The deprivations of the COVID pandemic could be, if the radicals have their way, adumbratory.
At the peak of the quarantine, one could hear muttered, among the environmental fanatics, a sense of joy at the fact that people were largely sequestered to their homes, and not out and about in greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles, doing greenhouse gas-emitting things. You could almost hear the policy gears rotating as their brains worked through the ways in which they could make the nirvana of April 2020 a permanent state.
Well before the pandemic hit there was already a not-so-subtle push to restrict vehicle usage. A Westword article from last February, excerpts of which have made appearances in competing op-eds appearing recently in these pages, illuminates part of the story. It reports on Bicycle Colorado’s annual “Moving People Forward” conference, an aggregation of enthusiasts for biking, walking and public transit, evidently advocating for people moving forward slowly and over short distances. The article quotes Danny Katz, chair of the Denver Streets Partnership, who summed the situation like this: “Denver has really seen a sea change in how we approach transportation… in terms of the amount of money that we’ve got coming in through bonds and the budget, to build out bike lanes, the efforts to fix sidewalks, the conversations around what transit needs to look like, the new micromobility options that we’ve seen over the last couple of years — I think we’ve gone through some big changes, and we’re poised to make a lot of progress.”
How to make that progress happen? Well, according to an advocate for Conservation Colorado, “If you’re going to promote multimodal options, you’ve got to make single-occupancy cars more difficult.” Lest one believe that such views are simply idle talk confined to the shared workspaces of left-wing think tanks, local policy makers jumped on board as well. Denver City Council member Chris Hinds echoed the sentiment saying “The first thing is that we should encourage non-car transit. The second — and I think the order is important — is that we should discourage car transit.” Well then.
Since the start of the pandemic and the societal shutdown it spawned, there have been a number of stories popping up about groups and movements extolling the utopic winsomeness of car-free existence in major cities. If Denver hasn’t yet fully embraced rainbows-and-lollipops vision, it is not far behind. It is already taking quite a feat of social engineering to gravitate towards Mr. Hind’s recommendations, with planned and completed lane restrictions on some of the city’s busiest downtown streets, elimination of parking, and other measures designed to torture commuters into compliance with the beatific vision of the future.
The problem with utopic machinations like those conjured by the anti-car crowd is that they hit the brick wall of reality without an airbag. Just as excise taxes on goods for which demand is, if not quite inflexible, then militant, are inexorably regressive, so too are the measures in place and proposed for restricting individual vehicle usage. For instance, a 100% increase in gas tax will not result in a 100% reduction in car usage any more than an increased tax on cell phones or wi-fi would create a proportionate reduction in cell phone ownership or internet access. Similarly, the imposition of driving restrictions will not cause a serious drop in the number of people who drive. What minor reduction there is will be reluctant. People drive cars for much the same reasons they purchase cell phones or wi-fi; yes, alternative communication methods exist, but land lines and paper letters (notwithstanding that those things, the latter especially, have their merits) simply do not provide the convenience and speed which modern society demands and has come to expect. Any more than buses and bikes do.
It is a complicated matter, which COVID has complicated even further. The push for greater urban density may have been stalled amid the fears inherent with the risk of disease transmission in tight quarters, but the cities are not going anywhere, and few quarrel with certain accommodations being made for non-vehicular commuters. And certainly temporary closures of streets like Larimer square to allow for the recommence of restaurant commerce within the invoked guidelines is welcome, though most of the street closures can no more be realistically made permanent than can 50% seating capacity or 10 p.m. last calls.
Energy and climate policy has taken a back seat to the exigencies of the year, but those discussions are resurfacing with the approaching election and presenting us with alternatives; a realistic approach which embraces domestic energy independence, nuclear power, and accommodates how most Americans get from place to place; or the approach increasingly accepted by Joe Biden which would seek to codify April 2020 into law.