urban planners, transit professionals and urban advocates have known for decades: that over-dependence on automobiles causes and amplifies significant health, safety, environmental and economic consequences. The only specific policy he discusses is a proposal that would dramatically limit the number of cars in Manhattan. Manjoo doesn’t export this idea to other cities (or even other New York boroughs for that matter), precisely because each American city is different, and policies that meet the challenges and opportunities of each city will be inherently unique. Rather than push a precise agenda, he implores us in the broadest sense to think more creatively, which makes Jackson’s retort somewhat comical.
For the sake of argument though, let's assume that the Manhattan proposal, since it is the only policy idea Manjoo discusses, is what Jackson is referring to in his critique. I don’t know of anyone who is claiming that such an idea ought to be implemented across a broad swath of Denver. Perhaps that’s largely because the densest neighborhoods of Denver have barely a tenth as many people per square mile as Manhattan does. In fact, the only policy proposals that bear even the vaguest resemblance are calls for minor expansions of the 16th Street Mall. Restricting vehicle traffic on that narrow, well-defined tract, has been an extraordinary success that has transformed the heart of the city. We can, and should, debate the merits of expanding the mall. But in doing so, we should treat it as the unique urban space that it is, and consider the precise policy prescriptions that are offered, rather than apply a one-size-fits-all condemnation based on considerations taking place in a very different city 2,000 miles away.
Jackson’s cherry-picked quote of Conservation Colorado’s Curtis Edwards, ”If you’re going to promote multimodal options, you’ve got to make single-occupancy cars more difficult,” sheds light on the deeper motivation of Jackson’s arguments. As density increases, so do the economic costs associated with emissions, congestion, road maintenance, and the loss of space that becomes dedicated to travel and parking. However, fuel and road development subsidies and common zoning requirements artificially deflate the cost of automobile operation in our densest urban areas, creating a perverse incentive to drive, when other modes of transport are more efficient. That is what Edwards was speaking against, and what Jackson seems to favor.
Cars are an essential part of our way of life. They should, and will, continue to be long into the future. But what Jackson is suggesting is that we halt modernization and progress in the name of maintaining our dependency on them, as it exists in its current form. In a rapidly changing world, we cannot afford to stand still solely for the sake of the status quo.
Nick Hinrichsen is supervisor of operations at Pueblo Transit. His views expressed here are his own.